Monday 19 March 2018

What do women want? Romance... plus erotica

'Mommy Porn' is is the new books phenomenon, driven by e-book sales, reports Alison Walsh

FANTASY FANS: The breathless tales of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in 'Fifty Shades of Grey' by EL James have become a publishing phenomenon
FANTASY FANS: The breathless tales of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in 'Fifty Shades of Grey' by EL James have become a publishing phenomenon

Alison Walsh

'British author's 'Mommy Porn' becomes US bestseller," was how one newspaper described the publishing phenomenon that is EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

With their discreet black-and-silver covers, the breathless tales of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey's dominant-submissive relationship has become the most talked-about book of the year, selling 250,000 copies as an e-book before Century/Arrow paid a reported six figures for the print publishing rights to the trilogy.

Is this just a one-off, or the beginning of a new publishing phenomenon, and why has this genre, which, after all, has been around for a while, suddenly hit the mainstream?

For Valerie Hoskins, of Valerie Hoskins Associates, EL James's agent, the success of her client's work is a classic mix of old and modern. "This is escapist, romantic fiction at its best, with roots stretching back to the 19th-Century women romantic writers and myths like Beauty and the Beast -- pure wish fulfilment.

"But I think the way it has been successful is very 21st- Century, modern word-of mouth via social media like Facebook and Twitter."

This blockbuster started as a humble piece of "fan fiction" on a website, an homage to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books, and was picked up by an Australian e-book publisher. And the e-book is the key here, meaning that we no longer have to lurk at the back of Eason's pretending we are looking at dictionaries. We can discreetly download steamy tales to our Kindles and no one need be any the wiser. But is this an oversimplification?

For Adam Nevill, editorial director of HarperCollins's new erotic fiction list, Mischief, "There is a synchronicity precipitated by two events -- e-readers have liberated erotica, but it's just salacious to say that women are reading hardcore on their handhelds. What's truer to say is that the route to market of erotica changed, along with changes in publishing.

"The range of titles went from bookshops, then Waterstones went, Borders, [WH] Smiths changed their buying policy, so erotica's route to market was reduced and there was less print erotica. With e-books, distribution isn't an issue, plus you have discretion." He also makes another valid point, that many of these books are great value. A casual glance at Amazon reveals that you can download his top author Janine Ashbless's vampire erotic novel Red Grow the Roses for £1.99 (€2.50), and other titles such as The Breakdown Man's Coming (yes) and The Strictest Sense for less than £2.

And what people might not realise is that much of this genre is hardly underground. Erotic romance is already well established in the US. According to Nevill, "Romance is an enormous genre in US -- one statistic from the Romance Writers of America says that 40pc of paperbacks bought in America come from the romance genre."

This is the readership that produced the Fifty Shades phenomenon, women who devour "series" fiction, such as Mills & Boon, where books are written to a set of guidelines and bracketed in niches, such as vampire romance, historical romance etc. Erotic romance is simply a new niche in an enormously lucrative, if overcrowded market.

But where do mainstream publishers come in? After all, in the case of Fifty Shades, they stepped in only when the e-book had sold 250,000 copies. Is the cart pulling the horse these days?

Literary agent Marianne Gunn-O'Connor recently sold a classy erotic novel by a well-known writer, writing under a pseudonym, to Headline for a good six-figure sum. The novel, Valentina and the Dark Room, is strictly in the European mode of erotica: tasteful and beautifully written and intended for a different market to Fifty Shades, but publisher interest was clearly piqued by the success of that novel.

But as far as Gunn O'Connor is concerned, "Publishers weren't looking for erotica because Fifty Shades sold. They weren't buying erotica, but the bestseller slot."

But the difference this time is that the fans are in the driving seat.

There have been queues around the block on EL James's American book tour and much talk of how her novels have saved marriages. "God's gift to middle age" was the description of one grateful Chicago woman, quoted in the Chicago Tribune: "I'm going to dog-ear pages for my husband."

Much of the press commentary -- making liberal use of the derogatory term "mommy porn", an update of the similarly offensive bracket of "chick lit", in which to group women writers -- has focused on the stereotype of the bored suburban housewife, with time on her hands and nothing better to do with it than indulge in a little bit of steam.

But according to academic and writer Katie Roiphe, who researched the phenomenon for a recent Newsweek feature, over half the books' readers are women in their 20s and 30s. In her webcast on Newsweek's The Daily Beast, Roiphe also pointed to an "exhaustion" felt by women nowadays, liberated by feminism to be breadwinners, to have lives and careers and families, all of which brings with it enormous responsibility; how comforting to indulge in a little retrograde fantasy.

Or maybe the truth is more straightforward. As Gunn-O'Connor says, "Women are overwhelmed with their lives nowadays, with families, husbands, and they can retreat into this fantasy, but the books have to have great characters and a love story and something that isn't pornographic."

This sentiment is echoed by Valerie Hoskins: "To me, this is not pure erotica -- it is rather a very sexy romance. I am not a great reader of erotica... but it seems to be that most of it is not romantic.

"The other key thing about these books is that they are funny, which I suspect is not true of most erotica, and they are written in a pacy, addictive style with strong characters in whom the reader feels invested."

In other words, it's a good story. And maybe it really isn't more complicated than that.

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