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Saturday 21 April 2018

A racy and raunchy read... Soft porn for suburbia

'50 Shades of Grey' has made kinky sex accessible - and acceptable - to middle-aged women

Edel Coffey

When 50 Shades of Grey was first published almost three years ago, it sparked a resurgence in a genre of fiction that was last seen in the 1980s heyday of big, brash lifestyles. Racy and raunchy, peopled with unashamedly stereotypical gender types, 50 Shades Of Grey gave the bonkbuster a sex education tutorial via the internet and the result was essentially an X-Rated Mills and Boon novel; when you think about it like that, it was always going to be a phenomenal success.

With the film version of the multi-million selling book hitting screens this weekend - in time for Valentine's day, naturally - will the visual version live up to the original book, and will it lead to happy endings all round on Valentine's night?

The book was, after all, credited with reigniting the sexless marriages of couples by inspiring readers to reconnect with their partners, probably frightening the lives out of each other in the process, as ordinarily inoffensive grey office ties took on a whole new meaning.

But what was it about the original story that made it such a global hit in the first place? The story was the most basic of archetypes, practically a fairytale, where the young, virginal, shy girl meets the rich, confident, brooding man. They fall in love, have scorching-hot sex, he buys her all the first-edition books her scholarly heart desires, and she breaks through his impenetrable emotional shell so they can live happily ever after.

It went on to sell over 100 million copies. The only new aspect to this age-old story was the presence of a BDSM storyline (that's bondage, dominance and sadomasochism to you and me).

That risque aspect certainly played a part in the success of the book but perhaps the real reason for the book's success was that it filled a glaring niche in the market - let's call that niche preposterous erotic romance.

E.L. James with her copy of her beststelling book '50 Shades of Grey'
E.L. James with her copy of her beststelling book '50 Shades of Grey'
Sam Taylor-Johnson

Erotic romance fiction sells by the bucketload for Mills and Boon but the genre is thought of as a bit naff and outdated. While they are widely available, there is a part of me that imagines that the only place you are likely to find such books is on second-hand shelves or hidden behind your granny's bedstead.

While there are all sorts of negative connotations around erotic fiction, what the mainstream publishing world never really reckoned on was the fact that women actually wanted to read these books.

What 50 Shades Of Grey did was to take away the idea that this kind of book was for deviants or sad, lonely women. It was written by an ordinary housewife and mother, EL James. This fact suddenly made erotic fiction safe, and normal, to read.

Somehow EL James and a respectable publisher managed to introduce pornography to a demographic that are ordinarily notoriously porn-proof. This was soft porn for suburbia, erotica made accessible, not to mention acceptable, through its coverage in the respectable pages of the Sunday supplements. This was porn for the pre-YouTube generation who hadn't yet learned how to flick frenetically through endless X-Rated internet clips.

The popularity of the book meant that it was talked about everywhere, from the school gates to the water cooler to television chat shows, which normalised it even further. It wasn't something to read secretly while you had the house to yourself, not a book whose garish pink cover with heaving bosoms you had to carefully angle so as not to draw the attention of your fellow commuter. This was a book that everyone was reading and talking about. Hell, one washing detergent manufacturer even launched a 50 Shades of Grey edition of their product.

50 Shades Of Grey had entered the mainstream. Most of its readership probably hadn't seen a book like this since they stole a glance at their mother's Mills and Boons 50 years ago.

The book industry had somehow missed a trick in overlooking the pleasures lots of women take from reading ridiculously unrealistic, romantic fiction with some eye-watering accounts of sex thrown in. 'Mummy Porn', as it was dubbed, was chick lit with turbo-charged sex scenes - exactly what the genre had been missing, and so it would seem, exactly what middle-aged women had been missing too. Despite the book's global success, it started out as a slow-burner.

James was dissatisfied in her job and when her husband bought her the Twilight books for Christmas, she fell in love with the escapist, romantic story. After devouring all three in five days, there was a hole in her life. She wanted more Bella and Edward, and so she took to the internet and did what any self-respecting fan would do - she began writing fan fiction.

Her own take on the Bella and Edward story ratcheted up the sex to include a BDSM element. Her version of the story became so popular online that it began to pose a copyright threat. And so, she changed the names from Bella and Edward to Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, and the 50 Shades phenomenon was born.

The books were initially published by a small independent publishing house in Australia and became a word-of-mouth hit with women of a certain age.

Erotic fiction has been bubbling under the surface for years now and there have been a spate of erotic novels, written by women for women, over the last decade or so, from Belle du jour - the high-class call-girl turned blogger - to Charlotte Roche's Wetlands to The Secret Life Of Catherine M detailing, the French author's account of her anonymous trysts.

Erotica has been around as long as we've known how to write, from the literary - Anais Nin; Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita - to, well, EL James, who is to literature what manufactured bands are to music. But the 100 million people who have bought 50 Shades of Grey, were not reading it for its beautiful sentence structure. It is one of the worst-written novels I've ever read. But what does that matter when it offers romantic escapism on a gloriously simple, and non-judgemental level. Literary standards be damned.

EL James's novels proved one thing and that was that there was a vast swathe of female readers out there who were starving for escapist romantic fiction with traditionally gendered characters, and ideally a Prince Charming at its heart. It's completely regressive, but it's just a story, so what harm?

The accusation of anti-feminism is ridiculous. It's just fiction. Chances are, not many of its readers would be interested in exploring what they read in 50 Shades Of Grey any further than in the safety of the book's pages, or their own imaginations, or at a push with their partners for a bit of fun. By now, we have all read and heard enough about the BDSM lifestyle to realise that the reality is a million miles away from the fantasy that EL James described.

What her book's success did prove is that there is a captive audience of female readers looking to escape for a few hours into a fantasy world before returning, safely, to their real and ordinary lives. It remains to be seen what effect the film will have on fans. Hopefully, they'll have a happy Valentine's Day.

50 Shades Of Grey is in cinemas nationwide from this weekend

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