The ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon is currently taking the world by storm. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard of EL James’ erotica trilogy, featuring the enigmatic Christian Grey and his unconventional, not-exactly-vanilla relationship with heroine Anastasia Steele. The three books in the series – Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, are at the top of the charts, ahead of The Hunger Games trilogy, and at the time of writing have sold over 121,000 copies, with that number rising fast. Suddenly, everyone knows what BDSM stands for, and people in the office are making casual jokes about safewords and ‘hard limits’. It seems that spanking really has become the new mainstream.
Intriguingly, the popularity of the Grey series has sparked a new, almost universal, interest in erotica; particularly in the world of publishing. Whilst erotica has historically dipped in and out of fashion (I think that as long as there’s sex and publishing, it’ll always exist in some form or another), it hasn’t been top of commissioners’ lists over the last few years. Popular imprint Black Lace and its more ‘hardcore’ sister imprint Nexus ran successfully for years, before shutting in down in 2009, much to the horror of erotica writers and enthusiasts everywhere. Accent Press has successfully maintained its Xcite imprint, and has capitalized on the fact that erotica lends itself well to ereaders – when you’re reading on the tube, a black-leather-clad, whip-brandishing dominatrix on the jacket doesn’t lend quite the same anonymity as an ereader. However, in the wake of Fifty Shades, publisher Ebury has announced that Black Lace will be up and running again shortly, HarperCollins are launching a new digital erotica imprint, and the MD of Accent Press has said that they’ve noticed a sharp upturn in sales. This sudden zeitgeist for the erotic has taken everyone by surprise.
I have always been a fan of erotica. Before you think of me as a trench-coat-wearing weirdo, hear out the reasons why. The majority of erotica writers are female – in a world where porn films are mainstream and easily available, and scantily-clad women jump out at us from posters, music videos and adverts in a garish parody of sexiness, it’s important that women (and men) have an outlet for exploring sexual scenarios in ways which can be fun, silly, romantic, kinky or fantastical, but where the author has control and the freedom to create a type of sex which isn’t circumscribed and limited by the narrow vision of sexuality we are exposed to daily by our media. (NB: I am not referring to any erotica which is degrading to women and which involves any unsavoury elements; this sort of writing shouldn’t even be termed as ‘erotica’.) I primarily champion it because, although a genre in itself, it spans other genres too. Whilst it’s a challenge to make the sex scenes themselves diverse and satisfying (and I think Fifty Shades should be praised for the fact it each sex scene has something different about it), the fact that the action can take place anytime, anywhere, with anyone, means that there’s scope for a wider range of settings, periods, and characters than in any other genre. Erotica lends itself well to historical settings, as well as dark, gothic and esoteric fantasy (think seductive vampires and gothic 15th-century mansions filled with shivering young maidens waiting to be ravished, etc) – but it doesn’t stop there. A British spy thriller? Why not add some hanky-panky on a high-speed car chase? If we can ‘mash up’ zombies with Jane Austen, then why not add in some sex scenes, too? (That last one’s a joke… but hey, it could work.)
So, why has the Grey series, in particular, been so popular? I think it’s because it’s not just straight erotica – more than anything, it’s a love story. A slew of sex scenes aren’t enough to capture the reader’s interest – what James has done is set up an exciting, titillating yet believable dynamic between two sparky and engaging characters who are both flawed, yet eminently likeable. Christian’s BDSM predilections certainly give things a kinkier twist, but I think it’s the emotional link between Ana and Christian which pulls everything together and sucks the reader in. More erotica should be written like this – with such a spark and connection between the characters that the build-up of sexual tension is more sexy than the physical action itself. After all, your imagination is your most potent sexual tool, isn’t it? And James captures the imagination.
A quick note on feminism: I think of myself as a proud feminist, reading and writing in a landscape post-books by legends such as Caitlin Moran and Natasha Walter (amongst others). Whilst some feminists may speak out against porn, I don’t think there’s anything demeaning to feminism about erotica; rather, I think the two go hand-in-hand, partly for the reasons mentioned above, and partly because, historically, feminists have not been seen as sexy – and what better way for women to overturn that idea and reclaim their sexiness than by writing exciting, shocking stories which celebrate women’s (and men’s) sexuality, and which are genuinely titillating (rather than the vacant and, frankly, depressing sex acted out in porn films).
Lastly – and excitingly – Headline has recently acquired the ‘Valentina’ series, by Anonymous. This trilogy of quality erotic novels is inspired by the iconic erotic graphic novel series by the Italian artist Crepax, which made a huge and controversial splash in the 1970s. Valentina is a memorable and highly sexual figure, and I look forward to the series flying the erotica flag for Headline.
And so, to the resurgence in the popularity of erotica, I say: long may it continue!
Posted by Emily Kitchin, Editorial