E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) has bested literary giants Suzanne Collins, James Patterson, and John Grisham on the charts this week. The erotica novel, which began as a free Twilight (2005-2008) fanfiction entitled Master of the Universe, has become the fastest-selling book of 2012, despite James’ reinvention of her main characters. Stephanie Meyers’ characters, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, have been reimagined as Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.
The novel, which explores themes of bondage and domination, tells the story of a relationship between a manipulative billionaire (Grey) and a recent college graduate (Steele). The relationship between the two becomes increasingly sordid throughout the trilogy. The second and third books in the series, Fifty Shades Darker (2012) and Fifty Shades Freed (2012) were reportedly written in under a month to sate readers’ appetites for the controversial erotic saga.
The success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week, is indicative of a shift in both the way the public views and buys erotica. Of course, the rapid transition from hardcovers and paperbacks to e-readers, such as the Kindle or the Nook, has also revolutionized the business of publishing erotic fiction, creating privacy for consumers that does not exist within a public bookshop.
Erotica author KD Grace believes that the rapid success of James’ novels demonstrates that the audience for erotica has come to encompass a much wider range of readers. She goes on to state that “now it is OK to read erotica – in fact, it is cool.” Gillian Green of Ebury Publishing, a division of the Random House Group, states, “What E.L. James has done is clearly taken erotic fiction to the mainstream. . . . It’s like we’ve got permission to enjoy it – she’s the acceptable face of saucy fiction.”
The books are inciting feminist debates regarding the alleged notions that women are expected to be submissive sexual partners, while other critics believe the subject matter of the books is “liberating” for female readers. Stella Duffy, a novelist and feminist, argues
against the idea that these books are a form of liberation: “I doubt the publishers involved are doing it as a public service to empower women – sex sells and publishing needs to make money in a recession just as any other business does.” Author Natasha Walter describes Fifty Shades of Grey as a “much gentler” version of previous erotica that “doesn’t break so many taboos.”
At the very least, it will be interesting to see if the surprise success of E.L. James’ work will mark a surge in both the publication and popularity of erotic fiction, and whether or not critics and scholars will take up the reins in the gendered dichotomy of pornography and erotica.However, the sudden mainstream popularity of James’ trilogy is also inciting a discourse about erotica and pornography, creating what may be considered a false dichotomy in the way men and women indulge in sexualized mediums. Erotica has been considered to be a feminine outlet, whereas pornography is typically associated with men.