The main enticement of the book phenomenon they’re calling ‘mummy porn’ is that you can download it in private, writes Alice Wyllie
THEY say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps we’re rather quick to judge a reader by the cover of the book in their hands, if the popularity of the smutty Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy is anything to go by.
It is the biggest e-reader success story yet, and its record-breaking sales have been attributed, in part, to the fact that it is possible to consume erotic fiction on a Kindle without anyone knowing your naughty secret. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of hiding a dirty book inside a respectable newspaper, and what’s more, it can be purchased instantly and anonymously at home.
Fifty Shades Of Grey is the publishing phenomenon of 2012 and last week smashed the weekly paperback sales record, shifting 205,130 copies. EL James has become the first author to have two or more books sell more than 100,000 copies in the same week and the trilogy has sold 2.75 million digital and print copies in the UK and more than 10 million in the US in three months.
It is, for those who have not yet been subjected to its clunky prose and awkward descriptions of BDSM, the saucy tale of 21-year-old virgin Anastasia Steele and her 27-year-old lover, the enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey, who asks her to sign a contract outlining how their kinky sexual encounters will play out.
Starting out life as an online tribute to the teen vampire series Twilight and written by a mother of two from London, initially the novels were published by a small Australian press, meaning there were few hard copies available.
As a result, around 90 per cent of sales were downloads, and the books quickly rose to the top of e-book fiction best-seller lists. Two months since it was first published in the UK, it has become the most talked about book of 2012.
“Fifty Shades Of Grey is everything that is bad about women writing sex,” says Kate Copstick, the owner of the Erotic Review. “For a start, there is no sex until a third of the way into the book. The writer shows absolutely no respect for the world of BDSM and her ghastly, girly, game-playing protagonist would be more at home in a parody of a Jane Austen novel.”
There’s talk of adapting the books for the big screen and EL James has made Time magazine’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Publishers are astonished by the phenomenon, and are jumping on the bandwagon, so expect to see plenty of mainstream erotic fiction hitting supermarket shelves this year.
In August, Pan Macmillan will bring out Jane Eyre Laid Bare, a re-imagining of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel that gives it an “exciting and enticing erotic makeover”. Little, Brown is republishing Haven Of Obedience by Marina Anderson, a tale of sexual submission first published in 2000.
On the back of the success of Fifty Shades Of Grey, Jon Wood, a deputy publisher at Orion has bought Vina Jackson’s erotic Eighty Days trilogy for an unusually high six figures. The first in the trio, Eighty Days Of Yellow, will be released as an e-book on 19 July.
Wood has heard a number of theories as to why it’s enjoying such stellar success, but puts it down, in part, to “the phenomenon of phenomenon books”.
“When Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code happened, they both felt like once-in-a-lifetime phenomenons,” he says. “But they’re coming quicker and quicker. The desire for everyone to read the same book and discuss it has never been so strong. Maybe it’s because we’re more interconnected. Maybe it’s because it’s harder to choose books now because there aren’t as many bookshops or because commercial books aren’t reviewed quite so heavily. So when something comes along everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Most people I’ve spoken to outside the industry want to read it because it’s a book that’s being discussed.”
Of course, few books could live up to the kind of hype the surrounds this one, and many readers have been left disappointed by the poor writing, repetition and endless clichés in Fifty Shades Of Grey, not to mention the fact that there’s not actually all that much sex in it. Still, desire to see what all the fuss is about is keeping the book at the top of bestseller lists, and the fact that it has been written by a nice, middle-class woman for nice, middle-class women has earned the genre the nickname “mummy porn”.
“That’s exactly what it is,” says Scottish reader Jodie Miller, a 33-year-old mother of two who is about to start on the second book in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker. “We’ve never discussed a book at playgroup as much as this one. Other mums are asking me if they can borrow it and I have to tell them that I’ve got a queue of friends waiting to read it.”
So what does she think of it? “I think the writing is pretty poor to be honest,” she says. “It’s quite childish, but ultimately it’s just a really cheesy, chick-lit love story. And on top of that, well, there are the dirty bits. It’s not written particularly well, but it’s certainly got everyone talking.”
The women who read books like Fifty Shades Of Grey do so because it’s a “slower burn” than more visual pornography, according to sex expert Tracey Cox. “Men are visual and women respond better, erotically, to words,” she says. “When men fantasise, they’ll rarely read something erotic; they just look at pictures or watch porn. We’re a slower burn, which is why erotica works better for us than bog standard porn, which cuts straight to the ‘good bits.’ ”
Controversial erotic novels are nothing new of course. Everything from Danielle Steele and Anaïs Nin to The Story Of O and Lady Chatterley’s Lover have stirred up passion and outrage in equal measure over the years, and much like the latter, Fifty Shades has only become more intriguing after being banned by a number of libraries in the US.
However, the rise in the popularity of e-books combined with the power of social networking and the possibility that in a recession, cheap, escapist books hold even more appeal, appears to have created a perfect storm of sales.
“I remember going into book stores wanting something a little racy but not being brave enough to buy what was on the shelf because the covers were so hideous,” says KD Grace, the author of The Initiation Of Ms Holly, which re-entered Amazon’s romantic fiction charts following the popularity of the 50 Shades series.
“I thought, ‘What are people going to think if they see me reading this?’ ” she adds. “So to be able to read anything you want at any time is just phenomenal. I also think more and more men are reading erotic fiction now, because a man’s just not going to want to carry around a book with a bodice ripper cover. For the first time people are able to read whatever they want.”
That what they want, for the moment at least, is a poorly written, rather dull, sexy book that’s not particularly sexy has got publishers and critics stumped. Fifty Shades Of Bland it may be, but with the school holidays kicking off this weekend and everyone on the lookout for a fluffy summer read, those colossal sales are showing little sign of slowing any time soon.