Anything but grey

The book that's causing all the excitement. Photo by Shane Gilchrist.
The book that's causing all the excitement. Photo by Shane Gilchrist.
Dubbed "mummy porn", a British mother-of-two's erotic book series is whipping up a storm, writes Shane Gilchrist.

"It's only been out a few weeks but we've sold truckloads," says the woman behind the counter of an Alexandra bookshop before sharing a quick glance and a giggle with a female colleague.

The topic of conversation is E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey.

The first in a trilogy of erotic romances, it boasts sales as hot as its subject matter.

Since being published on April 12, it has raced to No 1 on New Zealand's bestseller list for international fiction, the British mother-of-two's tales of a bondage-loving billionaire and his submissive partner outdoing the likes of big-hitters Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts.

First released last year by a small Australian firm that printed only a small run and released it as an e-book, Fifty Shades of Grey quickly became a literary sensation among women in New York and went on to top The New York Times bestseller list. Now, screen rights have been acquired by Universal. Not bad for a book about sex that doesn't describe any copulation until about 100 pages have been turned.

"In the United Kingdom, just to give you an idea, they sold 94,000 copies in the first full week on sale - that's paperbacks and e-books combined.

"The physical edition is the fastest-selling book in the United Kingdom this year; it sold more than 61,000 copies in seven days," a spokeswoman for Random House New Zealand said.

The company which, via imprint Arrow Books, holds rights to the series in the United Kingdom, United States and the Commonwealth, has seen 17,000 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey fly from the shelves of its New Zealand warehouse, while volumes two and three, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, have each fetched 13,000 orders since their release on April 24.

Notwithstanding all those women's magazine advertisements, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts and other internet dissemination, old-fashioned face-to-face chat has also helped sales of the saucy series.

"Word has gotten around," says the woman at the Alexandra bookshop before turning to her colleague, who chips in: "It's mainly women buying it, though there have been a few men in as well. I'd be careful who I'd recommended it to, but it is racy ..." Racy, indeed. The content of Fifty Shades of Grey has been described as "erotic romance" or, to coin one publisher's terminology, "romantica"; others believe it falls under the slightly different category of "erotic fiction".

In a nod to its popularity, the slogan "mummy porn" has also been used in connection with the story of student Anastasia Steele's relationship with entrepreneur Christian Grey, whose sexual tastes are such that he requires her to sign a contract stipulating she is the "submissive" and he the "dominant", thus permitting him to use, in no particular order, restraints, whips and other apparatus identified with bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM).

New Zealander Anne Douglas, who moved to the United States in 2001 and began writing erotic romance and erotica novels in 2005 after being goaded to do so by friends while on a girls' weekend, says there is a good reason books such as Fifty Shades sell so well.

"It's been my experience that the stories that stick with a reader have a lot of plausibility to them - the human condition underpins even the most unusual sexual elements.

"While the sexual aspects of an erotic romance might well be beyond a reader's sphere of experience, the emotions leading to and within that sexual moment are experienced at varying levels and degrees by all of us.

"So far, I've written in the erotic romance and erotica areas. One of my publishers, Ellora's Cave, coined the term 'romantica', meaning that while the story contains explicit sexual content like erotica those encounters are wrapped up in a romantic storyline.

"In contrast, straight erotica [or erotic fiction] often has no romantic overtones at all and while I've very definitely enjoyed probably more than my fair share of 'stroke stories', I prefer to write romantic sex."

Douglas, whose titles include Tea For Three and Husbands and Wives and Lovers, says she enjoys depicting the interplay, angst and tension a "hot" sexual relationship can provide.

Another part of the appeal lies in exploring sexual situations

"I might not or would not act on".

Yet are books such as Fifty Shades mere escapism?

Might they possess the potential to redefine sexual parameters within a relationship?

"I think erotic romance can spice up a relationship if the people involved are open to it," Douglas says.

"I've had a number of readers, women and men - yes, men read romance, too - who've dropped me a line to say their partner very much appreciated their appreciation of a good erotic romance story. It doesn't mean they go out and re-create scenes from a story, but they can definitely build on the emotional and sexual arousal it brings.

"If you read a story involving a sexual dynamic you've never known, or perhaps understood, it could well be the light-bulb moment you didn't know you'd been waiting for - for both good or bad," Douglas says.

"It could be as simple as the knowledge that you aren't wrong for fantasising about asking your partner to spank you; or it could be the opposite, in that it promulgates a stereotype where power is unfairly held by one party."

Certainly, some commentators have criticised the Fifty Shades series for eroticising power and violence, for reinforcing misogyny, arguing women who engage in BDSM are making a choice that is ultimately bad for their gender.

Sarah S. G. Frantz, associate professor of literature at Fayetteville State University, North Carolina, has been closely following the debate surrounding Fifty Shades.

President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, she has a specific interest in BDSM romance and has written an article on the subject, which features in the academic book New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays.

She points out Fifty Shades casts its intimate moments in a negative light, with the protagonist Christian scarred by trauma in this childhood.

That, says Dr Frantz is drawing a connection that is not typical in real life, nor is Christian's choice of partner for this sort of relationship - a clueless innocent.

Fiction must balance the realism of relationships with the more escapist elements, she says.

That's what makes escapist sex hot, Dr Frantz believes.

The best romance fiction focuses on the psychology of the characters, she says.

"Why do two (or more) people fall in love with each other?

"I firmly believe you can have slightly fantastical activity, stuff that would not be a good idea in real life, as long as there's a strong motivation for it in the characters. For me, watching [or reading about] two people having any kind of sex is not particularly hot unless I can see the love between them or the motivation behind what they're doing.

"For me, the difference between non-erotic romance and erotic romance is that in romance, the essential romantic elements can be explored through any number of plot elements. However, in erotic romance, most of those elements must be explored through sexual encounters.

"Erotic romance is not just a normal romance with some extra sex scenes thrown in. Erotic romance establishes and explores the relationship through and with sexual encounters."

As for others' opinions, well, I've yet to find out just how the members of my wife's book club stand in regards Fifty Shades.

Though they covened their latest meeting at our home earlier this week, I was banished to my office. Outside and thus well out of earshot (still, I did hear laughter on occasion), I wasn't privy to their dissection of dominant protagonist Christian Grey and his submissive protégé, Ana.

Suspecting this would be the case, I'd attempted to circumvent my exclusion by emailing several of those book club members earlier in the week to ask their thoughts on James' hot-seller (and with the promise no names would be disclosed with their answers).

The result? One reply.

Still, it's worth including: "I have heard of husbands benefiting from their wives reading it ... ha ha ... but maybe not portraying that exact behaviour. I suppose some people are into that. Each to their own, I suppose."


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