Erotic novel takes US, Europe by storm

By Richard Sunley, Kyodo

Posted at Nov 05 2012 10:40 PM | Updated as of Nov 06 2012 10:04 PM

LONDON, United Kingdom - This year one novel has taken Europe and the United States by storm with its mix of romance and graphic descriptions of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism or BDSM.

The novel, "Fifty Shades of Grey" by British author E.L. James, the first installment of a trilogy, and its sequels have gone on to become the top selling book of all time in Britain while amassing sales of over 60 million copies worldwide. The series marked record sales on the online retailer, outstripping the Harry Potter series.

With a huge success of the series and booming sales of similar novels following, publishers expect the phenomenon will help revitalize the flagging genre of erotic fiction.

It is, in essence, a love story set in Seattle between a young billionaire businessman, Christian Grey, 27, and a recent college graduate, Anastasia Steele, 21. Anastasia is swept off her feet by the rich, handsome and mysterious Mr. Grey before finding out that her new lover has a secret obsession with BDSM.

The novel was first published as an e-book by a small Australian publishing house in 2011 as a piece of fan fiction based on another bestselling "Twilight" books before being picked up by U.S. publisher Random House. Since then, its success has led to record book sales, a movie deal and vast amounts of merchandise of props used in the book, from cufflinks to sex toys.

The Japanese translation of the first book of the trilogy is due to go on sale on Nov. 1, with the others in the series scheduled to follow in 2013.

The books have been dubbed "Mummy Porn" by some for its popularity amongst middle-aged women. However one reader, Lynn Fenning, 46, believes it was not just the sex scenes that made the book so popular.

"It is every woman's fantasy, the perfect guy with a little bit of danger," she said. "It gave me an insight into the submissive world and the dominant world I had no idea about and there were some sexual toys that I didn't actually know what they were."

"The actual style of writing isn't brilliant but the plot, the storyline, the way she's created the characters is really, really well done," Fenning added.

E.L. James
In an interview with Kyodo News in London, James confessed that she is still overwhelmed by its success.

"I had no idea it would be this successful." "I wrote it for me and I think of it as a passionate love story. It's a fairy tale. It's kind of Beauty and the Beast mixed with Cinderella...and it has some spicy kinky sex in it," James said with a wry smile.

So why the inclusion of BDSM?

"I was fascinated by it," James explained. She had read some BDSM novels and found it very erotic and very arousing, she said.

While sales continue to grow around the world, the books have had their critics as well. Some reviewers have panned the trilogy for its poor writing while others believe that the relationship portrayed in the story is inherently sexist.

James, a former TV executive born in 1963 and mother of two, is adamant that such criticism is wide of the mark.

"I just think your opinion is yours and it's not mine. I wrote these for myself and, fortunately, other women seem to like them, too."

Despite such criticism, however, the books have continued to fly off shelves and fill up e-readers with publishers taking note of its unprecedented success.

Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, an industry publication, believes that the flagging erotica genre has been revitalized by the series and could continue to expand.

"I think they've really caught something. Normally you get a big book like Harry Potter and everyone tries to imitate it and falls flat," Jones said.

But that has not been the case this time around, he said. A number of the follow-on books, including copy cat publishing, have actually done pretty well, and in a different year would have been some of "the biggest books of the year," Jones added.

With the books now translated into over 45 languages and initial conversations with a scriptwriter for the movie set to take place later this year, the success of the Fifty Shades phenomenon looks set to continue.