By Dr Brooke Magnanti, formerly known as Belle de Jour
Has erotica changed the literary landscape? That’s the topic I’ll be taking on at The Telegraph Hay Literature Festival in a couple of weeks, along with Nikki Gemmell, Jojo Moyes, and Linda Kelsey. With the hype and high sales of Fifty Shades of Grey finally starting to settle down, what are we left with, and what does it mean for writers and readers?
What seemed to surprise people most of all was the notion that women were – shock, horror – interested in sex. This is a perennial ‘discovery’ by the mainstream, who every 10 years or so revisit the notion that the female of the species is as sexually motivated as the male, claiming this is something “new”, then cue panic.
It’s neither new nor a reason to panic.
Who, after all, buys Mills & Boon and Harlequin novels, with their covers featuring women falling into the buff and bronzed arms of men? Women do. Who writes the slashfic (slash fiction) and fanfic (fan fiction) online that takes sexually fantasizing about well-known television and film characters to a whole new level? Women do. Early studies even suggested as many as 90 per cent of fanfic writers were female. When search engine data is analyzed, who is more likely to Google the terms “free sex” and “adult sex”?
Believe it or not – women.
When the erotica craze was in full swing, I turned down a request from my publisher to hop on the band wagon. In part, at least, because I believe you can’t fool the reader – a cynically-written book will always be found out. But apart from authentic passion being something that transcends taste, what else have we learned from the phenomenon, and will it last?
1. People still want to buy books.
Technology hasn’t changed that. The fact that early versions of Fifty Shades were available for free, online, did not stop the book from becoming a worldwide bestseller. A valuable lesson when it seems like publishers are giving up without really trying to understand how the internet is changing reading habits.
Women still buy two-thirds of the books sold in Britain. Whether for themselves or as gifts, this is a powerful piece of information about how our tastes are shaped, and the continued over representation of men in the review pages flies in the face of all logic.
Women are also as technologically advanced an audience as men are. As a published author, I’ve been frustrated by how slow and unresponsive publishers can sometimes be. Clever folks have figured out if you have an e-book that is free or cheap – ideally, a price point at or less than a morning cappuccino – this can build word of mouth and in fact lead to higher sales.
I do a lot of talks and presentations to groups everywhere from the back rooms of pubs to the Sydney Opera House. Plenty of time I’ve been at events that folks are live-tweeting throughout. I’d love if publishers understood that the audience that can be bothered to turn up to your talk and tweet about it, they should also be downloading your book at the same time – ideally at a price that they won’t think twice about.
2. You can introduce new themes if you tell an old story.
At its heart, the most successful erotica tells one of two stories: something that looks extreme on the outside is really an old fashioned happily-ever-after tale (such as Fifty Shades), or that something that looks old-fashioned on the outside is really unexpectedly different underneath (such as The Bride Stripped Bare). Successful game-changing books need to have one foot in the past and one in the present to be repeatable to a broad audience.
This is true of most books, actually. Bridget Jones told an old story – woman who fears being left on the shelf finds love – something that is at least as old as Jane Austen in a new and interesting way. The Harry Potter series told the story of growing up, good and evil, from the unusual perspective of a boy wizard. The best sci-fi also does this: Star Trek is, basically, The Office in space.
3. People rate personal recommendations over media reviews.
Reading reviews can be useful as a guide for what to read next. If Ursula Le Guin recommends a book, I’ve found that I will probably like it. But the reviews in newspapers and magazines increasingly say more about the reviewer than they do about the book, and people – especially women – are looking elsewhere for recommendations.
When we ask our friends about books, that’s what they’re telling us: whether they enjoyed the story. Whether it took them successfully on a journey for the few hours or days it took to read it.
Again, maybe part of this phenomenon has to do with the fact that the review pages do not represent the readers’ interests, continuing to promote predominantly male writers over equally talented women.
There is also a connection between the quality in literary erotica and the quality in filmed porn. In both, the budgets tend to be low, in part because the viewer is not going to be too critical of the backgrounds and characterization as long as the story ends up where they want it to (sex, naturally).
Many reviews criticize the tropes that are used in erotica, particularly the fact that specific words for genitals are shunned in favor of coy euphemisms like “his manhood” or “tower of power”. Yes, this can be distracting, but if the book is successful – if it gets you to keep turning those pages – the reader forgives a lot of literary errors in favor of what anyone really wants out of a book: a great read.
Has Fifty Shades changed the literary landscape? My position is, if it has, it’s because we have been willfully ignoring what was there all along. Whether it will be the wake-up call the publishing industry needs to hear to survive a growing crisis remains to be seen. Whatever else happens, there will always be books and there will always be readers. It may just not be the same people selling them to us.