E.L. James' fifty shades of Grey series has reached saturation levels previously reserved for teen wizards and vampires. Literary provocateur Bret Easton Ellis is in talks to write a screenplay based on the trilogy of megaselling erotic novels, in which a young woman discovers the joys of bondage and nondisclosure agreements. Rumor has it that James may write a follow-up threesome, told from sado-suitor Christian Grey's point of view. Official Fifty Shades perfume, lingerie, jewelry and stationery lines are in the works. A San Francisco hotel company offers a Fifty Shades package, including a gift basket of satin ties and lubricant. S&M has gone mainstream.
For further proof, ask publishers of erotica and "romantica," which adds graphic, often S&M-tinged sex to traditional romance-novel formulas. These books have spiked sharply in popularity since Fifty Shades fever hit this spring, suggesting that for readers new to erotica, James' work isn't a one-off experiment but a gateway drug. Sylvia Day's Bared to You--an erotic, decidedly Grey-toned tale of obsession that, like Fifty Shades, was originally self-published--has been climbing the New York Times best-seller list. Its publisher, Berkley Books, has also green-lit Beth Kery's Because You Are Mine, an erotic e-book serial that will launch in July.
"We're having a kinky moment," says Brenda Knight, associate publisher of sex-focused Cleis Press, where erotic-book sales have tripled in the past five months. But kinky contains multitudes, so specialization is key. The advent of the e-reader has brought a deluge of quickie digital erotica--a smorgasbord of hyperspecific smut. Romantica publisher Ellora's Cave offers everything from cowboy fantasies to tales of erotic time travel. Science-fiction geeks can consider Laurann Dohner's Tiger, wherein a feisty female protagonist finds her match in a manimal. Carla Swafford's Circle of Danger, from Harper Collins' erotica arm, Avon Red, involves deadly assassins, drug lords and doing it. For history buffs, Avon Red has just published Lauren Hawkeye's My Wicked Gladiators. ("It's historical, there are gladiators, there's a three-way," says Avon Red editor May Chen. Sold!) And few anterooms of romantica inspire as much excitement among female readers as man-on-man or man-on-man-on-man or man-on-man-on-woman configurations, whether these encounters take place in outer space, during the Regency or in a realm populated by hybrid-human shape shifters.
However varied the categories may be, most contemporary erotica and romantica has one thing in common: a strong, opinionated heroine. She may not be textured or well written or particularly particular in any way, except in mouthing off and making demands and getting what she wants. (Several times in a row, even.) She's a woman grappling with her feelings and fears, her desires and shame. She's delighting in the furthest reaches of human experience and discovering where her limits lie.
No wonder women buy these novels by the case. Where else are their longings examined with as much fervor, acceptance and compassion? "I hope the romantica trend will encourage women to be more forthright about their sexuality," says Patricia Marks, CEO and president of Ellora's Cave. Let's just hope they've chosen a safe word.