Steaming up moms' e-readers

Sexy bondage novel.

Posted: March 18, 2012

As far as anybody can tell, the women of Long Island found it first, around Thanksgiving.

During their Christmas vacations, they carried it by Kindle to Boca and possibly Aruba, and from there, it ripped its way through Jersey and then the nation's e-readers before landing last week at the very top of the New York Times best-seller list for combined print and e-book sales.

It's Fifty Shades of Grey, the sexual-bondage romance novel from first-time author E.L. James, a married British TV executive and mother of two, that's been steaming up e-book readers since its digital publication in May and is about to be released as a trilogy in paperback form, with a first run of 750,000 copies.

As Anastasia Steele, the young, innocent college-student heroine of the megahit might say - and does say when pondering the imminent loss of her virginity early on in the story: "Holy Cow!"

So, holy cow. What's the big deal if women dig a highly charged and breathlessly trashy read? Haven't romance-novel enthusiasts debated the merits of the BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadomasochism) subgenre since time immemorial? Has no man (or woman) ever blushed at passages of Sabbath's Theater, or any other Philip Roth book? Or Mary Gaitskill's bondage tale  "Secretary"? Does no one remember The Story of O? Madame Bovary? The biblical Song of Songs?

Maybe it's the book's origin as a fan-fiction riff on Bella and Edward of the Twilight series. Maybe it's the commercial success of a novel (more than 250,000 copies sold so far, most in e-book form) that Vintage, a Random House division, spent a seven-figure sum to acquire from a small Australian publishing house. Or maybe it's just a good, lusty read.

Set in Seattle, Fifty Shades tells the story of Anastasia, who in the middle of finals is sent to interview entrepreneur Christian Grey, 28, for her campus newspaper. He then shows up at the hardware store where she works. A relationship ensues, with Christian introducing her to his bondage tastes, which he attributes to his being, in his words, "50 shades of f-ed up."

Christian controls, withholds, dominates, and generally floats her boat with a raw voice and a host of accessories. The result? "Excruciating pleasure spikes through [Ana's] blood like adrenaline." Her body both quivers and bows. The author uses a lot of italics to describe all this. Hmm. Wow. Oh my...

"It's total porn, but it's a hot beautiful couple madly in love," says Amy Brog, 45, mother of two, of Margate. "Oh, my God, I'm on the third and final one and can't put that one down either. Are you going to ask me if I've tried any of the things in the book?"

Let's just say, her playroom still has Xbox, not the hard-core equipment contained in Christian's playroom. "Would I be embarrassed if my mother read it?" Brog said. "I'd be mortified. I wouldn't want to go into a book club and discuss it with her."

Having said that, Brog added: "Their makeups were wonderful. I'm not turned off by it. Most of it is really beautiful and loving and passionate. There's a sweetness to the porn, not graphic and nasty. Is some of it a little off? She went to a formal dinner party and she's ..."

OK, you'll have to download the book to fill in those blanks, as well as to finish this sentence from Brog: "I'm not a big fan of the [blank] and the [blank]."

Women have lit up Facebook pages and the website goodreads.com for months, praising the book for its wave upon wave of hard-core erotica pleasing to the moms. (Hanna Rosin, writing in Slate, called Ana and Christian the "Ross and Rachel of BDSM.")

"The Long Island girls were reading it before we were," said one South Jersey mom, who didn't want her name used. "The entire world has read it. It was really raunchy. It was one horrible thing after another. I'm reading this on my Kindle, looking up these S&M words I never knew before."

The debate over how to process the bondage theme (other than lustily, which everyone seems OK with) is a lively one.

On Twitter, Miss Bennet (2austentwit) writes: "Grey is masterful lover, not so much dominant (always asks permission) as skilled - her pleasure more evident than his."

Emily Weiss, 44, of Linwood, said she was more drawn to the psychological complexities of Grey than to the steaminess of the book, and remembered her own youthful relationships with complicated men whose backgrounds "came very quickly into play."

"I felt like it was a really good warning for a mother or a parent to remember to talk to their kids about looking at the whole picture," she said. "All you're thinking about is attraction and fun and excitement. There were some people I got involved with who were complicated. I wasn't mature enough to take that."

Weiss said that while others in her book group found the book as erotic as the hype, she did not. "I kind of felt like this book was designed for younger girls in their 20s, yet the content is very advanced," Weiss said. Anastasia, she said, refers to "her inner goddess talking to her" and does a lot of OMG-ing and, of course, a few Holy Cows.

"Those are not things a 40-year-old woman was saying inside her head," she said. "It's an immature love, but the content is way highly mature. I worried about her so much. I definitely was relating it to myself. Nobody knew I was with this guy. She shouldn't have felt totally safe with this guy. When your children get involved in something psychologically complicated, it can be as dangerous as something physical."

She noted that her generation of women did not grow up with the Internet, where every idle curiosity can be satisfied and every question answered. "I think people are reading it out of curiosity. What is this all about? I did learn a lot about it. I learned about S&M, but I didn't find it erotic. Just curious, the way I would learn about astronomy."

The novel's success has actually turned off some romance fans who feel that Fifty Shades should not be marketed as an original work, because its main characters derive from the main characters of Twilight. And some complain that Fifty Shades' publication as an e-book, and now as a paperback, is a betrayal of its origin as Master of the Universe, a reworking of the Bella and Edward story, S&M-style, using the names Bella and Edward, on the website FanFiction.net. (Fan fiction is written by fans who reimagine beloved books or genres and share them with other fans on the Internet.)

James wrote Master of the Universe under the pseudonym Snow Dragon Ice Queen and was known as Icy to her many fans who read her work for free on the Web.

"Vintage has come out and said this is an entirely new piece of fiction," said Jane Litte, 39, of Iowa, who runs the DearAuthor romance-review blog (dearauthor.com) and posted extensively about the Fifty Shades phenomenon, including a computer analysis of its similarities to the Master of the Universe version, which showed that the two were 89 percent alike.

Litte skewered the book itself, suggesting alternate titles of: "50 Shades of Grey, 7 Shades of Scarlet & 372 Pages of Dumb," "120 Days of Boredom," and "The Story of Oh ... My!"

"I'm surprised at its popularity," she said. "If this was your first time reading romance fiction, it might be titillating, but for longtime readers of romantic fiction, it's old hat, and not very good old hat at that."

Litte said the issue with Vintage was one of provenance: "Where did this book start out? It's not totally new and original."

Random House has issued a statement declaring: "It is widely known that E.L James began to capture a following as a writer shortly after she posted her second fan-fiction story. She subsequently took that story and rewrote the work, with new characters and situations. That was the beginning of the Fifty Shades trilogy."

Sarah Wendell, who runs a romance-novel reviewing website, said some in the fan-fiction community were offended to be written out of the success of Fifty Shades.

"Some people in the fan-fiction community find it offensive that it was pulled off and sold for profit," Wendell said. "It wouldn't have a fan base if not for the fan-fiction base, and the book probably wouldn't exist if not for Twilight. This began as an alternate universe of Bella and Edward."

Why the Sturm und Drang over women loving the book anyway? Wendell asked. "The media coverage of its popularity, calling it mommy porn, ridicules the women who like it," she said. "That makes me insanely angry. Female sexual curiosity should not be mocked. Is it OK if something is turning women on? Of course, it's OK."


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg

at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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