When did you realize Fifty Shades of Grey had become ubiquitous?
I had heard of it, of course; authors tend to notice tales of unexpected multi-million-sale successes by other authors. I hadn't read it myself but had certainly talked to people who'd read it. And yes, every other person at the beach seemed to have a copy. But I didn't quite realize how extensive its reach was until I discovered my teenage daughter had bought it.
When I mentioned that to a friend, she gasped aloud. "How could you let her read that?"
I had to admit I haven't figured out how to stop my girl from reading, which secretly pleases me a great deal.
"But it's kind of... dirty," she replied in a whisper.
"So dirty you read it twice?"
"Exactly! I didn't know there were books like that!"
She was probably right in that there weren't really books like that on top of the bestseller lists, stacked up twenty deep in front of the bookstore, and being made into feature films. But erotic romance, and its spicier cousin erotica, has been here for years, just waiting for the limelight. And now they've certainly found it. Sylvia Day, author of the wildly successful Crossfire series, was recently in the news for signing multiple million-dollar book deals, with a TV series in development. Authors like Emma Holly, Maya Banks, and Charlotte Stein are writing books that explore all manner of fantasies. No longer are the sizzling stories shelved in the back with plain covers; these books are atop the publishing landscape. Fifty Shades only brought out into the mainstream a genre that has been around for a long time.
Not that this should surprise anyone. Sex sells, and always has. Erotica and pornography have been around for hundreds of years, even thousands, as archaeologists discovered in unearthing Pompeii.
I write historical romance novels, set two hundred years ago in the Regency Era of Britain: a very lovely and graceful age of scientific inquiry, nascent industrialism, stately art and architecture, and exquisite fashion. But sexual prudery wasn't as much a part of it as Jane Austen adaptations might lead one to think. There were no e-readers then, so erotic books were printed privately and sold quietly. And make no mistake: Some of them were very explicit indeed.
Take the School of Venus (c. 1680). It's written as a dialogue between a young woman, Katy, age 16, and her older friend, Frances. In other words, it's a sex manual for women, and there are no bleeped out words. Frances wants her friend to be fully informed. And to further instruct readers at home, this version was illustrated.
Consider also Fanny Hill (1748), subtitled "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," where "woman of pleasure" was the 18th century, polite way of saying "prostitute." According to one legend, Fanny was written on a dare to produce a lewd work that didn't use any vulgar words (which it doesn't, despite an impressive number of sexual acts described in lengthy detail). Nevertheless it was still considered so obscene, the author and publisher were arrested and the book was banned... as recently as the 1960s. Of course that only fueled the underground demand for it, and it sold very well... even in the 1960s.
But these were all before the straight-laced Victorian age. The Georgians were known to be a bawdy lot, while the Victorians were as prim as their queen. Weren't they? A reading of The Pearl (1879-1880) or The Romance of Lust (1873) will emphatically demonstrate that Christian Grey was not the first man with a fondness for the whip. Nor was flogging the only thing Victorian men found erotic: incest, orgies, cross-dressing, homosexuality (in an era when it was illegal), and dominance and submission can all be found in period erotica. Being seduced by someone older and in authority was popular, particularly a governess, a school master, a priest.
There is one significant difference between the kinky stories of yesterday and today: the writers. Fanny Hill, The Pearl, The School of Venus were all written by men. And while they generally celebrated sex and portrayed enthusiastic women, the undercurrent is the man's pleasure. Modern erotic stories, on the other hand, are more often written by women, with a woman and her desires at the center of the story.
Unsurprisingly, people like sex. And if everyone else is reading a story, that only makes it more enticing. When I asked my daughter why she'd bought Fifty Shades of Grey, she responded, "Because everyone except me has read it, and I just had to know what they were talking about!" It's now easier than ever for people to get their hands on literature of any period or persuasion, with no need to resort to an underground market. It can be read on the beach in broad daylight, or even privately on the train to work, thanks to e-readers. No matter what your fancy, there's a story about it.
Caroline Linden is the author of the new book It Takes A Scandal.