Sympathy for E.L. James -The Toast

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A few months ago, an erotic writing colleague mass-messaged me asking I wanted to participate in a project to let Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James know that she had supporters by adding her as a Facebook friend en masse. This was aimed at counteracting some of the vitriol that’s been sent James’ way in the wake of her trilogy’s 70 million-selling success from the erotic writing world (as separate from those claiming that the series is nothing more than domestic abuse, which is worthy of debate, but not what I’m going to focus on here.) The request struck me as a funny one, because I would imagine that online and off, James (real name: Erika Leonard) is bombarded by fawning fans. Not to mention being named one of Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People of 2012, Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2012, Publishers Weekly’s 2012 Person of the Year, as well as profiting from the official Fifty Shades of Grey sex toy line, new house, and the August 1, 2014 release of the film version.

Still, life isn’t necessarily all rosy for James. UK erotica writer Kay Jaybee told me of a public snubbing last month, ironically at an awards show where she won:

I was recently at the ETO Awards with my wonderful writing friend KD Grace. We were both up for Best Author, but as E.L. James was also up for it, and it was a trade awards (which makes its money from the toys James has so successfully promoted), we held out no hope of a win. As our names were called as nominees the room cheered and clapped, until James’ name was called—total silence! When James was announced as the winner there were no cheers, no ‘well done,’ nothing. She may have all the money she will ever need, but I felt very sorry for her that night.

While I don’t think James is in need of sympathy, I do agree that she certainly shouldn’t be scorned. Even James herself has admitted on “The Today Show” that the erotic trilogy, which started as Twilight fan fiction and has now sold over 70 million copies, isn’t “revolutionary” and that she’s “stunned” by its popularity and she’s “not a great writer.” But whatever the quality of the writing (something that is, at the end of the day, subjective), at the very least, James should be credited for reviving the erotica genre. How? Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy has gotten a revamp, while a new version of The Story of O by Pauline Réage comes packaged with an introduction by the successor to James’ throne, erotic romance author Sylvia Day. Meanwhile, countless independent ebook publishers are sprouting up to take advantage of holes they see in the market, from porn site Fleshbot’s launch of Fleshbot Fiction to Burning Book Press, Go Deeper Press, the revival of popular UK imprint Black Lace and numerous others, while actual (former) porn stars Sasha Grey and Jenna Jameson will release their debut erotic novels this year.

Yet there may be a kernel of wisdom to the idea of reaching out to James. While her prolific tweets have focused on having a grand time in Los Angeles working alongside screenwriter Kelly Marcel, if you watch closely, James seems perhaps not-so-comfortable with her new role as the grand dame of kinky fiction. During a taping of Katie Couric’s talk show “Katie” last fall, I couldn’t help but notice that James fidgeted with her hands, played with her hair, and looked almost aghast when a video showed an exercise program based on her work. At one point, Couric reached over and patted her knee. I got the impression that James is proud of her characters and eager for their story to be minutely dissected, but less comfortable with her own starring role.

While attending this year’s RT Booklovers Convention as a fan, she went so far as to register under a different name, so organizers didn’t even realize she’d be attending. James still managed to cause a stir. I missed the new adult session where she attended as an audience member, there to support author Abbi Glines, according to a Tweet by Glines. The fact that James is herself a celebrity, as famous to her fans as Robert Pattinson, who recently hosted James at a party in Los Angeles, is to his, is a double-edged sword. Yes, she is rich, recognized, and her books are omnipresent, but clearly there’s a downside.

What she’s done for the world goes far beyond publishing. Her success has shown those who scoff at romance or erotica as lesser genres are only showing they are out of touch with today’s female-led book-buying market. She’s brought awareness of BDSM to a much larger audience and promoted many indie authors via her Twitter account.

The next wave of Twilight fan fiction has spawned bestsellers like Christina Lauren’s Beautiful Bastard series and Sylvain Renard’s Gabriel’s Inferno trilogy. Three separate (unofficial) live theater parodies have already been launched, with touring schedules mapped out well to the end of 2013, while the branded sex toys quote directly from James’ words in their packaging. Fifty Shades of Grey is a worldwide phenomenon. While visiting Dubai last fall, I saw gigantic stacks of the telling grey tie glinting from its cover, though the second and third books were reportedly pulled from bookstore shelves after customers objected. The books’ success has also meant big business for related industries like sex toys and lingerie, as well as a Maine paper mill which was contracted to supply 3,000 tons of paper to produce the actual books.

When I sat in on Stef Woods’ Fifty Shades of Grey college class at American University, I was highly impressed at the level of discourse about the book and its assorted controversies. Students were versed in everything from creating their own marketing plans (for novel ideas they’d come up with), many of which were far more elaborate and nuanced than those of actual published authors, and articulated intelligent responses to the fact that many libraries are not stocking the trilogy.

At the very least, my advice to writers who are offended by the perceived poor quality of Fifty Shades is to get out there and write your own stories. There’s no barrier to self-publishing; you can experiment with length, track sales and adjust prices. Ultimately, I believe the mania over James, positive and negative, says more about the commenter than the author. The fact that James, despite her success, comes across as your average mom who’s had a bit of mindblowing success means she’s opened up as many doors for writers via her personality as she has by helping expand the market. She doesn’t have the glamour or remove of a Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel, and by virtue of that, should give those who’ve been thinking I could do that to get out there and write their hearts out.

Works Referenced:

E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey (Indiebound | Amazon)
Christina Lauren, Beautiful Bastard (Indiebound | Amazon)
Pauline Réage, The Story of O (Indiebound | Amazon)
Sylvain Renard, Gabriel’s Inferno (Indiebound | Amazon)
Anne Rice, The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy (Indiebound | Amazon)

Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author, editor and blogger. She’s edited over 50 anthologies, including Orgasmic; Fast Girls; Gotta Have It; Twice the Pleasure: Bisexual Women's Erotica; Baby Got Back: Anal Erotica; Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission; The Mile High Club; Cheeky Spanking Stories and Best Sex Writing 2013. Find her online at and @raquelita on Twitter.

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