AT FIRST glance, it’s difficult to work out the attraction for women of the Fifty Shades trilogy of books, in which a handsome billionaire woos a young woman with the prospect of an inventive sex-life and untold riches. Oh. Right.
Set in Seattle, and first written as Twilight-style fan-fiction by British TV executive EL James, the Fifty Shades trilogy — dubbed ‘mommy porn’ — has become a publishing sensation in the US.
Young and innocent Anastasia Steel goes to work for billionaire businessman Christian Grey, only to discover that there are, so to speak, strings attached. Christian is into sado-masochistic sex, and gets his kicks from bondage and spanking.
From underground beginnings, when the Fifty Shades books were spoken of in whispers, the trilogy has very quickly rocketed into the mainstream. Originally published in ebook format, the books are now published in paperback and scaling the New York Times bestseller list. Universal Pictures has picked up the movie rights, with Twilight duo Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson the fans’ choice to play Anastasia and Christian.
So will Irish writers of contemporary romance be taking their lead from the whips’n’chains of EL James’s fantasy? “I don’t like anything to be too explicit,” says Sheila O’Flanagan, whose All For You is her 17th novel. “That includes sex, violence, or even every aspect of my characters. As a reader I like to use my imagination, and as I writer I want my readers to be able to use their own imagination too.”
Brian Finnegan, whose debut novel The Forced Redundancy Film Club has just been published, is less reticent. “I’m very comfortable writing sex scenes, because, like most human beings, I’m interested in sex,” he says. “But I think for sex scenes to work there has to be a fine balance between explicit and implicit detail. And I would only include a sex scene if it was integral to the story. I’m not into gratuitous sex in fiction.”
As the author of 10 best-selling contemporary romance novels, Melissa Hill believes that fictional sex for its own sake can actually be counter-productive.
“I’ve always felt that a step-by-step account of what or who went where is uninspiring and not in the least bit romantic or erotic,” she says. “It’s much better to work on building up a strong chemistry between the characters, which in my opinion is a lot more tantalising, and leave the rest to the imagination.”
There was a time, of course, when any kind of sex in fiction was taboo in Ireland: James Joyce, Edna O’Brien and John McGahern are only three of our more revered authors to have been censored here.
In recent years, the rise of the e-reader in particular has made it possible for readers to indulge their passion for material that might err on the risqué side.
“The joy of e-readers is that no one can see what you’re reading,” says Vanessa O’Loughlin, who has just published her debut romance True Colours under the pseudonym Vanessa Fox. “You can sit on the DART and read the hottest sex or the drippiest romance and nobody knows. Men can read Mills & Boon and teens can read stuff their friends would laugh at. Digital reading devices have completely liberated readers.”
O’Flanagan agrees that anonymity is one of the advantages of the electronic devices. “Although I’m not sure that it’s raunchy fiction they’re hiding. Many people feel intellectually intimidated by the thoughts of others judging them by their reading material. I’m betting there’s quite a lot of romance and science fiction being read digitally.”
From an author’s point of view, it’s important to respect the parameters of the genre in which you’re working.
“In the crime novel I’m working on at the moment,” says O’Loughlin, “I’ve just written an extremely graphic scene that occurs in a brothel between a girl trafficked from Eastern Europe and a violent client. It’s very hard-edged, very gritty and leaves nothing to the imagination. There is nothing romantic about it at all, it’s all about power and control.”
As the editor of Gay Community News, Brian Finnegan was aware of the need to recalibrate his fiction writing for a wider audience.
“While I wasn’t worried about the straight sex scenes in terms of my readers, there were a few gay sex scenes that had a slight tinge of S&M to them, which during the editing process became a little more tame,” says Finnegan. “There was always a worry with me that the gay scenes didn’t fit well into the genre the book is in, which is commercial women’s fiction. If I was writing it for a gay market only, I’d have no problem being explicit, because I think my readers would be comfortable with it.”
So is EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey a harbinger of a brand of romance fiction that will demand of its authors a harder-edged sexuality?
“I think Fifty Shades is one of those funny quirks in publishing that rears its head every now and again,” says Hill. “And to my mind it’s unlikely to spawn a brand new genre. Part of its appeal in the US was the already huge Twilight fanbase, so the story of its success as simply being down to the explicit subject matter is a little overdone.”
“We get sex everywhere nowadays,” says Finnegan. “It’s a routine commodity in television, movies and advertising, and pornography is so easily accessible on the internet, all of which deprives it of the power of the forbidden it once had. So I think there will be a growing need for a more thoughtful eroticism. I think that, across the generations, what readers want from a novel is an underlying sense of realism, a sense that the relationships at the heart of it might just exist.”
“I certainly think that readers expect more than a chaste kiss,” says O’Flanagan, “but romance and sex aren’t the same thing. Many readers are more interested in the development of the relationship between the characters rather than the sex scenes.
“But readers won’t be cheated, either. They need to know that the characters eventually grab some action between the sheets.”
* Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James is published by Arrow