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50 Shades of Grey and its sequels as success stories seem like no surprise to me. Not only have trends in the industry changed from delivery method and point of sale, but so have proliferation of types.
50 Shades, et al, also reflect general trends in the way fiction has portrayed women over the past few centuries.
Trends in fiction reflect society's changes. Never is that more true of women's fiction.
We could begin with PAMELA, the first female-centered novel, which to many literates is the first romance. Far from it in terms of proper treatment of a woman as an equal, PAMELA nonetheless reflects much of the behavior toward women during that 18th century period.
So too are Jane Austen's works in which blue-stockings like her heroines might be imbued with an intellect, wit as well as charm. JANE EYRE shows us a women beset by social mores and economic conditions (as well as legal issues of inheritance). But Jane learns the error of accepting social strictures, especially and almost simultaneously with her financial windfall and freedom. She decides to opt for love and viola! She returns to Rochester to learn that he in many (horrible) ways has been relieved of his social and marital burden and is, himself, free to love her and marry her.
As we progress through the Victorian period, we find a few examples of women freed of their strictures, but not until the early sixties do we see the rise of Harlequin romances. (In fiction aimed at men, the hard boiled mystery starring dames show women as ruthless, cunning and not at all worthy of a man's respect or affection. My reference here are the works of Mickey Spillane.) In the Harlequins, the norm was woman gets man, marries man, lives happily ever after. But that formula soon was challenged by economic conditions that saw the rise of divorce, the incidence of women going to work in greater numbers and the inception of birth control.
While we see these elements portrayed clearly in the period piece tv show MAD MEN, what we see in fiction aimed at women is the proliferation of the Harlequin type category romances with various houses getting into the marketplace. Once Rosemary Rodgers and Kathleen Woodiwiss hit us with historical romances wherein the woman was the honorable lead character and the hero was a dashing fellow, the market exploded with Happily Ever After Romances. In the US, this was the late 70s and 80s, when women had to return to work, driven by 20% inflation and 75% tax rates. As we know by many studies of this female readership today, she wanted a viable romance with a hero who was dashing and honorable himself. Moreover, this reader needed this ending because she was (and still is) overworked and underpaid. Overworked at her 9-5 job. Underpaid yet today, earning in the US 74 cents on the dollar compared to her male counterpart. And still she went home and does now to do the laundry and cook dinner!
(Hey, I am tired simply remembering what I did back then!)
And what has happened since the 1990s? We have had more frequent and more open conversations about such previously no-no topics as abortion, partial abortion, homosexuality, marriage rights, and invitro fertilization. Ancillary to those "sexually" oriented topics, we now converse (or in some cases, on cable news, we argue and bully each other) about individual rights vs. the common good, typified by the famous (or infamous, depending on your view) law demanding inter-vaginal sonogram of women seeking abortions, most notably argued in the State of Virginia and passed in the State of Texas.
No surprise then, that we are now at the point in our public discussions of eroticism. While erotic literature has been around since the Ancient Greeks, and erotic art since the Chinese depictions during the reign of Chin Shih Huang-ti, the Victorian period saw numerous publications devoted to it. The Pearl, a fave of mine, is one example.
But the modern proliferation of it aimed at this female readership can be marked in publishing with the advent of Virgin Books' Black Lace line in the 1990s and the establishment of Ellora's Cave in 2000. While the Black Lace line focused on readers who were upscale, literate and adventurous, the EC outreach spanned that market segment as well as the reader who wanted science fiction, paranormal, contemporary and historical aspects to her escapist fiction. The success of the EC model, in focus and method of digital delivery, is acclaimed by the proliferation of other houses which adopted the EC business model and cultivated that same readership.
Today, while 50 SHADES, et al, sits atop the Best seller lists every where in every format, we see that beneath her sales sit thousands of authors with thousands of erotic romances earning hundreds and thousands of dollars each month. The sales persist because the readers exist. They want to know about their bodies and their possibilities for enjoyment of sex and for the happy ending to their relationships. Their enthusiasm for this knowledge cannot be dampened. The public discussions about sexuality are too numerous. From the debate over whether or not Planned Parenthood should receive federal funds for women's health care to the passage of bills requiring women to do one thing or another with their own bodies, women are engaged in discovering their abilities, their potentials and their happiness.
Indicative of this demand by women is the case of the Florida library system that tried to ban 50 SHADES from its shelves. The library had to reneg. Why? Because women demanded it. And another truth, which the library system forgot in its haste, but learned quite readily after its ban: in the US, women continue to be the ones who read more than men. They read fiction more then men. They have a higher literacy rate. They buy most books, in fact, 80 % of what is sold each day in the US in a book store is bought by a woman. Women also encourage their children to read. And they contribute to local library fundraisers. Economic truth for this library and others: It's not a good idea to pi$$ off your patrons.
Yes, 50 SHADES as a best seller is a phenomenon. But as we already see, other erotica titles are on the best seller lists, too. A few before 50 SHADES hit. Many more to come.
Why? Because women will demand the reading material they need to relax and to become informed.
More than that, they will use it to become more powerful in their own sexuality and more comfortable with it.
As many do know, you can't keep a good woman down. Or away from a book that stirs her imagination and educates her at the same time!
PART III in a few days!
PART III in a few days!