Away with this darkness

09 February 2020 - 00:00 By Jennifer platt

Published in the Sunday Times (09/02/2020) 

EL James's 50 Shades of Grey is a book unicorn. In 2012 people began furiously reading, they actually walked into actual bookstores to buy the trilogy - from young adults who shielded it behind their Twilight book covers to grandmas who hid it under their floral quilts to read by torchlight.

It became an online success. The book helped sell millions of ebook readers to yummy mummies. There have been reams of tl;dr (too long; didn't read) articles debating its relevance, feminist vs antifeminist messages, asking whether it was representative of true BDSM, asking why women readers engage with it despite its awful writing. Really, mostly just all old man yelling at cloud stuff.

Bottom line is it sold 150 million copies worldwide and has been announced the runaway bestseller of the last decade. It
also started an erotic lit revolution. But has that come to an end? Is good old-fashion romance taking over?

It must be noted that romance novels never went away. To be part of the revolution, they evolved. They became steamier and raunchier, with Mills & Boon even creating a rival for 50 Shades with their mummy porn series called Twelve Shades of Surrender. The magic formula was to have a number in the title and a colour (but that was not as mandatory) and out came Eighty Days Yellow by Vina Jackson, For 100 Days by Lara Adrian, A Million Dirty Secrets by CL Parker, with loads more exploding online.

The author who went head to head with James was romance writer Sylvia Day. Also an online and self-published phenomenon, her Crossfire erotic lit series, featuring an anti-hero, was picked up by a publisher for a seven-figure deal. Day was the only author who successfully toppled James off the number one spot on the bestseller list. With over 20 novels sold in more than 41 countries, Day secured another seven-figure deal last year for her latest book, Butterfly in Frost.

Then there was the slow burner Outlander series, which Diana Gabaldon started writing in the late '80s. The books were published in 1990 and became bestsellers, but it was the TV show, which premiered in 2014, that propelled the series to worldwide success. The books were a bridge between bodice rippers and the more modern mommy porn. Gabaldon's historical fiction, time-travel tale confidently straddled both.

But that was last decade. In 2020, moody billionaire heroes who are into spanking are passé and the old-fashion woo is much sought after. Jane Austen is back, front and centre. There are two books this year that explore other characters from Pride and Prejudice. Out this month is Janice Hadlow's The Other Bennet Sister, about Mary, the bookish, ugly duckling of the Bennet sisters. It pays homage to Austen with its central theme of Mary trying to find the right man.

Then in May comes Charlotte by author, poet and editor Helen Moffett, one of our favourite reviewers. Her tale takes a feminist spin and explores Charlotte Lucas's life - Elizabeth Bennet's best friend who married Mr Collins after Elizabeth rejects him.

Another local author to look out for is Jo Watson, who writes funny, lovable romcoms that have become ebook bestsellers. Her first novel, Burning Moon, was Wattpad's (a site where writers and readers can publish new user-generated stories) most downloaded title in 2014, with over seven million reads online. Her Love To Hate You has over 10 million reads and was an ebook bestseller in 2018. Finally, she is being published for print by Headline. Look out for her novel, You, Me, Forever, next month.

Old-fashioned romance, epic love tales (see Isabel Allende's A Long Petal of the Sea) and fun, light romcoms seem to be the new escape readers want in these heavy times. Less kegel balls and more ballroom dances, please. @Jenniferdplatt