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I’ve been boggled recently by the number of authors who hold onto this stance that EL James somehow “invented,” made “mainstream,” or “legitimized” erotica. Erotica and the porn industry is a multi-BILLION dollar a year industry and has been for decades. You can’t get much more “mainstream” and “legitimate” when you are raking in that kind of sales every year.
The simple fact of the matter is, there were thousands of erotica writers already out in social media long before EL James came onto the scene, along with millions of erotic novels. James did not “pave the way” for erotica any more than Stephen King “paved the way” for horror or that Stephanie Meyer “paved the way” for vampires. People were already talking about erotic literature with their coworkers, erotic authors advertised their work on social media, there were already thousands of active forums and social media groups and websites devoted to talking about and advertising erotica, we were already discussing it in our book clubs, and we were already talking about it with friends. Erotica was already mainstream and a legitimate literature genre long before EL James. She may have become the poster child for the genre and made more money off of it than anyone else, but the genre was already very well established and doing very well long before her books were released. It is much the same way that while George Lucas and Gene Roddenbury may have made more money off of science fiction than many other sci-fi authors, the genre was alive and well long before they decided to join the ranks of HG Wells.
Erotica has had, and still has, a huge following, hundreds of millions of readers and thousands of authors all discussing the art form. All James’ books did was drawn in the very small minority of readers who had shied away from the genre. They picked up the book and began singing its praises. People who already read and appreciated the genre bought it to see what all the fuss was about, and most promptly tossed it to the side in favor of better writers because, again, they were already heavily into the genre and had been for years (multi-BILLION dollar industry, remember?). Despite the sales numbers, more people dislike the story than those who did like it, because again, there were more people already into the genre who were used to better written literature than there were “novice” readers who had just stumbled upon the genre. James’ success is certainly uncanny, but she certainly didn’t “legitimatize” the industry.
There has been websites dedicated to erotic literature for decades now, and many of these authors have a very large following and a lot of success. Case in point – the above screen shot. This is a snippet of a list of the most read erotic stories on an adult website I used to write for. In case you can’t wrap your mind around the number of reads on that first story, it is 11,073,078. That’s over 11 MILLION reads on that story. The next one is over 8 MILLION reads. Just the first 11 stories (and that site hosts hundreds of thousands of stories and authors) on that site have more than 45 MILLION reads total. That’s pretty damn “mainstream” and “legitimate” for a genre which everyone seems to think didn’t appear until James’ got published, especially considering some of those stories came out years before 50 Shades.
Let’s also not forget Anne Rice’s Beauty Trilogy which was also a very successful BDSM publication which came out in the 80s, and also her book Exit to Eden. In addition, there are also the hundreds upon hundreds of Harlequin novels and authors which have been around for decades. These weren’t books being read in the privacy of people’s homes, they were being toted around on school campuses, to work, being talked about on social media and in book clubs. The billions and billions of people who already enjoyed the genre were already talking about it. James just got the other 20% of the population talking about it, too. While that is certainly something to be admired, it hardly makes her a “founding father” of the genre. While *you* i.e. the small number of readers who weren’t already into the genre may not have noticed what was going on in the literary world prior to 50 Shades, erotica was being written, it was being talked about it, and it was being advertised just as much as it has been since 50 Shades was released. People just didn’t notice it prior to James. It’s like saying murder and all the horrible things in the world weren’t happening before the days of social and broadcast media. Yes, it was. It’s just much more accessible now thanks to the media.
In summary, James has without a doubt become the poster child for erotica. However, there is a huge difference between being the poster child for a genre and actually being the first person who ever wrote in it. It is also a huge stretch to consider her the person who somehow broke down barriers on a genre that was already raking in over $4 BILLION dollars a year and which had several million erotic books already on Amazon’s virtual bookshelves. A poster child she may be, but erotica was already mainstream long before she came along, and it will continue to exist long after the next big craze hits.