One of the many things that people purport to have learned from Fifty Shades of Grey is that women want to read sexy things. (Maybe men do, too, but let's admit that both the main target demo and readership of erotica like Fifty Shades consists of women.) This learning is based on sales of the book. The sales are highly impressive, reaching the 20 million mark in the U.S. this summer. Ladies must really, really want to read erotica. They're not, after all, buying Fifty Shades for the quality of prose.
Of course erotica, even the BDSM kind, has been around for a lot longer than the first book in the Fifty Shades trilogy. When we applaud ourselves for discovering this whole new untapped genre (that has actually existed for ages), we can't separate the popularity of the books from the hype about the books. All this media attention, all these people talking and writing about the series, positively or negatively, gets more and more people to buy the series. The sales secret of Fifty Shades is not sex. It is publicity, a publicity machine, really. The amazing, unexpected, frequently grassroots publicity about this book, and not the content, is what's new.
Nonetheless, book publishing is like any other business, trying to note trends and capitalize upon them to improve a financial bottom line, and willing to, in some cases, incorporate what is or appears to be popular to help sell books. Book covers are getting revamped to look more like Fifty Shades' covers, whether we're talking about Anne Rice novels or teen classics. And there's content development, too: Where we once saw Pride and Prejudice being rewritten as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, now we're getting "Sexy Pride and Prejudice," and "Sexy Versions of Other Classics You Probably Read in High School."
Stefanie Cohen writes in a piece on the topic in the Wall Street Journal,
As the steamy "Fifty Shades of Grey" and both of its sequels dominate best-seller lists, an enterprising electronic publishing house will publish on Monday a sadomasochistic version of Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre," as well as sexed-up renderings of tales by Ms. Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne.
This particular new sexy series (and it's one of several) is called "Clandestine Classics"; it's produced by Total E-Bound, an erotic e-book company that's been in the business for five years already. Claire Siemaszkiewicz, the company's chief executive, told Cohen that the Clandestine series had been in the works prior to all this Fifty Shades frenzy, not that she's unhappy about this new "trend," which has surely made marketing them that much easier. There's a built-in peg.
What can readers expect in the books? "Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy start groping any time they can slip away from their stuffy friends" (risque!), and both Verne's and Conan Doyle's books incorporate gay themes. You can do this kind of thing, snazzing or sexing up the classics, because these works are in the public domain and therefore free of pesky copyright laws. So, five erotica writers added sex scenes to the originals—"the essential prose remains mostly unchanged, supplemented by 10,000 words or more which promise to take readers 'behind the closed bedroom doors of our favourite, most-beloved British characters,' the website states," continuing:
Learn what Sherlock really thought of Watson, what Mr Darcy really wanted to do to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and unveil the sexy escapades of Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre.
Charmingly, the book prices relate to how many "new words" have been added.
The most interesting thing about these new sexy classics, though, is that historians and scholars are already reading and commenting, and pointing out historical inaccuracies. For instance, as one noted, the clothing that Darcy and Elizabeth would have worn would not have allowed the ease of removal evidenced in the new sexy scenes. The books, then, represent freedom from a Victorian corset. Or as Siemaszkiewicz puts it, the authors themselves were trapped in the fashions of their time—"I like to think if the Brontë sisters were writing today, their books would be a lot racier," she told the Journal.
If the Brontë sisters were writing today, would they be writing Fifty Shades of Grey, though? We hope not. Sometimes a girl just wants to read a polite comedy of manners, prudishness and Victorian sensibilities and repressed emotions and most of all the hint rather than the reality of sex. Really.