The Cultural Triumph of Erotica in 2015, From ‘Fifty Shades’ to High Art

sexloverepeatWhen asked last month if she had to fight for any changes to the film adaptation of her novel Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James responded, “Oh, I had to fight for a lot of things really hard,” adding, “it’s things like this, within any creative process, when you’re the auteur of a whole universe.”

Surveying the cultural landscape in 2015, it is beginning to seem that James is not merely the creator and protector of one fictional universe, but rather the accidental auteur of the entire cultural sphere. There is no denying, to begin with, the newfound weight of erotic fiction in Hollywood now that the adaptation of James’ book has grossed more than $500 million worldwide. And, already, in the wake of the film’s release, Hollywood and television are clambering to produce more romance and erotica adaptations. Of particular interest is the forthcoming adaptation of the bestselling erotic fan-fiction Beautiful Bastard, not only because it is another erotic adaptation, but also because it is another adaptation of erotic fan-fiction. It seems to confirm that the success of E.L. James has launched a new phase of the American Dream, one that suggests fans of a given fictional world can become bestselling authors. If under the regime of Netflix Capitalism we’re all made to be fans of something, maybe we can also be entrepreneurs. E.L. James and the new erotica herald the rise of the fantrepreneur.

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But erotica’s burgeoning cultural legitimacy is not restricted to mass entertainment. In the realm of contemporary art, too, the new erotica is making its imprint. This month, Paul Chan, artist and winner of 2014’s Hugo Boss Prize, released the first in a series of erotic novellas through his publishing house, Badlands Unlimited. And although the convergence of high art and erotica is not necessarily new — Chan modeled his venture partially on Olympia Press, which published erotica alongside writers like Burroughs and Beckett in the 1950s and 1960s — it’s safe to say that the art world is no longer shy about its sellability, so long as it is written and packaged according to taste. Chan notes that, aside from his longstanding interest in erotica, its publication is one way of sustaining his press. “I was interested in whether or not I could make a go of publishing erotica,” Chan told ARTnews, “so I can then fund more experimental works.”

Back at ground level, in the mundane realm of publishing, erotica has likewise altered the picture. Though erotica and its tamer cousin, romance, have always driven sales in the industry, both are now in the coveted position of opening up new markets. In particular, Amazon’s dream of automating publishing, of cutting out pesky editors, agents — anyone, basically, who can be seen as a functionary of red tape — is being realized by a vanguard of erotic fiction fantrepreneurs. On the March list of self-published ebook fictions alone, compiled from multiple lists by Galleycat, eight of the top ten are erotic or romantic-erotic novels, including Married to the Bad Boy and Falling for My Best Friend’s Brother. Erotic fiction, in fact, has dominated the list for all of 2015.
theirstepsisterThe migration to erotic fiction is not just the maneuver of fandom, though. It seems that employers, too, are spending more to hire writers of erotica. One site that connects companies to freelance writers, Elance-oDesk.com, reports that since the release of the Fifty Shades trailer, it has seen a 39 percent increase in money spent hiring erotic writers and a doubling of their freelance assignments.

New cultural frontiers, too, are opening up for and because of erotica. Since the publication of Fifty Shades, audio erotica under the aegis of big publishing has taken off. And this still relatively new phenomenon comes with the added bonus of a generative and regenerative fan base. As Susie Bright, the veteran sex writer and editor of Best American Erotica, told Publisher’s Weekly in 2013, “When they find their Jane Eyre,” Bright said, “it keeps selling and selling. Once they discover these authors, [they] want to hear everything they’ve ever done.”

It’s impossible to say whether Fifty Shades was the harbinger of or merely the conduit for erotica’s climb to cultural ubiquity, but it certainly opened to floodgates to its monetization. On the other hand, the renewed and enhanced cultural legitimacy of erotica may continue to knock down walls and open up the past. We’re beginning to reconsider, for example, the role of erotica and its publishers in the advancement of the Gay Rights Movement. In either case, it’s fair to say that “erotica” has become a safeword in American culture.