Not even the great literary classics are safe from the Fifty Shades of Grey effect. Erotica has burst out of the Adult section and is now firmly in the main stream.
Following on the heels of the salacious erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and its unprecedented rise to mainstream success, authors in search of renown have been quick to imitate E.L. James’s writing style in all genres of fiction. A typical trip down the adult fiction section of your local bookstore nowadays will reveal an overwhelming amount of glossy-bound paperbacks with dark backgrounds and sensual close-up images of sexually suggestive items (handcuffs, keys, satin – you name it). Thanks to Fifty Shades, the doors to erotica were swung wide open, making the genre more socially acceptable than ever before.
Though hardly an original thought – sexy, romantic novels have been around for ages in the form of cheap paperbacks – erotic stories have gained traction in the literary market primarily due to Fifty Shades of Grey bringing down the wall that had previously separated mainstream fiction and “guilty pleasure” reads. After James’s rise to success, the two worlds could now coexist. Being spotted on the train with a copy of a sex novel no longer meant disapproving glares or raised eyebrows – it just meant you were trending with the times. With an ever-increasing readership clamoring for more, no genre of literature remained safe from the all-encompassing might of mainstream sexualization.
This summer marked the sudden popularity of another genre of erotic fiction: scandalous retellings of classic literature. Naturally, the ever-popular Jane Austen and Brontë romance novels were among the first to be targeted. Here are just a few of the literary gems flying off the shelves at your local bookstore:
Jane Eyre Laid Bare reads the cover in white font against a dark background displaying a suggestive, magenta corset. “The classic novel with an erotic twist,” promises the subtitle. The back cover assures you that “this is not your mother’s Jane Eyre.” The amalgamation is credited to both Charlotte Brontë and Eve Sinclair – but really, how much of Brontë’s work remains in this lurid sex romp, aside from the characters’ names? Jane Eyre was certainly considered scandalous for its time due to the dark subject material, overly impassioned characters and, yes, underlying sensual tension. Yet the nineteenth century’s understanding of sensuality was worlds away from our modern society’s oversexed and overstimulated perspective. There is no doubt that a powerful attraction is certainly implicit between Mr. Rochester and the titular Jane, but Jane Eyre Laid Bare somehow manages to translate that subtle sensuality into voyeurism, lesbian ventures, and gratuitous sex scenes crammed into the book at every possible moment. The two worlds simply do not mix well. Sinclair’s writing itself is jarring, dropped suddenly and without ceremony into Brontë’s meticulously interwoven world of social taboos and societal expectations.
Jane Austen’s ever-popular Pride and Prejudice fares equally unwell in this new sexualized environment of storytelling. As a forerunner amidst nineteenth-century romance novels and thus enjoying greater renown, Pride and Prejudice has been refurbished and represented as “erotica” several times by now, all by different authors, each one more lurid than the last. Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Forbidden Lovers by Ann Herendeen, is touted as “the book Jane Austen would have written, if only she’d had the nerve!” Despite the adoring reviews, it doesn’t seem quite plausible that Austen secretly imagined her Mr. Darcy involved in homosexual relations with Mr. Bingley. Austen’s entire world becomes awkwardly clustered with innuendo as Herendeen wildly transforms even platonic friendships into opportunities for sexual relations. Literary critics may roll their eyes in disdain, yet the books still get picked up, flipped through, and sold to thousands of eager audiences. This kind of marketing sells, regardless of the damage it does to the integrity of the classic.
The list goes on with Wuthering Nights, which sinks the impassioned tale of Heathcliff and Catherine to new lows with the same disturbing bondage imagery made popular by Fifty Shades of Grey, while Mr. Darcy’s Bite capitalizes on the trending vampire romances following Twilight’s unparalleled success. There seems to be no reprieve.
It’s a shame, really – young people who have never been exposed to these classics outside of a classroom might now take up the initiative to read them only if they come with the promise of sexual escapades scrawled across the back cover. Turning tried-and-true literature into opportunities for mindless gratification only serves to maim the original author’s work and encourage readers to view this kind of creative license as normal. How many more retellings of timeless works do we need before our curiosity for the scandalous is satiated? How many more classics will be shamelessly stuffed with morally-debasing scenes before this genre of fiction loses traction for good? Unfortunately, judging by mainstream acceptance, it appears that they might be here to stay.