Huffpost UK Culture uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Martel Maxwell Headshot

50 Shades of Grey: Why Women Are Reading it in Their Horny Droves

Posted: Updated:

"Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?" my friend Aileen was leaning in, her voice lowered conspiratorially.

Her eyeballs moved in their sockets extreme left and right; a strand of hair was in her cappuccino. I wondered if we were being followed.

"No," I breathed.

"Get it. It's basically porn. Huge in the States. Fabulous."

In the weeks that have passed since our conversation, E L James' trilogy, an erotic tale set in America of two lovers, has become a chart-topping phenomenon.

I know - I'm behind the times. Fifty Shades has spread like wildfire, igniting the nether regions of women all over the world.

My excuse? Getting married then honeymooning in Italy for most of May, where I read the classics. Silly me.

My reasoning for buying the first in the series upon return, was manifold. Well it would be. I'm British and female - I can't just gleefully rub my knees and tell you with husky voice that I want to read about sex.

I was also intrigued as to how something that is "basically porn" could achieve this mainstream success, knocking mighty The Hunger Games off the top spot after a 16-week reign in the U.S.

As a novelist who is toiling with the writing of sex scenes in her second book - having already had a few juicy episodes published in my first (Scandalous, published by Penguin) - my interest was piqued.

Completing even a sentence involving sex that is not cringe-worthy is tricky and I wanted to know just how E L James did it; how she had captivated so many people throughout what - my friend promised - was most of the book.

One hundred pages in and there was still no sex. It wasn't even very well written - not badly, but a bit immaturely. The character of the narrator, Ana, may only be 21 but a teenage Katniss manages clarity and wisdom in the sci-fi adventure trilogy The Hunger Games - though the books are obviously wildly different.

But every fifth word could have been Yugoslavian and I would still have kept reading because E L James' ability to build anticipation to the climax - or Ana's - is top drawer.

As I say, from experience I know good sex is very hard to write - more of that in a moment.

And this is precisely why my respect for E L James rocketed, circa page 113, paragraph two. Not that it's etched in my head.

She excels at sex - pages of it. She has you in the palm of her hand, feeling every sensation experienced by Ana at the hands of young billionaire Christian Grey.

It's rude - unafraid to foray into the dark world of sex where one is the dominant, the other the submissive. She gains our respect and attention because the field is incredibly well detailed and researched, leaving the mind boggling with beads, eggs, collars, bondage, flogging, whipping, caning, spanking and so much more.

By reading Fifty Shades, relationships - or some 'me time' - will have benefited, for there are only so many page-turning details you can read about Ana's climb to orgasm before you want one of your own.

On this note, couples looking spice things up on holiday should make Fifty Shades compulsory reading.

When my agent handed me back my first draft of Scandalous, she said: "We have a problem."

Like any self-respectfully insecure writer, I feared she had howled at the moon in agony at reading my words before showing all her friends and belly laughing - and not at the funny bits.

"It's good chick lit', she said.

Unlike some, I embrace the tag - and not in a sniffy "well Jane Austen was chick lit too" kind of way. My debut novel: Man Booker it 'aint. Me, it is.

We laugh at popular women's fiction at our peril, for E L James is proof of its popularity. She is also having the last laugh - all the way to her bank account at Coutts.

"But the sex scenes, Martel," my agent continued, "They're... well, they're awful."

I blushed.

"The rest of the book sounds like you, it sounds current. But 'throbbing manhood'? 'Pulsing member'? - it's like very bad Mills and Boon."

Purple of face, I knew she was right. I had never used any of these phrases to describe a penis and I'm not sure anyone ever has in actual conversation.

Since, I have admired any writer who can convey a love (though 'love' is not always present or necessary) scene that doesn't have the reader squirming.

Writing sex is a bit like having it - if you're awkward and uptight it's not going to be much fun for the guy, or in the case of books, the reader.

Start enjoying it and it feels natural and uncontrived.

Sex sells and of course this is nothing new.

The book I read before Fifty Shades was DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

The first edition was printed privately in 1928 in Florence - where I started it - because the story of the relationship between an upper class woman and working class man was too sexually explicit, with words then unprintable. Not until 1960 was it published openly in the United Kingdom.

Dios mio, I am not comparing the literary merits of the two books. But they do have similarities, which make for their success, no matter the era.

If either Lady Chatterley or Ana dropped their knickers in the first chapter, it would have been dull.

The sweetness of expectation makes for a thrilling climax, when it finally arrives, by which stage you have a vested interest in the characters.

If a message is to be transferred into real life, it is: don't put out on the first night.

The women are more adored the longer they hold out, though one could argue Lady Chatterley didn't exactly play hard to get. But still, her journey to liking - let alone loving - sex, builds throughout.

Women are not known for boasting about their love of porn but we are reading Fifty Shades in our horny droves - 100,000 of us in the first week to be precise, beating John Grisham, James Patterson and Suzanne Collins to the top of the charts.

After taking a stall to sell Scandalous at an event in Glasgow, I'm not surprised.

"Does it have sex in it?" a grandmother asked (I know she was a grandmother because she introduced me to her 12-year-old granddaughter.)

"Not really," I lied, not wanting to put her off.

"Oh well," she sighed and wandered off.

When asked again, I said: "Sex? Yeah, loads, I hope you've got good foundation - you'll be blushing. A lot."

And whoosh, these women took one, two, three - muttering things like "Oh my pal Eleanor will love it," and one: "that's right up my mum's street."

Our thirst for erotic fiction - or quasi porn - on the page is the key to James' success. She has simply given the market what it wants - and we really, really, really want sex.

Martel Maxwell is the author of romantic comedy Scandalous, £6.99, published by Penguin.

www.martelmaxwell.com