There. I thought that would grab your jaded Monday morning attention. What’s there to say about sex? To start with, I’m given to understand there’s a lot of it about. Humans (men, anyway) are supposedly hardwired to think about it every nine seconds, and something like seven-eighths of the internet seems to be devoted to various aspects of it. Sex, and its more respectable sidekicks, love and romance, are fairly central themes of fiction all round. There’s not much these days that doesn’t feature one or the other, or both, or all three.
It’s a good while since I came to the decision that too much sex is normally best left out of the work in progress. It’s not that I have a problem with a bit of horizontal jogging in my fiction, I’m no prude in that department. It’s more that it’s just so damned hard to strike the right balance and write about sex in a way that doesn’t raise a laugh or an embarrassed groan – or both. One reader’s sizzling seduction scene is another’s custard pie slapstick, and it’s a difficult line to tread between the two. There’s a lot to be said for those three dots that imply it’s time for the reader’s imagination to take up the slack.
My arrival at crime fiction was by a roundabout route that certainly wasn’t headed that way to start with and I’d certainly looked at other things on the way before deciding to head for the then relatively sparse uplands of Gloomy Nordic Crime Fiction. Fortunately, or unfortunately, whichever way you want to look at it, I was tapping out my first (published) novel just around the time that Stieg Larsson’s was making its arrival in Sweden, so my arrival on the bookshelves was a few months behind his – and since then Nordic Crime Fiction is everywhere. That’s no bad thing, as far as I’m concerned, the more the better.
A couple of years ago I asked an editor what I should be writing, wondering what the next big thing would be. Scandi crime fiction was already here (hopefully, to stay) by then and vampires were starting to take over the world, not for the first time – making this a bandwagon that was already too late to be jumped on.
‘Not sure, darling,’ this editor mused, describing the forays into gay erotic vampire fiction that she had been working with and unexpectedly predicting the return of the old-fashioned bodice-ripper as the coming thing.
Well, she was partly right. Bodice ripping appears to be back with a vengeance, but not in a way that anyone suggested. Three bodice-shredding volumes of Fifty Shades of Grey are all over every airport book stall after a new twist on rumpy-pumpy (as British tabloids so coyly refer to sex) is back, spiced up with some spanking and made commuter friendly by your ereader and branded as erotica rather than whatever you might want to call it.
Other publishers are tripping over themselves in indecent haste to join the party. It’s remarkable that the publishing business as a whole that really doesn’t like to be taken by surprise, and which likes lead-in times on a practically geological scale between a writer handing over a manuscript and the finished article appearing on a bookstore shelf can actually do things quickly when it’s time to keep up with the Joneses.
Fifty Shades of Grey appeared from nowhere as an ebook, taking mainstream publishing by surprise by sneaking unnoticed along the wing and becoming one of those word-of-mouth successes that come along every few years. It’s already been dismissed as badly-written mummy-porn. I haven’t read it and I’m not going to judge it, but there have been plenty of unfriendly pastiches and sour criticisms. In fact, it’s always easy to sneer at something that becomes a moneyspinning mainstream success; Dan Brown’s stuff, the overblown later Harry Potter books, Jeffrey Archer’s clunky stories.
But the fact remains that EL James’s much derided venture has made something hugely successful out of good ol’ fashioned sex. It’s at #1 in the Kindle chart and has spawned a publishing boom of its own, complete with detractors and imitations. ELJ has managed to snaffle the jackpot by doing the right thing at the right time, tapping into a demand for erotica of a kind that surely someone had been writing before, that appears to be largely aimed at women.
It’s a bizarre business and getting lucky in the way that EL James and JK Rowling did is largely down to chance. While it’s possible to sell ice cream to Inuits with the right kind of smart marketing, this kind of runaway success isn’t something that can be engineered.
Or can it? Is there a market there for a series featuring an irresistible Nordic crimefighting vampire who pings the buttons off well-filled bodices with a single smouldering glance? Do bodices have buttons?
I may be some time. There’s some bodice-related research that needs doing and then I may have a proposal and some sample chapters to write.