Last week, an unusual parcel landed in my letter box. It was wrapped in charcoal tissue tied with a stiff grey ribbon, and accompanied by a handwritten note from the publisher: "I thought you'd like to see what all the fuss was about."
Inside was a book with a black cover bearing a faded picture of a grey man's neck tie.
The book was Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, an erotic novel and internet publishing sensation. It's the story of Anastasia Steele, a 21-year-old college student whose innocence vanishes soon after she interviews the super-rich, super-handsome businessman Christian Grey for her college newspaper. Her nervous, bumbling ways lead Grey to believe she'd make a suitable "submissive" and he sets out to stalk, pursue and woo her into signing a contract by which she agrees to let him dominate and control her in all manner of ways. This being an erotic novel, Grey is of course an irresistible "Greek God" and Anastasia finds herself "beguiled" and heading down a path she never knew existed. And so on and so on.
The book originated as a work of "fan fiction" inspired by the Twilight vampire series, with chapters published on a website for amateur romance writers receiving a lot of reader attention. It was picked up and released as an e-book by independent publisher The Writer's Coffee Shop, and its popularity grew through word-of-mouth recommendations. The e-book went on to sell 250,000 copies, hitting number one on the New York Times e-book bestseller list and attracting huge publicity.
Its apparent housewifely readership inspired the term "mommy porn", and in the US the book supposedly prompted a run on grey silk neck ties, just like the one Christian uses to, er, secure Anastasia, in certain explicit scenes.
Two sequels rapidly followed - Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed - and now the rights to publish the trilogy in print form have been purchased by Random House, reportedly for more than NZ$1 million. The company released 750,000 copies of the trilogy in the US last month and it is now available in New Zealand.
Part of the book's online success has been attributed to the rising popularity of e-readers. Readers can download the book discreetly and read it on the bus or in a café, without anyone knowing it is an erotic novel (save perhaps, for a tell-tale blush or two.)
Whether the printed novel will prove such a success for Random House remains to be seen. The mainstream branding, discreet cover and incredible hype may well attract some readers who would usually avoid erotica or romance. On the other hand, part of the book's indie allure as a secret recommendation passed from one woman to another will be lost with its conversion to conventional publication.
Like that other exceedingly popular novel The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey will win no prizes for its prose. There are far too many references to Anastasia's irritating inner goddess doing back flips and jumping up and down like a five-year-old, while her subconscious purses her lips or taps her foot. And there are some exceedingly awful descriptions (notably the one in which our heroine refers to a key piece of her beloved's equipment as her, ahem, Popsicle) which would almost certainly be worthy contenders for the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award, were that prize not limited to literary novels.
I'm no connoisseur of erotic or romantic fiction, but given the rigorous selection requirements of Mills & Boon I'd hazard a guess that many of the novels published under its Harlequin erotic imprints would have more attention paid to plot, language, character and motivation than is evident here.
But perhaps focusing on the novel's technical attributes is missing the point. Clearly thousands of readers have been willing to be diverted by the story of Miss Steele and Mr Grey, or at least willing to buy a copy of the e-book to see what all the fuss is about, (presumably at a far cheaper price before Random House got involved). It's easy reading and if you like things a little bit raunchy and can suspend your disbelief and your desire to - if you'll pardon the expression - slap the heroine for having so little self respect, you might enjoy it.
If you can't bring yourself to buy a copy, you could always wait for the movie. In a deal said to be worth US$5 million, E.L. James has sold the rights to the trilogy to Universal Pictures and Focus Features. But how will these plot-light novels translate to the big screen? And will women be as comfortable watching scenes of bondage and discipline in a public cinema as they seem to be reading the novel in the privacy of their own homes?
If you're curious to know more about writing erotic fiction, watch out next week for our Q&A with New Zealand author Leigh Marsden, author of Scarlet (described by publisher Penguin New Zealand as the most sexually explicit book it had ever published) and Crush. If you have any questions send us an email here.