The Mysterious Sausage

Something struck me during all the coverage a certain book has been getting – to the point where I had to make words with my fingers about it, here. After all, it’s pretty apropos, considering. And by apropos, I probably mean something else altogether because I’m not quite sure if apropos is really the right word. Maybe I’m looking for more of a fitting or a salient, and should just go with them, instead.

Either way, I digress,

When what I really wanted to say was:

50 Shades of Grey? Is not really all that unconventional.

I mean, the news keeps saying it is. Mainstream sorts of people are discussing it in hushed tones, amazed that women like something so daring. But all that did was flag up (again) a major disconnect, for me, between the majority of people and the world of erotic romance.

Because in the world of erotic romance, 50 Shades isn’t unconventional at all. It isn’t even slightly risque, or a tiny bit daring. In fact, it slots right in like a nice oblong sort of thing into a kind of…awkward…diamond shaped hole? Or maybe a hole that sounds less as though I don’t know what vaginas really look like?

Or penises, for that matter, because seriously…oblong is what I come up with, when I’m trying to be coy? I don’t even know what I was thinking. Penises aren’t oblong! They’re more like…uh…um…they’re more like sausages, even though sausages don’t really go with the theme I’m trying for, here. Triangle, circle, square…sausage.

Yeah, you see – it doesn’t go. No kid is going to play with that toy set. Mostly I think they’ll just be confused, that in amongst their brightly coloured and perfectly symmetrical plastic shapes, there’s a mysterious sausage.

And to be honest, I know how they feel. Because I don’t know how a mysterious sausage got into this post, either. I can’t even remember what I was talking about, now – or at the very least I don’t know how to segue back into it. So I think I’ll just go with something awkward and laboured, like:

50 Shades isn’t a mysterious sausage. It’s a normal triangle. It’s the opposite of unconventional: it’s standard. Because let’s face it…femsub is hardly a new concept, in the world of erotic romance. And even if you’re thinking of the more wonktastical, cutting edge sort of femsub…well.

50 Shades ain’t it.

I mean, just look at some of the contents:

* Billionaire hero – arrogant, aloof, closed off. Sound familiar? It should. Harlequin has been featuring heroes like that for years. Nay – decades.

And then there’s the heroine:

* Timid, out of her depth, no idea she’s a submissive.

I mean, that’s almost every book Ellora’s Cave has ever put out. They’re the ones who broke ground with female characters like that. Hell, Black Lace broke ground with that type of heroine back in, like, 1993.

So what has made it so popular? Is it the Twilight connection? Certainly a lot has been made of it being Twilight for Moms, but then…isn’t Twilight already Twilight for Moms? That idea makes no sense for me anyway, because the book bears little resemblance to its source – to the point where it kind of irritates me that people moan about it being fanfiction.

It isn’t fanfiction. It’s just Robert Pattinson’s face pasted onto a hero’s, really, which is about the same thing that 90% of the authors I know do.

No, no, it’s not the Twilight thing. I think the classy covers and the air of respectability about them has more to do with its success, than Twilight, in all honesty. Which leads me to one other idea, that circles back around on what I was trying to say in the first place.

It’s not its unconventionality that has made it popular. I think it’s the very familiarity of it – a familiarity that’s now suddenly on the cusp of being acceptable, in the mainstream. I’ve certainly noticed that erotic romance is starting to crossover into just romance, now. Even the tamest of lines and labels are featuring books that have a higher sex content – something that would have been unthinkable, ten years ago. That’s why erotic romance as a genre was needed – to fill that gap in women’s reading.

And that’s what 50 Shades is doing now – only out in the open. Those crisp, clean, acceptable covers! The veneer of mainstream that’s already on them, with a connection to a “normal” book! And to top it off, the content is what women have been wanting to read (and have been reading all along, on the sly) all this time.

They’ve just been waiting for the Washington Post to catch up.

All of which is very heartening, in one way, to me. Erotic content is becoming acceptable, it’s becoming normal. People are starting to realise that women actually do have sexual fantasies and feelings, and want to explore them. I’m all for that!

But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that the truly wonktastic is being marginalised, yet again. In holding up 50 Shades as something new and surprising (when really it’s anything but), all those weird heroes and femdom heroines and strange stories about odd feelings get sidelined, yet again.

If 50 Shades is weird, I’m weirder. We’re weirder. And though I pretend otherwise and champion the strange and the odd, I do long for the day when that’s not the case. When my beta hero isn’t berated, for being a bit sad. When someone’s strong heroine isn’t criticised, for being just that.

When the truly unconventional is loved, as much as its opposite.



About Charlotte Stein

Charlotte is a writer of erotica and erotic romance, with a book currently out from Black Lace, and an almost-novella in the works with Total-E-Bound! Read more >
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24 Responses to The Mysterious Sausage

  1. Serena Bell says:

    Hilarious about the oblong and the diamond–took me a while to stop laughing so I could read the rest, which was also great. I really need to get with the program–have been vaguely following that there is something going on out there with a mainstream book with BDSM elements, but that is as far as my brain has made it.

    I think I’m actually slightly hopeful about what this means for “the weird.” In general, I love it when anything “new” about sex gets into the “mainstream” because I loathe how puritanical our culture usually is. The whole point of pushing boundaries–in writing and in our personal lives–the whole point of wonk, is that it’s the leading edge. So I guess my thought is, yeah, if you put the public’s stamp of approval on femsub, you temporarily draw the line at femdom–but then a couple of years from now, that gets its turn in the sun, because I think when you tear down people’s assumptions, they get more willing to keep considering the “new & surprising.” Until it isn’t so much. And then you’re the new normal.

    • I forget that you’re more from the romance side than the erotic side, hon! Now I feel like we’re corrupting you – but in a totally good way. It’s a gentle induction into the world of ferocious bonking!

      And you’re absolutely right. That’s my hope, too – that even though it’s currently in the shadows, other stuff leading the way will bring it to light!

  2. Ruthie says:

    Great points here, Charlotte. The Fifty Shades hoopla seems, to some extent, like just another variation on the old “Homigod! Women like sex!” theme (followed, as usual, by the “End of the World as We Know It!” theme) (with a healthy dose of “Guys, Let’s Get Some While the Gettin’ Some’s Hot!” theme).

    But I think you’re right that there’s something more going on here in terms of the encroaching of erotic romance into the mainstream. Someone described Fifty Shades as “Harlequin Presents on crack,” and it really IS. It’s like a Presents novel, but first-person, with a giant dose of Dark and Brooding Sex (which, as far as I understand it, is the function of BDSM in the book — not regular sex, but Evil, Bad, Ooh-Gimme-Some-More Sex).

    The cover says to women who don’t read romance, “This book is acceptable. It’s not one of *those*.” The media says, “Ooh, it’s nasty-good! You bad, bad ladies for reading that! You go, girls!” And the message that’s left at the end of the day for those of us who do read and write erotic romance is a little depressing.

    But on the other hand, I’m always glad when people are reading. Like Amber, I can’t get down with the Fifty Shades shaming thing. I always shake my head at the Twilight and Harry Potter hate. They were good stories. Not perfect stories, but eminently readable ones.

    Maybe some of the kajillion Fifty Shades readers will find their way to the shores of the Wider World of Wonk.

    • LOL your first paragraph beautifully sums up the whole matter. And you’re right, too, that although there is that depressing aftertaste for erotic romance writers and readers, there’s also a glorious, burgeoning sense of women reading stuff like this and not being ashamed.

      And I don’t see why we should be. 50 Shades may be quite conventional in terms of erotic romance, but that doesn’t make it invalid. Calling it fanfiction, or scorning it because women read it doesn’t make it invalid. As much as I’d like other stuff to be as welcomed as this traditional sort of femsub is, I’d never want to discount the power of female sexual expression in all its forms.

      And as for Twilight and Harry Potter…I think it’s far too easy to dismiss both as popular fiction, and at the same time (with Twilight in particular) dismiss female fantasy as somehow less than.

  3. Fun blog :) With Serena, I was having fun laughing and playing with shapes as well (could be in the Highlights magazine…. find the shape that doesn’t fit…).

    As a Blaze author, one of my favorite things has been having very sexy romance right there on the grocery store shelves for 10 years now… well, 11? I lose track. It’s like a naughty little secret right there in Wegmans, etc. Only the people who know what it is know what it is — and there’s something delicious in that. :)


    • I love Blaze books for precisely that reason! The Harlequin label pretends to the outside world that they’re normal romances…but secretly…inside…

      We all know they’re naughty.

      We’ve all always known. It’s hilarious, really, that the rest of the world is just catching up!

  4. Karla Doyle says:

    I love this post–for its content and for Charlotte’s special way of spinning words. :)
    I haven’t read 50 Shades, and honestly, I probably won’t, simply because I have a list of books by wonktastic authors that I’d rather read in my precious spare time. But I have been watching the frenzy surrounding this book. It boggles. Then, that’s mainstream media, skewing facts and messing with public perception at a dizzying speed.

    • LOL thanks bb. And totally! I love that sense of them grabbing a story as though it’s fresh and new, when it’s old news to all of us. It’s like some secret underground of women in the know, that the media has no idea about!

  5. I look at a book like that, then I look at When in Rio, and just think…um, hello? Where have you people BEEN? But really I think the big difference (and I’ve said this for years) is the cover. I don’t think the book is very good, but I’m all over that lovely monochromatic cover with zero romance tropes on it. There’s this huge insistence that romance covers must have couples/moresomes/clinches/nekkid bodies/what-have-you lest anyone miss the fact that Here Be Bonkin’. Well most of us purchase the books knowing that they contain bonking or a reasonable approximation thereof; why not have a cover that discusses something ELSE about the book, for heaven’s sake? This is the real change I’m hoping this sparks, that publishers will start realizing that the question isn’t “does a shirtless hunk or a semi-clad clinch sell better? which of these do women prefer?” but rather “does this non-sexual cover sell better than this clinch cover”?

    The gray tie, actually, that whole guy-in-a-tailored-suit vibe, is a pretty major dog whistle to a lot of submissives. But I somehow doubt this author knew that. In a way it’s very specifically sexualized for me as a visual, much more so than a clinch would be. Not just because I’m a submissive, but because I’m, you know…a girl, not a guy. Explicit visuals are not the direct line to making my ladyparts tingle. But something that suggests I might be bound with a tie? *fans self* We all know those early covers were designed for male buyers at the distribution level, not the end users. Let’s have some covers that push girlie buttons for a change.

    • Fantastic points, Del – in fact, everyone is coming up with these amazing points! I feel like I’ve unwittingly stumbled into making an actually intelligent post. Or at the very least, I’ve stumbled into something that other people can talk about intelligently.

      And LOL – yeah. Your first line is exactly what I’ve been thinking! My friends have been writing this for years!

      Think you’re dead on about the suggestion in the cover, too. It’s classy, but there’s definitely a code underneath it. And sometimes, subtext and suggestion can be more powerful than overt in-your-faceness.

      Plus, as you say…for a long time erotic covers have been geared towards men. The author Kristina Lloyd did a whole campaign about the amount of nude women on the covers of erotica – even erotica aimed at women, as Black Lace was.

  6. Amber says:

    I wonder if the overwhelming popularity of 50 Shades is due to the fact that the heroine is a self-identified vanilla and (apparently?) remains so through the book/series. If you assume that most women are vanilla, or at least self-identify as such, then they have more in common with her than the average BDSM romance heroine, who is secretly a submissive (whether she knew it or not). To be honest, though this point may seem small, it is extremely rare in all that BDSM fiction out there. I can’t remember ever seeing it, actually…

    The idea I keep coming back to is that there are books that are good, just because they are good (well written, interesting premise, nuanced characterizations) and there are fantasy books. A book can be both, of course, which is the holy grail for readers. But anyway, fantasy books can have a lot of flaws, but if they fulfill a fantasy of ours, who cares? It seems to me that this books fulfills a fantasy a lot of women have. The rest doesn’t really matter. I see a lot of people jumping up and down and pointing to the particulars, but that’s not going to have any affect on… anything.

    It’s actually depressing for me when I see people in the romance community bash 50 Shades. Romance/erotica readers get enough grief from the general public without also getting bashed from the genre itself. How can we expect them to want to read more romance/erotica books when we basically called them stupid for liking one?

    • Ruthie says:

      Exactly. “You like the wrong book! Shame on you!” When they just read, like, 2,100 pages of erotic romance, and we should be all, “Well, HAI! Come on over this-a-way, and I’ll show you a few other books you might love.”

      Same thing with Twilight, whatever its flaws. It’s one giant romance novel spread out over 2,800-ish pages. It’s a gateway drug — or it should be.

      • Exactly, hon. Exactly. I want that gateway. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no book has done more for teenage girls actually reading than Twilight. No matter what you think of them, “quality”-wise, you can’t deny that they’ve led a whole generation of girls to books that ARE “quality”. They’ve created in young girls an enjoyment of and desire for books…what’s to complain about?

      • Amber says:

        Hell yeah. I had my Nancy Drew’s stacked beside my Madeline L’Engle’s, my Sweet Valley High’s next to my Ayn Rand’s. I sneaked romance novels AND Oprah book club selections (both hidden due to adult content). If you enjoy it, read it. There shouldn’t be shame in that.

    • But don’t you think there’s little difference between self-identified vanilla heroine and secret submissive heroine? They’re pretty much the same thing – or are usually presented as such. Vanilla virgin discovers enjoyment of secret kink…that’s a huge, huge trope.

      But just to be absolutely clear: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this trope, or that 50 Shades uses it. I’m only pointing out the silliness of the media for failing to understand what women have been fantasising about all along.

      Just because 50 Shades is conventional and familiar, doesn’t mean it’s bad or shouldn’t be enjoyed. I’m not even sure why it’s origins as fanfiction should mean it shouldn’t be enjoyed, as I stated in my post – after all, I absolutely love the book Slave Boy, by Evangeline Anderson. And I love it not in spite of its clear fanfic roots, but BECAUSE of those things. Those things make the book shine with a passion that transcends what I’m sure most would deem cheese.

      But I don’t care if other people deem it cheese. I OWN my cheese – and so should you. Who cares if other people bash it? Yeah, it’s probably got flaws. Yeah, it started out as Twilight fanfic. But so what? YOU like it, and that’s all that matters.

      And the more people who take that view (yeah, I love the stupid movie My Demon Lover, what of it?) the better it will be for all of us. I don’t want to hide in the shadows anymore, behind my Kindle. And I don’t want male-dominated media to be the first word in what I’m shockingly reading.

      • Ruthie says:

        My mom told me once, “Your hobbies shouldn’t stress you out,” and I found that such a liberating sentiment. It applies a lot more widely, too, to fantasy and sexuality. Life is sufficiently difficult, I don’t need to be stressed out or apologizing about what kind of BOOKS I read, FFS. :)

      • Amber says:

        Yeah, the self-identified vanilla girl is the secretive kinkster,you’re right, but… I’m kind of speaking out of my ass because I haven’t read the book, but my understanding is that this girl actually stays vanilla? She doesn’t sign his contract. He spanks her and she doesn’t like it. And that’s kind of crux of the conflict, that he wants her to be kinky but she isn’t.

        Usually the Dom spots a girl and can immediately tell with his Domly senses that she’s got a submissive hiding under all that independence. Then he proceeds to prove it to her by giving her the bestest orgasms of her life ever, because, ya know, she always thought there was something wrong with her, or that sex was just kinda boring, but this – wow! Is so much better. And she just sort of falls down the submissive rabbit hole. So I would say that a deviation from this plot would be rare.

  7. Great post and comments! I think Amber hit the nail on the head – 50 Shades might be hitting such a nerve (in a good way) with the mainstream audience because Anastasia (the heroine) is completely vanilla. I’ve read the book and I’m reading the second one simply because the relationship between the two seems doomed – she hates pain and hates punishment, but he has a deep-seated need to whip her. How will this work? I keep reading to find out, LOL.

    The book has a lot of sex, but there are absolutely no graphic words. Not c*ck, which even Blaze books have. Not p*ssy or c*nt. No c*m. It’s all very masked wording. I still like it, don’t get me wrong. But it’s very different from the BDSM febsub stuff I write in the sense that I have a tendency to go for the dirty words since I think they’re hot.

    I also like the half-nekkid dudes on the book covers – I wouldn’t have bought 50 Shades based on the cover, I bought based on word-of-mouth. But to each her own. Del makes a good point that some women would find a tie on a cover much hotter than a clinch or a naked torso.

    Bottom line, if 50 Shades of Gray gets more women excited to read erotica, it can only be a good thing.

    • Amber Lin says:

      Oh, that is a good point too. Yes, I think most BDSM erotica these days is going to be full of c*ck and pussies, but to women who’ve only read from the Barnes & Noble “Literature & Fiction” shelves, that language can be shocking or a turn off.

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  9. Vida says:

    I think you are right, Ms Stein. This book was never that daring – I think the author started out with certain assumptions about the sort of sex that intrigued her and may have revised those assumptions as she went along. Which is all good. But yeah, to me, it’s mild. It’s still hot, though. I suppose we have to start somewhere. I’m sorry to hear she got outed, what the fuck is that? Is that not something people have to right to do, use a pseudonym? Bastards.