Bodice rippers. Mommy porn. Airport trash. Critics of romance fiction have no shortage of lazy ways to dismiss one of publishing’s most lucrative genres — and one of their most popular targets is E.L. James.
In 2012, she upended the publishing world with her mega-selling debut, Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic tale about the relationship between a college grad and a billionaire that captured millions of women’s imaginations. It spawned two sequels, three films, an SNL parody, the plot of Book Club, and probably more than a few children conceived in rekindled marriages.
For many, James emerged as the face of romance, though the author, 56, is reluctant to embrace the concept: “I find it a little overwhelming. There are hundreds of romance writers; thousands! There are rock stars within the romance community and romance readers know who they are.”
Yet this is unlikely to change with James’ new novel, The Mister (April 16, available for pre-order), a relatively traditional entry in the romance canon and her first departure from the Fifty Shades world. Set in modern London, it traces the love story between Maxim Trevelyan, a newly minted earl, and Alessia Demachi, his enigmatic house cleaner. James says the novel, which spans across contemporary London, the Cornish coast, and a dangerous sojourn into the Balkans, is inspired by “the hundreds of historical romances [she] read over the years.” She recounts years spent commuting on the London Underground reading books by the likes of Johanna Lindsey and Nora Roberts with the cover bent back to avoid judgment about her reading choices. (In fact, this was the reason behind Fifty Shades now-iconic non-traditional cover featuring a necktie.)
With its storied settings and hero straight out of the British nobility, The Mister feels steeped in the traditions of historical romance despite its contemporary setting. Ultimately for James, the novel marked a return to writing for herself. “People have a huge sense of ownership over Fifty that’s been aided through the films and what you,” she says. “This is something new.”
Over the last several years, James has become a firebrand in the romance and publishing worlds. Fifty Shades still draws devotion and derision in equal measure –— and The Mister could prove divisive too, given the starkly unbalanced power dynamic between Maxim and Alessia and its depiction of sex trafficking. James herself struggled with how to handle the book’s darker material at times: “There was a point where I thought, Should I be writing this book? Because it is so bleak. But [Alessia] is so stoic and brave, she works hard to keep herself safe. That’s what I [hope comes] across within the book.”
However The Mister is received, James’ work has propelled the romance genre to the center of cultural conversations. “Fifty Shades is one of the most clear examples of what romance can be in society and as a piece of cultural text,” says best-selling author and Washington Post romance reviewer Sarah MacLean. “You’re really no longer talking about a piece of literature; you’re not talking about writing. You’re talking about a cultural touchstone.”
James’ work has its strident critics within the romance community, but the situation is more nuanced than the average dismissal of her writing leaves room for. “[Fifty Shades] was a gateway for a lot of people who had not explored either romance or BDSM, so you have to give credit where credit’s due,” says Jenny Nordbak, co-host of romance podcast The Wicked Wallflowers Club and a retired dominatrix. “The flip-side is that it perpetuates harmful stereotypes that both the romance community and the BDSM community have fought hard against for decades.”
Many point to the positive reaches of E.L. James and her work — the droves of readers and writers she’s inspired. One such author, Alexa Martin (Intercepted, the upcoming Fumbled), freely admits she was never a reader, much less an aspiring author, before she discovered E.L. James. She calls Fifty Shades her “gateway drug,” explaining, “It brought so many readers to the genre, myself included. I would have never started writing if I hadn’t read that book…. I became so invested in all of these stories that I wanted to write my own.” Adds MacLean: “Every critique we’ve heard of Fifty Shades, we’ve heard of other books in the genre. You’re not going to scratch the surface of how broad and complex and nuanced this genre is…. Bringing more readers into the romance genre is how it should be — a rising tide really does lift all boats. The romance genre is better for Fifty Shades.”
James herself says one of the things she’s proudest of is the countless “humbling” emails and letters she’s received from those who say her work sparked an undiscovered love of reading. Indeed, the debate over her books doesn’t concern her too much. “It’s not a conversation I particularly want to be part of,” she says. “There are other things in the world to worry about than someone’s romantic story. I’m here to entertain people and make them escape daily life. That’s all I want to do.”
Though, James adds, “I’m excited to see if readers take [Maxim and Alessia] to their hearts like they took Christian and Ana.”
Head back to EW next week for our full Q&A with James on The Mister.