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Friday, 3 July 2015

Why there will NEVER be an E.L.Johnson

Its a standing joke amongst us authors how many times we are asked this question:  I bet you wished youd written that 50 Shades of Grey, dont you?’ With an estimated wealth of £75 million, although that figure rises on a minute-to-minute basis, 647,000 sales in its first 3 days, number one position in the Top 10 charts – it’s an authors dream surely?  My book is now number 5 in the best seller charts and my publishers are whooping at our 6,500 book sales in the same 2-day sales period.  But to have sales figures like EL James, well, what wouldnt you do for that?

Just after the first 50 Shades hit the shelves, a few of my author friends who wrote racier books than mine, decided – or were encouraged by agents and publishers – to indulge their talents in the genre.  There was obviously a hungry demand for this sort of book if the sales figures could be trusted.  I waited for the call but it never happened.  That ruffled my feathers, I can flaming tell you! I was editing my own book at the time and included, through sheer devilment, a graphic earthy sex scene between two of the characters, only for my editor to draw a red bracket around it and add the comment: ‘Ugh.  Can we take this out please, Mill?’  Even my agent rang up, after she’d read it, to see if I was all right and needed a lie down.

My Yorkshire stubbornness rose to the fore.  Determined to prove that yet another respectable-looking, middle-aged woman can break the mould, I thought I’d show the world just what I had in my literary store-cupboard.  But, ever with an eye on a point of difference, I started to write a story from the wilder fetish world perspective.  I intended to make EL James look vanilla with extra vanilla pod-seeds flavoured with vanilla extract from Madagascar by comparison.

My plot 'Selene's moon', named after the Roman goddess of the moon, was set in a small mysteriously-childless hamlet on the wild Bronte moors in the nineteeth century (no animals, no kids – my depravity had some limits).  A young virginal servant – Rose – joins the household of  very rich landowner Sir Maximus Stone.  Day to day everyone liveconventionally, except for the night of the full moon when the villagers succumb to ‘specialist’ desires’, six hours either side of midnight.  Barricading themselves in their houses, is an option should they wish not to partake of the feast of the moon goddess, Selene, but no one wants to miss out.  At six bells any action must stop and never be referred to in vanilla life. ‘Think Jane Eyre crossed with ‘The Purge’.  Rose is an innocent, Maximus is stunningly attractive, but older, impotent and therefore he must give and receive his pleasures in alternative ways.   The villagers are kind, respectable people but they have been raised in a village where deviance has become the norm.

At the heart of the tale there is a love story between a younger woman and a much older man who are drawn together but know they will never be able to consummate their relationship 'traditionally.'   Maximus has to satisfy Rose by proxy – with a selection of villagers and their wild ways.  I won't go into too much detail but though Rose’s love for Maximus is initially pure, her body begins to crave the wildness of her sexual encounters with the villagers.  Throw in an ideology that begins to sour as Rose's beauty begins to change the dynamics between the villagers... and there was my intended story, which I was rather proud of.  It was a twisting, turning plot - and I liked the characters who could have been your neighbours.  Who knows what goes on behind closed doors?

So I plunged into the dark pages of the net, thinking that I was quite worldly, but it appears not.  I had to look up a few activities to see what they entailed.  I didn’t think a lot of them were physically possible, if I’m honest.  Then again, I’ve played Twister with a group of drunken pals, and you can bend quite a bit when you have to. I swallowed any prudery and searched through the depravities, trying not to wince as unexpected close-ups popped up to put me off hot dogs for life.  Older women with young studs, biting, orgies, foot worship,  watersports, glass coffee tables… I looked at a few things from behind a defensive cushion.  Still, I was determined to set a love story to this colourful, kinky backdrop.   I quite fancied a Ferrari and a film-deal. I’d insist on Gerald Butler for the lead so I could meet him and have a joint selfie. 

I started to type, I was into my story... then I got to the first gritty bit, where Rose walks in on lesbian orgy and I caught sight of myself in my bookshelf glass door to see I was tapping away at my keyboard wearing a grimace. I carried on.  The toe-sucking farmer, the butcher who spent the whole feast night naked in stocks, taking whatever the villages threw at him - literally and metaphorically, the staid preacher’s wife with a taste for something very odd. Oh, you name it, I had them all in there with their feather dusters, Iron Maidens, nettles and strap-ons.

To cut a long story short – whereas I could laugh and cry and celebrate with the characters I created in my Romcom world, this alien landscape just didn’t do it for me.  I wasn’t writing with conviction.  I can write with enjoyment about a group of bantering birds, I’m in the story with them, but I felt emotionally unmoved describing a woman emptying her bladder on the mayor, however much he happened to be loving it.  If I cry when I’m writing, I have a chance at bringing a lump to my readers’ throats, likewise if I laugh when I'm composing, I hope my readers will laugh with me.  I wasn’t titillated writing about Rose’s adventures… and I think I’d be right in guessing then that I wouldn’t be turning on my readers if Selene's Moon went to print.  Even despite the wide spectrum of perversity, it all began to feel very samey-samey. I could imagine readers, who had bought the book initially to read the mucky bits, soon skimming past the action-shots to get to the more interesting Halloween village fayre to discover who had grown the biggest pumpkin (not a euphemism).

EL James might not have realized what she started when she wrote 50 Shades.  I’m sure that she never thought her little fan-fiction book in the footsteps of the Twilight Saga would have divided the world as it has.  Yes 50 Shades is fundamentally a love story and the ‘activity’ takes place between consenting adults – it’s fiction, it’s a story.  The villain Mrs Robinson is seen as a paedophile, not as a seductress, she is never pictured as being someone who acted responsibly. To some Christian is masterful – he only ever has Ana’s pleasure in his sight.  Others see him as abusive – they see the stories as ‘normalising’ that controlling behavior.  I knew, in my tale , that I was trying to cast a soft romantic glow on a pit of perversity – and doing quite a good job of it too.  But still it wasn’t sitting well with me.  I forecasted my book sitting on the shelves of Morrisons – wearing its classification of ‘romantic’ rather than ‘adult’ fiction (which wouldn’t have got past the supermarket buying censors.)  There is no age limit to the books – teenagers are reading them.  Are they being indoctrinated into thinking that BDSM is something they to indulge in to make themselves desirable to lads?  If they read mine, would they think that everyone was into the extreme? One person’s ‘escapist erotica’ is another person’s ‘glorifying depravity.’  Where are the barriers?  Could a story about a romance between a man and a five year old be classed as ‘escapist erotica’ then? After all they’re just words on a page too.  See what I mean? Oh as writers we harness the power of words to tell stories, but we do influence…however much our first duty is just to tell stories and entertain.

This week EL James went live onto Twitter with #ASKELJAMES in a major PR disaster move as haters sprang to their keyboards to ask if she was proud of herself for romanticizing abuse?  Others jumped to her defence ‘It’s a story – don’t read it if you don’t like it!’  Feelings on all sides were running very high.  But would you care what people thought if you were earning the amount of cash that EL James does?  Whatever the criticism, she continues to outsell us all and bank the very many cheques.  I mused how I’d be in that position.  
#ASKELJOHNSON.  Questions firing at me from all over the globe:  are you happy that teenage girls are picking up your books in Asda and thinking they need to indulge in group sex covered in jam in order to hook a man? What is your next book going to be? Goldenshowerylocks? 

‘I couldn’t handle all that,’ I reported to my other half.  ‘I could,’ he said, fantasizing about the private jet and mansion. ‘I really couldn’t,’ and I meant it.  I like being liked too much.  I realized that I didn’t want to write a book that might have brought me a fortune, but also would have made me so many enemies.  The EL James story: the capitalist half of me that wants a mansion and to clear off my visa bill wishes it were mine, the soft half doesn’t.  We will never know if I was on course for following in her footsteps of success as Rose and Maximus have been flushed from my recycle bin into the ether along with the birch and the big glove (don’t ask). Sex and danger just don’t go hand in hand for me. 

 ‘Selling loads of books isn’t the same as being well liked’ someone wrote on Twitter about EL James and they’re right.  I wish her, as a fellow writer, luck.  She discovered a niche in the market and went for it and made a massive name and fortune for herself.  But all that controversy… naw - it’s not for me.

The lasting legacy for me though is that my PC is now bugged up to buggery with dodgy pop-ups from visiting porn sites and a least twice a day I have a new list of housewives up for it in my area and invitations to be a ‘f*** buddy’  Yesterday I was referred to as a Pussy Sensei, which I am presuming is nothing to do with my patronage of Yorkshire Cat Rescue.   I’m even getting German spam (not meat.  Well, not in the traditional sense.) And an invitation for some ‘hot anal punishing’ I’m figuring isn’t anything to do with a chicken phall. 

The worlds I create are feelgood and gentle.  I connect with my readers – they see my stories as an extension of me and think of me as a friend, someone approachable that they can write to about my work and why it means so much to them because I’ve hit the spot for them (not the G one).  They feel they know me and that I know them.  It's a privilege to be so well thought of and that they trust me to take them on a journey of words and leave them with a big smile on their faces and a bittersweet temporary hole in their lives when a story they've been so involved ends.  And I don't just mean me, but any writer whose work is loved by readers.  What a compliment to give to us 'I don't know what to do now I've come to the end of the story.  I feel lost.'  You can't buy that. 

I don’t want to mass offend – and I  enjoy being liked too much.  Money really isn’t everything... I’d prefer ten smiling people at a book launch to a hundred with protest banners.  Besides which, I don't know anyone who is rich enough to own a helicopter.  (We have a helicopter chair in the garden though)  The world of the rich and the bum-beaters is not mine and is best left to the sexperts to portray.

So, the mansion and his and hers Aston Martins will have to wait (sorry, Pete). The path to a Swiss bank account will be a much more laboured and uphill one for me.   I may need heavy-duty crampons and a Sherpa.  I’m now writing a book featuring owls, villages and candles (no wax dripped on skin though – they just sit on the mantelpiece and burn).  There’s no gratuitous sex forced in (excuse pun), just tea, buns, birds romance, friendship and Yorkshire countryside.  Number 5 on the best seller list though – I think I’m managing to do it okay my way. 


  1. if it wasn't for all the fuss on social media causing a shortage everywhere el james wouldn't have sold half as many books. although I admit to joining in and ive got the new one waiting :)

  2. l'd much rather read your books than "porn for dinnerladies" as my mate calls them. Let's just say your books are well written, have great plots and wonderful characters and leave it at that. ;D

  3. There will never be an EL Johnson - well thank goodness for that! We all love you and your books just as they are. Sorry if that doesn't make you super rich, though wealth isn't only measured in money. Feel the love Milly xx

  4. Ah, Milly, all so brilliantly put. I feel exactly the same. I like money, but I like being liked a lot more. I tried to write a gritty sex scene once (you know, where you actually see it going in?) but I made myself cringe so much I took it out again (the scene, you understand) Not that anything had actually been put in. Well, it had in the book, obviously, but... Oh dear. I'd better shut up.