Tanya Erzen is an Associate Professor of religion and American studies at Ohio State University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It.
Edward Cullen is a twenty-something ruthless CEO who meets Bella when she interviews him for her college newspaper. They experience a magnetic attraction, but he harbors a nasty secret: the only way he can have a relationship with her is if she agrees to sign a written contract agreeing to be his submissive. Edward expects a recalcitrant Bella to engage in whippings, handcuffing, and other bondage games. At one point, when Bella asks, “Does this mean you’re going to make love to me tonight, Edward?” his response is, “No Isabella, it doesn’t. Firstly, I don’t make love. I f$#k . . . hard. ... Come. I want to show you my playroom.”
This delightfully predictable (at least in the world of porn) exchange is to be found not in he famously abstinent pages of the Twilight saga, but in “Master of the Universe,” formerly the most-read Twilight fan fiction story online, and now, in its new incarnation as Shades of Grey, a novel about to receive a 750,000 first print run from Vintage. MofU, as it was known to the fanpire cognoscenti, was written in giddily awaited installments by Snowqueens Icedragon or “Mistress Icy.” “MofU is my own special brand of heroin, an addiction I will have to go into rehab for,” one of the thousands of devoted readers raved. Now, in the first installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed), Edward and Bella have morphed into Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele (copyright!) and Mistress Icy is using her pen name, E.L. James.
MofU was the gritty anecdote to Twilight’s relentless abstinence, part of the vast fan fic parallel universe where the most popular stories are what writers informally call “smut.” It's a genre that re-envisions the relationships in Twilight as sexually explicit and often raunchy. From “clean smut” to “hardcore,” instead of meadows and dazzling vampires, there is promiscuity, sexual abuse, incest, bondage, and sex addiction. In “The Training,” Bella “lives to serve her Master…” In "Never Sleep in a Strange Man’s Bed," Bella is awakened by a stranger named Edward who climbs into bed with her: “She was rubbing her firm little ass against me and moaning! Holy hell and all the devils in it!” In The List, a sexually frustrated Bella catalogues all the ways she’d like to have sex with Edward once they’re married. “To Do: Against the tree in the meadow, on our lab table, on his leather couch . . .” You get the idea.
The pleasure of reading the Twilight series for millions of fans resides in the books’ titillating fantasy of sexual postponement. Readers endure thousands of pages of erotic tension with Edward and Bella panting at each other with quivering lips and interrupted kisses. Even when they do have sex in Breaking Dawn, the final novel, Twilight fans only get a blank space between when Edward and Bella go to bed on their honeymoon and wake up to drifting feathers, a shattered headboard and her black-and-blue body.
The stories that crowd the top-ten lists of fan fiction like MofU provide plenty of salacious sex but stick to a romantic premise. No matter if Edward is a dominant in a bondage relationship, a “smooth-talking motherfucker” who likes to pick up girls in bars for casual sex, or a commitment-averse architect who has never had a long-term relationship: Bella and Edward are soul mates, destined to be together forever. The insatiable demand for books like “Fifty Shades” speaks to the power of the fantasy of true love and the redemption of the damaged hero awakened by the love of the right woman who is either sexually innocent or virginal. Like Twilight, “Fifty Shades” delivers on the romance novel fantasy that a relationship initially based solely on sex will turn into blissful marriage. Anastasia’s virginity ensnares and entrances sexually voracious Christian Grey until he realizes that his feelings for her are emotional rather than just sexual, and his treatment of her becomes kind, solicitous, and caring.
The fairy-tale success story of James is also seductive for fans, especially the hundreds of hopeful fanfic writers who long to be the next Stephenie Meyer, whose first attempt at a novel was Twilight. Or, they could be the next Amanda Hocking, whose self-published vampire romance novels, My Blood Approves, landed her the million dollar book deal with St. Martin’s Press. And this takes us back to the real romance, to our contemporary narrative of hope and longing: that in our age of mundane and ubiquitous celebrity, the story you’ve written online could catapult you from obscurity to celebrated writer. And a seven figure advance.