Mommy Porn Goes Global: with 50 Shades of Grey and Gabriel’s Inferno, BDSM-tinged bodice-rippers are changing the way we read

Mommy Porn Goes Global: with 50 Shades of Grey and Gabriel’s Inferno, BDSM-tinged bodice-rippers are changing the way we read

Mommy Porn Goes Global: with 50 Shades of Grey and Gabriel’s Inferno, BDSM-tinged bodice-rippers are changing the way we read

Mommy Porn Goes Global: with 50 Shades of Grey and Gabriel's Inferno, BDSM-tinged bodice-rippers are changing the way we read

In September 2009, a serialized novel called The University of Edward Masen debuted on Twilighted, an online fan fiction forum devoted to the teen fantasy franchise. The author, an unknown Toronto writer who goes by the frilly pseudonym Sylvain Reynard, had airlifted Twilight’s two main characters—the moody, marble-jawed vampire Edward and his timorous teen girlfriend, Bella—into the department of Italian studies at the ­University of Toronto. He reimagined Edward as a brooding Dante professor and Bella as his mousy grad student, and transformed their chaste YA courtship into an X-rated affair. It was a bizarre premise, but the novel became a fan fiction phenomenon, garnering more than a million hits.

Last year, Penguin picked up the title in a seven-figure deal. By then, Reynard had de-Twilight-ed the story, giving it new character names (Gabriel and Julia) and a new title (Gabriel’s Inferno, after its Dante-obsessed hero), and rebranded it for a romance novel readership. It’s a languid drawl of a book, complete with guttural moans and sweaty trysts. Gabriel is the book’s erotic engine: suave, rich and handsome as a stallion. He’s the kind of guy who furnishes his bachelor pad with artful nudes and musky leathers, and recites Italian poetry while he’s in the throes of ecstasy.

Gabriel’s Inferno and its sequel, ­Gabriel’s Rapture, are as popular with mainstream readers as they are with Twihards. They’ve climbed both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, and sold 600,000 copies combined. The third installment, Gabriel’s Redemption, will be released this month. Fans of the series from all over the world make pilgrimages to Toronto for DIY Inferno tours, stopping at all the spots that Gabriel and Julia visit in the books: Harbour Sixty Steakhouse, the U of T campus, Julia’s apartment on Madison Avenue and the ROM, where the couple perform acrobatic sex acts in the galleries.

Compounding the books’ enigmatic thrall is Reynard himself, who guards his identity like Batman while maintaining a robust online presence. He affects a sultry hauteur on Twitter and in web interviews, cultivating the persona of a worldly lothario who, like his hero, worships Botticelli and sips single-malt scotch. Some rogue critics have speculated that a famous Toronto writer is responsible for the libidinous prose, naming Margaret Atwood and ­Russell Smith as potential literary catfish suspects. Reynard presents as male, but based on the minuscule number of men writing romance and the books’ incisive understanding of female sexual fantasy, it’s far more likely he’s a she.

The Gabriel trilogy belongs to a BDSM-tinged subset of the romance genre made sensationally popular by another Twilight fan fiction series, 2011’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which salted up Edward and Bella’s prim love affair with riding crops and hair-yanking elevator antics. The Fifty Shades effect has been profound: that trilogy has sold an astounding 70 million copies, inspired its own wine (with leather notes, of course), and spawned the nauseating neologism “mommy porn.” We’re living in an age when web pundits debate the feminist and literary merits of Fifty Shades, Inferno and their kin, and Ben Wa balls have entered the public vernacular.

The modern romance novel was invented with Kathleen Woodiwiss’s 1972 book The Flame and the Flower, about a rugged Victorian sea captain who kidnaps and ravishes a scrappy (albeit beautifully buxom) orphan. Before then, dime-store pulp was relatively G-rated. Woodiwiss was the first author to depict her characters’ sex lives in graphic detail, transforming her readers from fantasists into voyeurs.

Since then, romance has remained the most commercially successful fictional genre. While the rest of the industry flounders, the romance racket is booming: in 2012, it generated $1.4 billion—double the market share of mysteries, the next most popular genre category, which logged only $728 million.

Even before Gabriel’s Inferno transformed Toronto into a carnal canvas, this city was among the world’s top producers of romance novels; Harlequin, the Don Mills schlock house whose name is now synonymous with throbbing members and turgid nipples, has published some 6.3 ­billion books since it launched in 1949.

Despite their ubiquity and profitability, romances have always been a shamefully smutty secret—the books women read but seldom discussed. The new crop of kinky erotic novels, however, arrive at a crucial cultural moment: the end of the guilty pleasure. The divisions that once codified cultural consumption—highbrow versus low, mainstream versus fringe, literary fiction versus pulp—have collapsed. The pleasure remains intact, but the guilt has dissipated. Hipsters listen to Britney Spears. Film critics watch Big Brother. And smart women who once hid dog-eared romance novels under their pillows are now comfortable enough with their tastes—and their sexual fantasies—to not only admit they read Gabriel’s Inferno, but talk about it at dinner parties.

From a literary perspective, the new erotic romances are as purple as their Harlequin forebears. But sociologically, the mainstreamification of romance has given the genre new currency as a window into female sexuality. The latest titles are lustier than their predecessors, which linked sex and love inextricably, like an erotic ­Chinese finger trap. They challenge that status quo: the sex usually comes before the love, rather than the other way around. They feed off the exchange of sexual power; Gabriel, for instance, is churlish, gruff and manipulative. In one scene, he drunkenly grinds and gropes Julia on a dance floor, then rebuffs her in a cruel combination of public humiliation and female blue balls—and she gets off on it. They go at it in public—at the ROM, but also at the Uffizi in Florence and on a tropical beach, after they engage in some frisky (and sticky) foreplay with mangoes. Fifty Shades’ hero, Christian Grey, is even kinkier: he spanks his lovers, whips them with a belt and makes them call him Master. In S.E.C.R.E.T., the erotic novel by L. Marie Adeline (a pseudonym for the Dragon’s Den producer Lisa ­Gabriele), the heroine joins an underground sex club, where she indulges in exhibitionism and bondage. (The titular acronym stands for Safe, Erotic, Compelling, Romantic, Ecstatic, Transformative.)

These books reflect the shifting landscape of female desire: like real women, the characters can enjoy sex without being sluts, explore fetishes without being freaks, and submit in the bedroom without sacrificing their independence outside it. They’re sanctioned to crave both love and sex, and not always at the same time. The biggest surprise about Gabriel’s Inferno and Fifty Shades isn’t the dirty talk or leather or handcuffs, but the fact that women can consume erotica—and talk about it—without any shame. And that’s the kinkiest taboo of all.

BOOKS

Gabriel’s Redemption
By Sylvain Reynard
Available Dec. 3