Sex after marriage, the old saying goes, has three phases: kitchen, bedroom and hallway. Kitchen sex is the spontaneous type spouses have when they first get together. Bedroom sex is the more routine lovemaking that sets in after a few years. And hallway sex is when husband and wife pass each other in the hallway and say, "Screw you."
Recently, however, the press has been touting a fourth kind: the sex that hallway-phase couples start having after the wife reads novels by E.L. James, a virtual unknown--even in the wildly lucrative but disdained romance genre. Until recently James was posting her stories online for free, and she readily acknowledges that they are heavily based on another person's work. Yet her trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed is set to be published by Vintage, a division of Random House, in a reported seven-figure deal. On March 26, Universal Pictures and Focus Features won a bidding war for the movie rights to the trilogy. Why the flush of interest? Because, according to news reports, her words are reducing the women of America to quivering masses of desire.
That a mother of two in West London and her tiny publisher in suburban Australia could reduce the U.S. media-entertainment complex to a quivering mass of its own is indicative of the ghost-train ride that publishing has become. The future of reading is dark, unknown and jerky, and hits could come out of nowhere. Most of the big players are just hanging on for the ride.
Perhaps no one else's knuckles, however, are quite as white as those of James. In her other life, she is Erika Leonard, a Nutella-loving wife and mother of teen boys, who worked in the nonglamorous end of TV production, organizing contracts and clearances. To escape, she used to read a lot of romance novels--she still has about 700 of them in her attic. While her books are racy, Leonard is rather shy and prudish. She giggles, horrified, when asked to read aloud from one of the steamier passages she has written. She's unnerved when readers divulge, as they are wont to do, explicit details about the effect her books have had on them. "I'm stunned by the reaction to these books," she tells TIME in a video interview. At book signings, she says, "people tell me the most intimate things." One couple who had been married 20 years but hadn't had sex in four thanked her for reigniting the old flame. Another woman, Leonard says, "told me she got an orgasm just from reading the book."
The novels follow the romantic education of Anastasia Steele, a klutzy, frizzy-haired university student and hardware-store worker from Portland, Ore., and Christian Grey, a formidably wealthy Seattle entrepreneur who falls for her when she interviews him for her school paper. Whence comes the romantic tension? What keeps these two from instantly getting together? Paperwork. Grey dearly wishes that Ms. Steele, as he often calls her, would sign a nondisclosure agreement as well as a contract in which she agrees to let him control everything she eats and wears and to let him "flog, spank, whip or corporally punish" her as he sees fit. And she can't ever touch him. Also, she's a virgin.