This morning, there were no fewer than 107 pitches in my inbox on the topic of erotica: erotic novels, erotic art, erotic body painting. And those are just the emails I couldn’t be bothered to delete. I have Fifty Shades of Grey to thank for this arousal of my inbox. Ever since E. L. James, a former TV executive and mother of two in West London, released the first novel in her erotic trilogy in May 2011, readers around the world have unlocked their chastity belts and embraced the kinky romance of Anastasia Steele, a virginal 22-year-old Washington State University student, and Christian Grey, a handsome, tortured 27-year-old billionaire who provokes Steele’s “inner goddess” and coaches her in all things BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism). 

While Harlequin Romances have long been relegated to grocery store checkouts and underwear drawers, James’s series has become a commercial mainstream success, outpacing Harry Potter as the fastest-selling paperback of all time in the UK. The U.S. market hasn’t been immune. As of late August, Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, had sold more than 25 million copies—in a little over four months—with print and e-reader sales nearly equal. That’s a lot of ladies surreptitiously reading about spanking on their Kindles—and a lot who unabashedly show off their erotica on the morning bus. 

A friend recently told me the story of a bold cousin who sat around reading Fifty Shades at a family reunion, which sounds about as relaxing as cooking with hot oil while in your underwear. When her nonagenarian grandmother asked what was so engrossing, the cousin blanched, struggling to describe the relationship between the “dominant” and the “submissive.” Grandma, without missing a beat, said, “In my day, they used to call that marriage.” She has a point. In part, the books have gained popularity because there’s a familiar undercurrent. James initially wrote the series as Twilight fan fiction online under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon. 

For those new to the world of “fan fic,” these stories penned by anonymous writers take popular novels, TV series, and films and reimagine them their way: with steamier subplots, extended endings, new relationships. Spock lusts for Captain Kirk. Princess Leia and Optimus Prime share “love beyond circuits, love beyond flesh.” Even the Harry Potter series, which author J. K. Rowling keeps on a tight leash, has spawned harrypotterfanfiction.com. The site had 78,014 stories at last glance, with 8,531 of them imagining the romance between Hermione Granger and her schoolyard nemesis Draco Malfoy. Poor Ron Weasley never saw the love child coming. 

For E. L. James, her Master of the Universe series began as just a little fun, a way to plot bondage scenarios for Twilight’s Bella Swan and her noble (and notoriously prudish) vampire beau Edward. Twihards will recognize those “overwhelming good looks,” the unnerving stare. James found a staggering fan base online for Master of the Universe, receiving some 37,000 comments and the attention of an Australian publisher, the Writer’s Coffee Shop, which takes a special interest in “light erotica.” 

Swapping one pseudonym for another (the author’s real name is Erika Leonard) and trading Bella and Edward for Anastasia and Christian, James’s derivative fiction became a New York Times best seller and, naturally, snagged a film deal. The revised-for-sale stories now take place in Seattle instead of Forks, with Grey shackling Anastasia in his Red Room of Pain in the penthouse of the Escala building. Otherwise, character traits—including girlish clumsiness and dithering inner monologues—hold true to Twilight.

James will embark on a book tour this fall with a stop at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on September 22. Given the popularity of past book signings, she could conceivably draw thousands of readers, including but not limited to: hordes of housewives who give the series its “mommy porn” label, educated women in their 20s and 30s, and husbands who want to thank James for their improved sex lives.

To Seattle University associate professor Sharon Cumberland, head of the creative writing program and a fan fiction scholar, the surging popularity of Fifty Shades isn’t that surprising; people have succumbed to fan fic’s allure since before the dawn of the Internet, back when people bought zines at fan fic conventions. When I interviewed her, she was sitting barefoot in her fifth-floor office of Seattle U’s Casey building, toenails a sweet shade of pink—a remnant of her recent wedding. Before she married Jim T. Jones, a retired scholar and professor of beat poetry, in July, she had another man in her life: Antonio Banderas. 

“I just thought he was the cutest thing that was ever invented,” she said, rattling off his mid-’90s achievements (Interview with the Vampire, Desperado, The Mask of Zorro). Cumberland became so enamored with the Spanish actor, she started taking Spanish classes and salsa lessons. Most significantly, she came across the Antonio Banderas Web Mall, an online fan club where she first discovered fan fiction in 1994. “It’s a little embarrassing to have a crush on Antonio Banderas—I’m a PhD—but on the other hand, if this is important to me, it’s important to other people.” 

Seattle University hired Cumberland the same year as a professor of American literature; she’d written her dissertation on slave and slave owner narratives of the Antebellum South, but remained, in her words, “in the closet” about her new scholarly passion for fan fiction. “It’s this gigantic world,” she said, which in the late ’90s hadn’t been quantified or theorized extensively. Cumberland started preparing academic papers on Antonio Banderas. Around the same time, MIT was launching a comparative media studies program with the “man who wrote the book” on participatory fan culture, Henry Jenkins, directing. Jenkins asked Cumberland to present a paper on fan fiction; she stayed for a yearlong sabbatical. There’s nothing like getting an invite from MIT to legitimize a love of Zorro.

What she found interesting, given the geeky spinoffs of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other male obsessions, is that the fan fiction world is predominantly female. “Ninety percent of fan fiction writers are women,” Cumberland said. “It’s an important shift, from women who used to just read romance novels to having all the resources and devices to now write romantic stories, because you could find an audience, even a small audience.” Who would have thought a book about a woman’s submission actually started out as a form of female empowerment? Do you feel less icky now?

There’s nothing like getting an invite from MIT to legitimize a love of Zorro.

In “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture,” an academic paper published in 2000, Cumberland found that “the ultimate function of a cultic figure, like a Banderas hero, is to provide a site upon which a web of real-life friendships can be formed as the result of writing collaborative fan narratives.” Or more simply put: “It’s as if we all live in the same neighborhood and meet for coffee every day, the way our mothers would have—except we’re in cyberspace,” Banderas fan K. C. McMinn told Cumberland for the essay “The Five Wives of Ibn Fadlan: Women’s Collaborative Fiction on Antonio Banderas Web Sites.” This was before Facebook, when online users could stay faceless and anonymous—a sea of Snowqueens Icedragons. There was no shame in sharing a love of a certain Spanish actor and his cute behind. 

“It’s a safe arena outside your own head where you can act out your fantasies,” Cumberland said. The professor hasn’t penned her own tributes to Banderas—she prefers to lurk and read—but after moving cities multiple times (from New York to Seattle to Boston and back), fan fiction served as a welcoming outlet. “The women I encountered weren’t interested in becoming conventional writers,” she said. “They were interested in forming communities.”

Cumberland even met up with several online Banderas fans in New York to see the actor perform in the Broadway musical Nine; he graciously chatted with the group after the show, bringing the fandom full circle and cementing real-life friendships. Still, collaborative fan fiction isn’t quite the same as a flesh-and-blood connection. Cumberland described a University of Washington study that identified relationships as strong ties and weak ties. “Strong ties are family, friends, spouses. I always think of it in terms of people who will drive you to the airport,” Cumberland said. “Weak ties are your hairdresser, your bartender, your mailman…. If you’re new to a community, they can make you not feel so lonely.” Fictional characters and celebrities fall under the category of weak ties. “You wouldn’t have movie magazines if people didn’t form weak ties with celebrities. It doesn’t have to be a two-way street.”

In the same way women have grown attached to, say, Kate Middleton and her Cinderella story, fans cling to the unlikely love story of a girl and a vampire, or an innocent college student and a powerful entrepreneur. “The commercial forces write for the 18- to 30-year-old man, and that’s not that satisfying to women of all ages,” Cumberland said. “What the Internet has allowed women to do is tell their own stories using these same characters.” If there are whips and chains involved, so be it. 

But what happens when an anonymous member of the community tries to make a buck, as E. L. James did? Under U.S. copyright law, only the copyright owners—the Stephenie Meyers and J. K. Rowlings of the world—can publish derivative fiction. James had to make enough changes that her series was considered “transformative”; yet, by going commercial, she defied the ethos of collaborative fan fiction. Some have argued she’s exploiting the Twilight fan base for her own gain; others applaud her for using the online world to get into the print world. “We’re in the dawn of this, even though it’s been around a few decades,” Cumberland said of fan fic’s rise. 

Perhaps the genre’s presence in the commercial sphere isn’t the beginning—or end?—of a publishing era. Ask me what I think once the new novel inspired by fan fiction inspired by Fifty Shades of Grey comes out in paperback.