LONDON — EL James, the author of "The Fifty Shades" trilogy, has just released her latest erotica offering.
With “The Mister,” her first new work of original fiction since she became an international phenomenon, James hopes to inaugurate a new phase of her career. Her latest work is a tame (by comparison) love story set mostly in contemporary London and Cornwall, featuring a wealthy British aristocrat who falls for his house cleaner, a beautiful, mysterious young woman who fled Albania. In Hollywood pitch terms, it’s like a porny mash-up of “Cinderella” and “Downton Abbey.”
James travelled to Albania twice to research the novel, and collected a small library of books about the country, including an Albanian dictionary, a guide to Albanian social codes and laws, and a book about Albanian organised crime. Her husband, who’s the household cook, learned to make traditional Albanian stews.
It was quite a change from the research she did for “Fifty Shades,” which involved lurking in some of the darker corners of the internet, scrolling through websites devoted to sexual bondage techniques and accessories.
For fans who are expecting another story involving gags, whips and safe words, “The Mister” may come as a let down. The sex scenes are explicit and extensive, but are not nearly as transgressive and boundary-pushing as “Fifty Shades.”
But James had other narrative objectives beyond titillation. Beneath the frothy fantasy, “The Mister” deals with unexpectedly weighty topics like economic inequality, the plight of undocumented workers, the oppression of women in conservative societies and the way social institutions and governments elevate the wealthy and powerful and exploit the vulnerable.
Those themes feel particularly relevant in Britain these days, as the country’s contortions over Brexit have exposed ugly divisions over race, class and British identity. James has become preoccupied with these issues since she has fallen unexpectedly into wealth, and seen firsthand how society is weighted in favor of the rich.
“It’s important for me to put some of this in,” she said. “As an incredibly wealthy person, you keep the money.”
The series altered the literary landscape, paving the way for more boundary-pushing erotica, and changed the way that major retailers and entertainment companies catered to female desire. Sales of sex toys surged. Target began selling “Fifty Shades” lubricant, vibrating rings and blindfolds.
James became a taboo-breaking evangelist for certain kinds of sexual fantasies that women were often silent about, or ashamed of.
“It was not just her tapping into something, she commercialized it,” said Anne Jamison, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah, who studies fan fiction.
It’s unclear how James’ readers will respond to “The Mister,” and whether their devotion to the author transcends their love of Christian Grey and a bottomless appetite for more of the same story. Other mega-best-selling authors, including Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling, have switched genres and rebranded themselves after ending their successful fantasy franchises, and have retained just a fraction of their audience.
James seems to have nearly exhausted her own appetite for “Fifty Shades.” She’s written a paranormal romance — a ghost story set in contemporary London — which she hopes to publish, and is contemplating a sequel to “The Mister.”