'Mommy Erotica' in Black and White

As women swoon over the Fifty Shades trilogy, don't forget that Zane did it first -- and better.

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Vintage; Atria Books

(The Root) -- Lounging poolside on a small island off the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico, I cracked open a hard copy of Toni Morrison's Home, eager to devour something literary to the sound of the ocean nearby and not my usual soundtrack: the white noise of a D.C. coffee shop.

Of course, I wasn't the only one with the same idea, even if with a much different execution.

The woman next to me was just as engrossed in her book as I was in mine. Taking a peek at the cover, I spotted the ubiquitous silver-patterned tie that has cinched the erotic grip of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey on best-seller lists since the spring.

I groaned at the inescapability of the Fifty Shades franchise all the way in Puerto Rico, happy that my obligatory copy of the book was safely hidden away on my iPad.

Since the books' April release, James, a 40-year-old married mother whose real name is Erika, has sold millions of copies of the erotic trilogy that she began writing on a lark. If her story sounds familiar, it's because it is. Remember that other middle-aged suburban wife and mom who paved her way to success by capitalizing on sexual flights of fancy? Her name is Zane. Maybe you've heard of her?

The fast and dirty success of Fifty Shades of Grey -- a book that Maureen Dowd called "the first smash hit in the era of 'Mommy's naughty reader' " and whose author, Dowd said, wrote "like a Brontë devoid of talent" -- immediately called to mind that other author, whom the New York Times once dubbed "a purveyor of erotica" with "mass-market appeal." She was hailed as the next Nancy Friday, a pioneer in feminist erotica.

Since nabbing a deal with Simon and Schuster to publish one of her first novels, The Sex Chronicles, in 2002, Zane has sold millions upon millions of books. A decade later, Zane reigns over her own publishing empire, with her own imprint at Atria and a TV show on Cinemax After Dark, Zane's Sex Chronicles. Up next is a Zane-edited erotica anthology, Z-Rated: Chocolate Flava 3 (Atria).

So why now are publishers (and Hollywood) heralding mommy erotica as if it's something new? Universal recently optioned James' trilogy for $5 million. In May, Saturday Night Live lampooned Fifty Shades as the gift every suburban mom really wanted for Mother's Day. Ostensibly, it's the book to masturbate to.

In a nutshell, the book is 500 pages of light BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission) scenes mixed in with an even lighter "vanilla" love story. Ana is a 22-year-old recent college grad and virgin who falls for 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey, who smells of "body wash" and danger. Christian's into some "kinky" stuff -- spanking, cuffs, clichés -- and Ana gets dragged into his lifestyle. Most of the book is spent in young Ana's head as she battles with her "inner goddess" and "medulla oblongata" over the morality of Christian's freaky fetishes.

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Zane's Sex Chronicles and Addicted can satisfy a woman's fantasies just as easily. The difference is all about agency. In Zane's books, the female characters already know what launches their lady rocket. In James' Fifty Shades, Ana is the female embodiment of a blank slate. The women of Zane's fantasies are idealized: career driven, smart, financially stable and independent.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM