The Remarkable Growth of Smut and Romance Novels

Smut and romance books have a wild history, but have become more mainstream in recent years. Read more about how this growth came to be.

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There may be some people that do not see reading as a sexy activity, but those people would be sorely mistaken. If you ever see anyone blush while reading a book, they are likely reading a book that falls under the romance and smut category. These books are dirty, sensual, and full of eroticism. Because of that, these books have been seen as low-brow or taboo in the past. However, as society has become more liberal about sex, is that the case for readers too? There are more romance and smut books these days than ever, and as society changes, those books may become more normalized and acceptable for any adult to read.

The Early Years

While it seems that historically, people liked to keep their lustful desires hidden, smut has existed for centuries. For instance, in 1725, Fantomina by Eliza Haywood was released. In this novel, a woman disguises herself as four different women to see how men react to her, as a human and sexually. This novel demonstrated not only sexual desire but a woman’s sexual desire, which was a quiet topic at the time. The novel did not get much publicity at the time, which could be attributed to the gender aspect, but became widely appreciated many years later. It demonstrates some of the beginnings of erotica, but it was not in the mainstream.

"Fanny Hill" book cover with a woman's drawn side profile
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Another early novel in the smut and romance genre was Fanny Hill by John Cleland. While there were earlier books that were sexual in nature, this novel is considered by many to be the first fully pornographic book. The book is in the form of letters, which the titular character is writing to someone known only as Madam. The letter describes Fanny’s life story, including her sexual adventures. These acts she describes were certainly taboo for the time period, and this book was nowhere near the mainstream culture of its time. The book was also banned in many places for obvious reasons. However, people have grown to appreciate the book and its landmark themes, showing the beginnings of the smut and romance era.

19th and 20th Century Smut and Romance

As time went on, these types of books were able to gain some more popularity but were still not part of the main zeitgeist of society. Nevertheless, more of these types of books would be released as the decades went on. An example of one of these books is Gamiani, or Two Nights of Excess, which came out in 1833. These were not books you could find everywhere, as the public tried to restrict access as much as they could. However, they were out there and demonstrated that sexual desires were not sinful. These books were the building blocks for smut and romance in the present.

"Gamiani or Two Nights of Excess" book cover with silhouettes of arms
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In the 20th century, romance books became more popular, but they were still somewhat hidden. The sexual liberation movement came during this era, which provided some help to the genre. However, there was still some mortification felt and expressed from picking up these books. The romance books were often small in size, with sensual titles that were off to the side. They also could have been at the grocery store, as they were not high-brow enough to be with the other literature of traditional bookstores. The most famous example is Danielle Steel, whose books were not pure smut but still very much in the romance category. It was becoming a bit easier to buy these books as they became less banned, but it was the work of the 21st century that helped the genre grow wide.

Fifty Shade of Grey and the Mainstream

One of the main ways that smut and romance were able to go deep into the mainstream was through the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James. This series is about Anastasia Steele, who is immediately captivated by the seductive Christian Grey. However, what will happen when she finds out that he is a dominant with a fondness for BDSM? This series hooked millions of readers, who were quickly caught up by the descriptions of rough sex and bondage. The series was even turned into a popular movie franchise, which capitalized on a smutty book making it big.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" book cover with a knotted tie
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Despite the success of this series, actual members of the BDSM community were not too pleased with the reputation of the books. They felt that Christian was not a respectful dominant and the books made it look like dominants could do whatever they wanted, even cross the line of cruelty. That demonstrates the trade-off of popularizing smut; there will be some complaints that prevent complete acceptance. It also could be a demonstration that people prefer reading a fantasy as opposed to reading something more realistic and thoughtful. Regardless, despite the comments, Fifty Shades of Grey showed that a lot of the general public wants lustful literature.

The Popularization of Fanfiction

A fun fact about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it originally started as fanfiction for the popular book series Twilight. That is what makes it a great example of how fanfiction has become a large source of popular smut literature. In fanfiction, millions of amateur writers are describing their dream scenarios for their favorite characters in the media. These scenarios do not always have to be sexual. However, there is definitely a large portion of fanfiction that turns sexual. People just want their favorite couples, their ships, to get together, especially in the bedroom.

A person on a computer with hearts, kisses and XOXO surrounding them.
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These fanfictions can sometimes be the beginning of people’s ventures into smut and romance literature, as these are characters people already recognize. In addition, fanfiction websites like Wattpad and Archive Of Our Own are free to access and just take a few clicks to read. As time goes on and more people and generations get into this type of smut fanfiction, it helps normalize this type of writing for mainstream audiences even more. The smut writing becomes more approachable, and it can cause people to want to explore non-fanfiction smut and romance. While it has not caused complete mainstream appeal, fanfiction has been a big step toward that goal.

The Modern Outlook

In general, today’s world has become more sex-positive. More and more movies have started showing explicit sex scenes, music has become more overtly sexual as opposed to implications, and more sexual and romantic literature is being written and read by more audiences. All of these factors are what have led to a wider acceptance of smut and romance in society. There are still those who think these books are a bit much, but the opinion has certainly become more positive compared to the decades and centuries past.

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Booktok can also take credit for the modern normalization of smut and romance literature. Many social media influencers who recommend books on TikTok have started to recommend some sexual literature. This can be in terms of comparing how sexual different books are, bringing in new readers by writing out some saucy lines or describing plots in ways that create intrigue. When recommendations for these types of books show up on someone’s feed, they become more interested as more of these videos pop up. It is one of the ways social media has reflected modern attitudes, and it shows that the reputation of these books will only go up from here.

While it is hard to compare the amount of people reading smut and romance books compared to people in the past, these books seem to be more widely talked about now than ever before. Readers feel less restricted and embarrassed, so they are okay with recommending these books to people. If people are entertained and excited by these books, they should be free to read them and enjoy them for their intended purpose.


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