NAUGHTY BOOKS Finds Inspiration in Titillation

Austen Rachlis’ doc looks at the self-publishing boom sparked by FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Not nearly as salacious as its title implies, Naughty Books (available on VOD today) takes a peek before the curtain at the self-publishing boom of romance novels that peaked with E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series. Call the novels romance, smut, escapism, or titillation for people who prefer to read their porn rather than watch it, or whatever you want, but to the women behind the words, this boom means something else. Naughty Books looks at what this genre means to the readers and writers, which is almost certainly more than whatever your first guess is.

Prior to Fifty Shades, sales for self-published romance stories registered as barely more than niche status. Following Fifty Shades, which itself was born as Twilight fan fiction, sales spiked and suddenly a cottage industry evolved at quickie speed. With that rise in popularity, aided by the anonymity of e-reader sales, came a stigma that has proven tricky to shake. Naysayers like to dismiss the genre as amateur writing by bored housewives living out their fantasies. In a sense, they aren’t totally wrong. But the fantasies these writers are living aren’t about trysts and taboo romances. For CJ Roberts, author of the Dark Duets series, success with her books fulfilled something missing from her life. Prior to writing, she was in the military, but left in 2008 to a job market that didn’t have a place for her.

Among the authors highlighted, Roberts stands out. In addition for sharing her successes, she’s also brave enough to share the less glamorous side. We see her doing dishes and talking about the stress that comes with fan and sales expectations, on top of everyday issues like a contentious relationship with her ex. Other prominent authors, like Kelli Maine (best known for the Taken series — no, not the Liam Neeson joints) and Kristen Proby (With Me In Seattle), share similar stories about the frustrations of their personal and professional lives. It’s hard to tell if these women, and other writers like them, would’ve found similar success in the traditional publishing world. Probably not, but the potential of self-publishing online means these writers have racked up millions of sales, and reached readers all over the world.

Naughty Books is at its most interesting when letting the authors tell their stories (both the non-fiction and fictional parts). One common refrain from the authors and readers, is the sense of purpose and place they’ve found within their community. There are numerous shots from signing events and conventions packed to the gills with women sharing their stories with each other. Director Austen Rachlis emphasizes the camaraderie within the community. The doc has a meat and potatoes approach in its presentation, which works well enough. It’s very straightforward. The only stylistic flourishes are animated bits paired with narration by Aisha Tyler (Archer, Whose Line is it Anyway?), Alison Tolman (Fargo, Emergence), and Aimee Garcia (Lucifer).

All in all, Naughty Books is a fine but ordinary documentary, but it does offer inspiration for anyone out there with a passion for writing. It may not change your preconceptions about romance novels or the genre, but, like all good work, reminds viewers to consider the humanity behind everything. Downloading books to your Kindle or iPad offers a level of privacy that can feel disconnecting, and Naughty Books is a good reminder that connecting with other people on a basic human level is one of the most important things we can do.

Naughty Books is available now on Amazon Video and other VOD platforms

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