the secret’s out: best-selling erotic fiction authoress is actually a dude
Natasha Walker has been marketed as “the best-selling authoress of Australia’s hottest erotic fiction” on the back of the best-selling The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy. But this information is not entirely correct. You see, Natasha Walker’s big secret has been revealed: she isn’t Natasha Walker, but John Purcell.
Yes, the erotic authoress is in fact a married, father of two, whom the public may know better as the chief book buyer and head of marketing at Australia’s largest online bookseller, Booktopia.
The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy became bestsellers on the back of the “mummy porn” Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon last year. The books tell the story of Emma, a married thirty-something woman and her eighteen year old neighbour, Jason.
The revelation of the true identity of Ms Walker caused quite a stir on social media when Purcell outed himself to the Australian Women’s Weekly. The official social media sites of Australian booksellers and writers claimed their shock at the true identity of the new “queen of erotica.”
Purcell claims that he has had the story of Emma with him for many years, but it was only when erotic fiction became suddenly popular again that he decided to pitch the manuscript to an agent. As reported in the Women’s Weekly article, all of the success of Purcell/Walker is on the back of his being ‘pretty much dyslexic’ and failing his HSC. Yet his love of books is what drove him to take the career path he did, and he credits the author of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, E.L. James, for his sudden success with his books.
But the question is: why the controversy and shock surrounding his secret double life?
Purcell himself said this in relation to his adoption of a female pseudonym:
‘A long time ago it was women who weren’t ever able to be published as writers. Now it’s the other way around in the world of erotic novels. I started writing under Natasha’s name because those sorts of stories would only appeal to women if they knew a woman had written them. Like a secret club in a way.’
The positive here is that Purcell has embraced the new-found power of women writers in a popular genre of fiction. As we know from such counts as VIDA and recent controversies surrounding the Miles Franklin Award, women writers have been grossly underrepresented in reviews, reviewing, prizes and general critical acclaim. Yet in this new craze of erotic fiction, women are essentially the gatekeepers.
This respect and empowerment extends itself into The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy. Unlike in Fifty Shades, Emma is the one who holds all the power and control in the relationship depicted. She is the dominant one, rather than the one being dominated, the latter of which is a common staple for these texts and the cause of some of the genre’s criticism.
By taking a female name, Purcell has acknowledged the fact that the publishing landscape has changed, at least in this genre, in the last century. He has essentially done a Miles Franklin in reverse. But his motives for taking another name might not be in the same spirit as Franklin’s. Rather than fulfilling the desire to be published and to experience the pride that comes with having his work published, Purcell appears to have taken the name Natasha Walker to generate more sales (and profit) within a niche market (or not so niche these days) by manipulating readers with a false sense of common ground.
Purcell’s likening of women readers to a sort of ‘secret club’, I believe, shows a little bit of ignorance from Purcell. Women readers, for many years, had no choice but to read novels written by men as there was no diversity in the market. Even now, a recognisable name on a book is more likely to attract readers rather than a gendered name – although there is still a long way to go in making the book market an equal one. Perhaps his comment could have been more suited to “readers of erotic fiction” rather than blanketing his target audience as “women readers” in a “secret club”; a gross generalisation.
Further to this, in the comments section of his identity revelation article, there was much more feedback on the books themselves rather than the author. The readers of the series appear not to really be fazed by the fact that it is written by a man, just that he continues to write the way they like. This further negates his earlier quote, and shows that his audience is more sophisticated than he initially believed in being able to look beyond the gender of the creator of the books (and well, they should be).
Perhaps this whole incident is a bit of a storm in a teacup given the amount of tweets that were sent out on the day of Natasha Walker’s true identity was revealed. But it certainly is interesting to note how gender bias is still evident in the publishing industry, even when it seems to be simultaneously empowering.