The latest, greatest thing has bubbled up from the depths of the Youth Internet. It's the serial novel After, written in installments by a 25-year-old Texan named Anna Todd. And it's pretty much the One Direction fanfic version of 50 Shades of Gray. If you've ever wanted to bone Harry Styles, well, this is the novel for you.
After is probably the biggest Internet phenom you've never heard of. Todd has 156,000 Twitter followers. Wattpad—which has built an entire, sleek landing page for the story—claims "600 million reads" total for the three books in the ongoing series. Works published on the site are readily available, so it's not like that's a sales figure, and the breakdown between unique visitors and repeat readers isn't clear.
But that still represents a lot of eyeballs. And now, Deadline reports, United Talent Agency has signed to rep the screen rights, so clearly someone thinks this could be a feasible movie property.
You can't blame them for building 50 Shades-shaped castles in the sky. After got its start on Wattpad, which is basically Tumblr if it had been designed for publishing serial fiction. Readers follow their favorite sagas and get new dispatches ASAP, generally through their phones. The site, which has been knocking around since 2006, was built for mobile reading, but only broke through when everyone a) got used to user-generated content and b) began carrying their smartphones everywhere. They just raised another $46 million of venture capital, and the company boasts of 5 billion minutes spent on Wattpad every month.
The model draws a lot of comparisons to the Victorians and their love of serials. But Dickens, this ain't. If you complained about the prose of 50 Shades, After is going to send you into a conniption:
Todd cheerfully admits that her writing process is, shall we say, very carefree. In a self-interview for fans (via a New York Times profile of the site), she said: "I barely ever reread the chapter before posting because I overthink things and I feel like overediting or trying to use too many words can ruin the story."
"I just put headphones in and type. I don't plan anything (except the big twist in the story) so it just comes out. I wish I had a better answer lol," she added.
And what a story: Our heroine, virtuous good girl Tessa, departs for college, leaving her very sweet boyfriend Noah behind. He wears Gap cardigans and they've agreed to wait until marriage. She's on campus approximately 15 minutes before meeting Harry. She realizes that she very, very much wants to climb Harry like a tree, despite his being a bad boy with tattoos who drinks, "doesn't date" and is almost always surly. Imagine Health Ledger's character from 10 Things I Hate About You, but strip him of everything charming.
It is also unabashedly fanfic. Tessa has been in her dorm room mere moments when in stroll Harry and a friend named Niall; Liam, Zayn and Louis show up later. The IRL Harry Styles appears on the cover of the book, a side panel next to the story provides the "cast" of the book, and it's tagged as fan fiction. (In a statement on her Instagram, Todd clarified that, "Harry's name would not stay the same in a movie/book. He would not be involved.")
The dialogue is a comical combination of filthy and uh-are-you-new-to-this:
"You're so sexy, Tess," he says. The thought of dirty talk never appealed to me but somehow Harry saying those words is the most sensual and sexy thing I have ever heard.
He also says things like, "Your pulse has quickened hasn't it? Your mouth is dry, you have that feeling... down there." They're constantly engaging in some sort of frankly described sexual act, but they limit themselves to the heaviest of petting for pages and pages and pages. Like 50 Shades, the book thinks it's dirtier than it is, but at least it blessedly skips the light S&M.
It also echoes the troubling dynamics of 50 Shades. Their romance progresses in fits and starts, but mostly: Harry is standoffish, Tessa is attracted but determined to stay away, Harry gets drunk and lets his guard down, they engage in some sexual act and repeat ad infinitum. For instance, at one point Harry get drunk and starts breaking shit. Liam calls Tessa to come sort him out, even though they're not even dating—she's just the only one who gets him, you see. This noxious exchange follows:
After he half-assedly apologizes, she gives him a hand job.
This happens over and over and over again—Harry behaves at best like a prick, at worst like an abusive boyfriend in the making. Presumably this continues for the rest of the trilogy (though I only made it three-quarters of the way through the first book). How anyone even gets that from Harry Styles, boy band hunk, is anyone's guess.
But if this does turn your crank, rest assured there's plenty more where that came from. In fact, Wattpad is littered with One Direction fan fiction. There are literally thousands of works tagged with either "One Direction" or names of members of the group. Highlights include Babysitting One Direction:
All eighteen year old Anna Lee wanted was a summer babysitting job. That's exactly what she got when she recieved a call from someone named Simon requesting a babysitter for his five sons. Who knew that the five boys would be the boy band One Direction? Or that sometimes they'd be babysitting her!
Wattpad isn't entirely One Direction. There are romances, there are paranormal fantasies, there's your more traditional fanfic. Oh, and fanfics of our good friends 5SOS. But Harry Styles just pops up again and again, imagined in hundreds of different ways. Just another reminder if that if we could somehow harness the horniness of young women, we'd need never build another coal-burning power plant.
One thing's for sure, though, and that's Todd is an inspiration to teens everywhere: