It's hard not to judge Melanie Abrams' recently published debut novel by its cover.
Against a background of sensually rumpled burgundy satin sheets is a head of sensually rumpled blond curls, looking downward, eyes in shadow, betraying no expression. Two pale arms stretch upward, spotlighted so they're nearly white, fists clenched, wrists tied with a dark green sash. To the left, the title swoons in matte gold script: "Playing."
Abrams, 35, loves the cover. At her reading at Book Soup earlier this month, she flashed the book suggestively, like a trench-coated peddler of dirty magazines, and it won a titter from the crowd.
"For a first novel, what do you have other than the cover? No one has heard of me," she said two days later over coffee at a shop near her childhood home in Woodland Hills. Eight months pregnant, Abrams wore a demure wrap dress and thick-knit sweater and donned a soft brown bob, looking nothing like the writer of a bondage-spiked book.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Melanie Abrams: An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about author Melanie Abrams identified the blog written by Susannah Breslin as ReverseCowgirl.com, suggesting that was the Web address. The correct URL is reverse cowgirlblog.blogspot.com/.
As Abrams is first to admit, anyone who expects titillation on every page will be dispirited. Part erotica, part chick or mommy lit, part memoir-mimicking confession of childhood sexuality and trauma, "Playing" may be the perfect storm of marketable genres, written by a woman with literary-fiction ambitions.
"Playing" explores the dark sexual compulsions of Josie, a grad student and live-in nanny who falls for the man her boss has a crush on. By day she's picking up her charge at school and buying groceries, but by night, Josie's bound and beaten by Divesh, a brutish surgeon. Abrams describes their first encounter: "He whipped her with even, steady strokes, a thousand pinpricks caressing her, a million razor-sharp kisses, and she arched her back. . . ." With each session, Josie comes closer to understanding why she wants the whip and what it has to do with the punishments she hungrily imagined suffering as a young girl.
Abrams joins a long line of writers who have tried to satisfy their readers' literary and sexual tastes with graphic detail of not-so-vanilla sex acts. The list includes the men who gave their names to the practices found in "Playing" (the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) and, perhaps most famously, the pseudonymous Pauline Reage, who wrote the 1950s sadomasochistic fairy tale "Story of O."
Now, when whatever suits your fancy is easily found online, exploring intense or unusual sexuality has become the purview of commercial and even highbrow literary writers too. Tom Wolfe indulgently explored coed hookup culture in "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Walter Mosley's "sexistential novel," "Killing Johnny Fry," starts with sodomy and gets dirtier and darker from there. Later this year, Chuck Palahniuk will publish "Snuff," about a female porn star's attempt at a record for most sex partners in one day, partially told from the perspective of participant No. 600. Memoirists such as Catherine Millet and Toni Bentley aim at highbrow readers as they describe sex lives many wouldn't dare imagine.
Sex writer and blogger Susie Bright, who has edited several anthologies of erotica, noted that -- as fashion popularizes S&M-style clothing, sitcoms make graphic jokes about sex positions and novelists continue to mix elements of genre and literary writing -- publishers have become open to printing books that take up sex.
"I don't know if you can write literary fiction these days and pretend sex doesn't exist," Bright said.
Genre works are going strong too. Mainstream publishers and romance publishing houses -- which, according to Bright, are getting edgier themselves -- are setting up erotica imprints, some specifically for S&M-themed texts. Erotica sales are up nearly 25% over the last three years, according to Nielsen BookScan.
But not everyone is optimistic about publishers' progress in sexual liberation.
Susannah Breslin, ReverseCowgirl.com blogger and author of the short-story collection "You're a Bad Man, Aren't You?," compared the highbrow publishing world to "the frigid girl at the party who's not sure if she wants to jump into the orgy."
She cited the difficulty of writing sex well as one reason that racy literary fiction doesn't always make it past publishers.
"Sex is so not about language. It's the body, it's primal, it's passion," Breslin said.
The problems of language may be why the divide between literary sex and erotica is so stark -- beautiful or intellectual language may not be titillating language, and if climax is the goal, even the best writers' words can't compete with an amateur's quivering camera. Sex scenes have foiled many an experienced novelist; one London literary journal even hands out Razzie-type awards for worst-written sex (past winners include Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, posthumously).