Highbrow erotica: How porn got posh

An avalanche of new erotic fiction is crashing open the bedroom door left politely closed by Barbara Cartland. Upmarket readers are hungry for 'stimulatingly real' narratives - and the publishers are only too happy to supply it. By Jonathan Brown
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The Independent Culture

The publishing world is poised to unleash an avalanche of torrid yet unstintingly highbrow erotica on the reading public this year as booksellers seek to exploit the growing demand for "posh filth".

This week, Agent Provocateur is marking its 10th anniversary as a purveyor of high-class underwear, with its first foray into publishing. Its two anthologies of sex writing go on sale this week at major chains including Waterstone's, timed, naturally enough, to coincide with St Valentine's Day.

Confessions and Secrets are billed as "sexually frank and stimulatingly real", depicting everything from anonymous couplings in darkened rooms under the watchful eyes of an inquisitive stranger to sex in a crowded public bar. Nine of the 12 authors commissioned for the books are women and the publishers have tried to avoid the faintest whiff of the top shelf.

According to Kate Oldfield of the publishers Pavilion, the stories were chosen for their ability to turn on men and women, as well as the virtue of having "proper stories and proper characters". She said: "The target market is women with confidence who have a strong sexuality - the kind of woman who likes to wear sexy underwear even under a pair of old jeans. But it is also sexy for a man to know what turns a woman on. There is an absolute explosion of this type of writing. Previous novels have helped break down the taboos."

Booksellers are happy to give the public what it wants. Pete Ayrton, founder of the cutting-edge independent publisher Serpent's Tail, makes no secret that the success of his "Europorn" titles helps keep afloat his stable of heavyweight novelists, among them the Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek and the Orange Prize-winning Lionel Shriver.

"It is just not sufficient or possible to survive economically publishing good literature and literary fiction in this country. In other countries similar independent literary publishers are subsidised by the state. But that doesn't exist in this country and publishers need something to pay the rent," said Mr Ayrton.

Serpent's biggest seller is The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Even if it did disappoint some of its "single-handed" male readers for its clinical prose style, the book was a critical hit.

Catherine Millet's novel is billed as a "graphic memoir of 30 years of sexual adventures" taking us on a journey through the bedrooms and salons of upper-middle-class Paris. The author uses her experiences at gang-bangs and orgies to debate such matters as the relative pleasures of vaginal versus oral sex.

Serpent's Tail scored two other massive erotic hits in recent years. Melissa P's international bestseller 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed sold one million copies. It chronicles the erotic awakening of a "sexually ravenous" 15-year-old Italian girl. Emily Maguire's Taming the Beast brought more kinky sex and more sales.

This year will see a new anthology edited by Mitzi Szereto, who has written more than a dozen books on the subject and runs successful courses on erotic writing. Submission Call: Women's Tales of Revenge invites female writers "screwed over" by the "unfair sex" to enjoy sweet revenge on their former lovers in the pages of the book.

Also eagerly awaited is Toni Bentley's The Surrender, hailed in the United States as a minor masterpiece, and set to cross the Atlantic some time this year. The author, a former New York City Ballet dancer, explores her penchant for the practices previously outlawed under Section 12 of the old Sexual Offences Act.

Bentley sees it somewhat less prosaically. "Bliss, I learnt from being sodomised, is an experience of eternity in a moment of real time. The penetration is deeper, more profound; it rides the edge of sanity. The direct path ... to God, has become clear, has been cleared."

Bentley sees herself as part of a long tradition of sex writers - a genre that can date its modern roots to Anais Nin and the Story of O - which caused widespread consternation and uproar in their day.

One company, Black Lace, has in a somewhat quieter way been successfully sating the passion for erotic fiction in Britain since 1993. With more than 250 titles to its name and three million books sold, Black Lace sought to bridge the gap between Nin and the "big, bad materialistic Eighties women's bonkbusters". It produces a new anthology every six months and promises lots more "outrageous sex" this year.

Rowan Pelling, former editor of the Erotic Review, fears the taste for fiction is in danger of being surpassed by the public's fascination with real people and real lives. Evidence the success of Belle de Jour, which began life as a blog but went on to become one of the publishing sensations of last year, not least because of the media guessing game over the identity of its anonymous author. One of the few people to know the secret, Ms Pelling is still not telling. But she does believe women are uniquely equipped to write in this genre.

"Men's fantasies don't tend to be so detailed - they are more self conscious and they get terribly embarrassed about sex and have problems saying 'this is how it felt'. It is more a case of 'bend over'."

And finally what is the difference between erotica and pornography? One memorable description has it that in erotica you use a feather while in pornography the whole damn chicken gets roped in. Pete Ayrton puts it more sedately. "The quality is in the writing. The primary aim of the books is not to titillate, in fact no one with a normal sexual appetite would find the sexual life of Catherine M arousing. It is a very courageous and true account of a woman's sexual odyssey," he says.

Ms Pelling does not see it much differently. "Erotica is more complex. It is about relationships, about the imagination. It has to have more of a context. The British quite like things a bit naughty."

Off the top shelf

* THE STORY OF O

Published in 1954 by Anne Desclos under the pen name Pauline Reage, O scandalised society with its graphic descriptions of sadomasochism. Despite winning the Prix des Deux Magots, the French authorities tried to ban it.

* DIARY OF ANAIS NIN

The publication of 10 volumes of her sexual diaries beginning in 1966, helped elevate this once obscure literary figure to international celebrity and made her a feminist icon.

* THE SEXUAL LIFE OF CATHERINE M

French art critic Catherine Millet's tour de force through swinging Paris sold more than a million copies worldwide since it was published in 2002. Explicit yet strangely unarousing.

* THE BLACK LACE BOOK OF WOMEN'S SEXUAL FANTASIES

The first collection of women's sexual fantasies written by women for women proved an instant hit in Britain when it was published in 1999. Blended analytical essays with real-life experiences.

* BELLE DE JOUR

Billed as the British answer to Catherine M, the anonymous author charts a year in the life of a high-class London prostitute. Based on the cult internet blogs.

* 100 STROKES OF THE BRUSH BEFORE BED

Has become part of the "Europorn" canon of works. Charts the sexual odyssey of Sicilian schoolgirl Melissa P as she sleeps with men and women and experiments with kinky sex.

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