Chatto & Windus have announced that, starting next year under the title of The Secret Chamber, they will publish a series of erotic novellas from such writers as AS Byatt, Ruth Rendell, Mario Vargas Llosa, Louis de Berniere and Sally Beauman. "I want to take the erotic back into mainstream literary fiction," says their editorial director, Jonathan Burnham, "and show that it can be done by serious writers."
Burnham believes that the time is now right to resurrect an overlooked British tradition which stretches back from Chaucer through Fanny Hill to Lady Chatterley. "Erotica disappeared in this country as a literary genre," he says, "after [DH] Lawrence. Now contemporary authors, like Antonia Byatt, are writing about sex in a very powerful way. But it would be interesting to see what these writers can accomplish in a particular context focused solely on the sexual. I'm saying to them, `Write an erotic novel, make the whole story carry a sexual message, make every single thing that happens move towards the erotic.' Then we'll see what happens. After all, other writers are doing it, especially in France and Italy."
Unfortunately, in a country where a leading literary magazine - The Literary Review - awards a prize for the worst, rather than the best, erotic writing of the year, such noble intentions may provoke a characteristically British retreat into embarrassed ridicule. Especially when Chatto has pre-empted this higher-brow series of novellas with a book that can only be described as down and dirty.
For Eat Me, by the Australian writer Linda Jaivin, and published by Chatto and Windus, is by no means a literary exercise in esoteric elliptical desire. Instead, this oracular novel delivers a well-aimed lick at the crotch; and while Eat Me may have been an outstanding success in Australia, here it runs the risk of being eaten alive.
According to Linda Jaivin, her book is "a laugh as well as a turn-on". There's certainly no shortage of sexual brio. The fantasies of its four female protagonists encompass the fruit section of their local Sydney supermarket; in a (possibly) back-handed compliment to DH Lawrence (in this book it's hard to tell where the hands are coming from) it begins: "She ran her fingers over the fresh figs. Surprising little sacs they were. Funny, dark and wrinkled, yet so exquisite on the tongue. Mother Nature had surely been thinking of Father Nature when she invented figs."
Then, after a series of insertions that underline the importance of washing all purchases from major retail outlets, "Ava dropped the spent fruit back on to the shelf and advanced upon the strawberries."
Aside from this salad bar sensibility, Jaivin tends to steer clear of the troublesome erotica-pornography divide. Whether hard or soft, she believes that sex on the page should be celebratory, graphic and all-inclusive. "Men are supposed to react to pictures," she says, "and women to words. But men like my book. A guy came up to me recently at a rock concert and told me he got really turned on by the grape scene ["Firm fruit in a tight bunch. Large round purple ones... The stems scratched and tickled"]. And women," she giggles, "come up and tell me how hot the `Root-on-a-rock' scene with Rambo was ["Show me your gun, Bo baby... If I put the barrel in my mouth do you promise not to fire?']. They ask me, `Exactly which rock was it in Nielson's Park?"
Jonathan Burnham won't go as far as defending Eat Me. "You were shocked? Good," he says. But then, by way of compensation, he reveals that every book publisher is confronted by two economic imperatives: 80 per cent of book buyers are women and 80 per cent of erotica is bought by women. So, if you put out an erotic novel by a woman with girls in it... he leaves me to fill in the spaces. But what also remains unsaid is the suspicion held by Chatto author Marina Warner that Burnham, who "already uses food and travel books to finance the literary section, will now use erotic pulp for the same purpose".
Jonathan Burnham claims, though, that books like Eat Me can serve a progressive literary purpose in their own right. "Erotica is out there but it's suppressed within romantic fiction or Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper. It still hasn't been pulled out of that genre and expressed directly." Maybe a new generation, he thinks, of writers like Jaivin or Kathy Lette can look at sex and laugh and say it's not this great, dark, terrifying experience. "It might," he believes, "take two noisy, rather brash Australian women to break down those British barriers and inhibitions."
But before Chatto can capitalise on this antipodean dam-busting with their blue-chip novella line-up, their publishing rivals Secker & Warburg have already shown that torrid can be mainstream by making their own foray into erotic respectability. Secker's recently issued novel from the American writer Vicki Hendricks is a hybrid: a traditional hard-boiled pulp novel crossed with "friction". In Miami Purity, though, Hendricks gives "friction" a new twist by reversing the usual sexual manoeuvres of pulp. Rather than a white knight of the streets being led astray, it is Hendricks's white trash, ex-stripper heroine who is led by the libido. This peppermint schnapps- swilling protagonist is manipulated by an homme fatal, and as Sherri Isadora Parlay flatbacks through a noir novel bleached by the Florida sun, her self-destruction pushes its sexual pathology past even today's readers' jaded expectations.
"I know that the book is titillating," says Hendricks. "And I don't mind if people feel aroused. But it's not my primary purpose." Hendricks feels that sex is just one weapon among many in her literary armour. "You have to have various strands going on at the same time in order to flesh out a story. It's not a straight line going forward." Nevertheless she does believe that sex -or a lack of sexual control - motivates most human behaviour. "Much as we'd like to think we're civilised human beings on many other levels, I think we're just sexual animals. That's why sex is an important vehicle for me. It drives the narrative."
It could be this lack of self-consciousness towards erotic writing that has won over so many American critics to her first novel. But Hendricks's commitment to her heroine's relentless appetite did not go totally unopposed. A page-long sequence involving her heroine, Sherri, and her pet dog was considered by her editor to be going "too far". Hendricks insists, however, that the episode was not meant to be exploitative. "To me that scene showed Sherri's total innocence and that she genuinely loved sex for its own sake." She laughs. "But I guess I don't know what other people find distasteful."
An objective assessment of anybody's sexuality is, of course, impossible and it is equally difficult to pin down why one person's "erotica" can be another person's "rot". But one clue to Hendricks's facility with the sexual could lie in a paradoxical characteristic - which Antonia Byatt has pointed out as essential to effective erotica - that of prohibition. And Hendricks's Catholic upbringing certainly emphasised the prohibitive.
"During my schooling," she remembers, "the word `sex' was never mentioned by our teachers. We were bound up within very strict rules. The nuns told us, for instance, not to wear patent leather shoes because they could reflect up your dress. They suggested we put food colouring in our baths so that we couldn't see our bodies; and if we went out on a date we were told to take a telephone book with us in case we had to sit on someone's lap." Hendricks's own sexual make-up was then force-fed by a sudden move from a cold, windswept Cleveland to the body-beautiful culture of Miami. And, as she looks out over a bleak, grey London, she recollects, "They have this ad campaign in Miami: `The rules are different here.' They're not, but they are looser."
But however rich its sexual sources and narrative thrust, Miami Purity is just a one-off for Secker & Warburg. Chatto, on the other hand, is the only UK publishing house to have a grand, overall strategy towards the erotic. "We have to introduce the erotic back into fiction, back into British life and British culture," declares Jonathan Burnham. "We have to work against the British attitude to sex - the giggling school boy embarrassed by smut." If that is a clarion call for the literary emancipation of erotica then Burnham is aware not just of the critical pitfalls but also of a potential, political backlash. "For the authorities," he says, the shock of Lady Chatterley did not lie in its contents but "the fact that it was cheaply priced and published by a reputable imprint like Penguin."
He admits that until a couple of years ago he would have hesitated to commission a series of erotic novellas. "That's not because erotica has become respectable but because we have all become more aware of what erotica is and the role of the erotic in our lives." Even more importantly he believes that the dispute over porn and erotica can now be dismissed as a distraction from the real battle between good and bad writing.
Traditional porn, he states, "has to work with stereotypes on top of a plot that's set on rails". Alternatively, good fiction "challenges our preconceptions and breaks them down"; and nowhere is there more fertile territory for a writer to explore those prejudices, he believes, than the sexual side of our nature. According to Burnham, this sort of sexual deconstruction is now the sole property of serious writers. "They can make you understand a sexual relationship say, between a 70-year-old woman and a 19-year-old boy in a way that cheap fiction or television can't or won't do. It's something that only words are capable of. After all, nothing is as arousing as beautiful writing."
n Erotic Classics: `The Sheik' by EM Hull, `Three Weeks' by Elinor Glyn and `The Way of an Eagle' by Ethel M Dell are published by Virago Press; `Eat Me' is published by Chatto & Windus on 28 March; `Miami Purity' is published by Secker & WarburgReuse content