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.
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).
All that can make erotica writers sound defensive. "Americans don't like their sex and their art mixed together," said D.L. King, editor of the review site EroticaRevealed.com and a writer of BDSM fiction (it encompasses bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism). "Erotica writers are still treated like the bottom of the barrel."
And so Abrams was worried that, as a first-time novelist, she'd be seen as a "sex writer," with the reader's lone gratification as her primary purpose. She tried to strike a balance, she said, by focusing on Josie's complexities and avoiding pornographic cue words of the four-letter kind, aiming to "give pleasure in a couple ways" -- literary and sensual.
"We don't go into reading a literary novel with hopes of being titillated," she said. "It's unfortunate, because books are supposed to be read for pleasure."
Of course, when a character's pleasure is pain, some readers simply won't want to come along for the ride. Abrams' mother was one of them.
"Older women might have more of that reaction. When you fought for feminism, and you read about a woman who wants to be dominated, you must have a visceral reaction against it," Abrams said. Her mother "couldn't get past the idea that physical pain could be a positive thing, ever."
Fact or fiction?
And Abrams faced another challenge. In an era when memoirs get press for being false and fiction for being true, she knew she'd face questions about how closely the book comes to her life.
The male lead is Indian, like her husband, literary novelist Vikram Chandra. Abrams wouldn't comment on that point, except to coyly invoke Lorrie Moore's idea that, like cooks, writers have a cupboard full of experiences, but they put things together to create something new.
"It's not like I had an Indian fetish before I dated Vikram," she said, laughing. "I wanted Indian-ness in the book, but I didn't want Divesh to be the suave, dark, foreign romantic hero."
Abrams said she wanted a BDSM player who, unlike Josie, had no explanation for his desires and didn't mind the inexplicableness. It was, for Abrams, a more Eastern way of looking at it and a contrast to the assumption many people have that anyone turned on by pain must be traumatized by past abuse. Speaking to BDSM enthusiasts in her research, she found that most people were simply drawn to it from an early age. One teacher at North Hollywood's private BDSM club Lair de Sade, who goes by the name Rev Mel, agreed.
"We're not all dressed in leather. It is not abuse. We do not spank or paddle or flog in anger," she said. "Most people don't want to be cured -- we're just having fun."
And like Divesh, Abrams doesn't have an explanation for her own preoccupation with things edgy. She maintains she had a happy childhood, never even playing doctor, role-playing for the training-wheel set. Instead she yearned, like many young Angelenos, to become an actress, before getting degrees in English and drama at UC Irvine and a writing master's at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
She remembers witnessing a few traumas from a distance -- a murder-suicide by the father of kids she baby-sat, and the self-inflicted death of a good friend's dad. She acknowledges she might not have written "Playing" had those things happened closer to home. In college and graduate schools, she felt compelled to write not necessarily about sex (though she remembers fondly reading her first sexy book in junior high, Judy Blume's "Wifey") but about children, including their sexuality.
It was that desire that led to "Playing" and her next book, which will look at children raised in an isolated, cultish commune. Abrams noted that the treatment of children in "Playing," and the revelation about Josie's own childhood trauma, made many readers more nervous than the grown-up bondage play did, and led one publisher to turn it down.
"I think people idealize children, but if you spend time with them and let them be themselves, without coaxing them away from darker or negative aspects of themselves, you'll see that [sexuality] is there," Abrams said.
Still, people have had questions for Abrams, including, perhaps inevitably, her psychiatrist father and art therapist mother. "They ask, 'Why are you writing about this?' " Abrams said.
"You can't determine what you're going to write," she said. "Maybe you're repelled by it, maybe you're attracted by it. For whatever reason, it's yours."