When author Carolyn Banks started to write her novel, "Mr. Right," she began it with a sex scene.
"And it was good," she recalls. "I liked it."
So did someone else. One day a purse snatcher made off with her bag. Inside were her keys, credit cards and money. Plus the pages of the sex scene.
The purse was recovered, and everything was inside -- keys, credit cards and money. Except for the sex scene.
Ms. Banks figured she was onto something. The book was published in 1979.
Now the American publishing industry is onto it, too, having discovered that erotica is hot in more ways than the obvious.
A recent spate of books shows that it is increasingly available, increasingly acceptable and -- just maybe, in an age of AIDS and reticence -- increasingly useful.
This isn't Big Harry's Porno Press we're talking about. This is mainstream publishing. Houses like HarperCollins and Anchor.
And forget the stereotypes. It's not just for men. Erotica by
women and for women got a push about a decade ago, when sex therapist Lonnie Barbach published a collection of erotic pieces called "Pleasures." Today, there is a shelf-full of titles, from Ms. Barbach's latest, "Erotic Interludes," to "The Unmade Bed," "Herotica" and "Slow Hand."
Neither is it all fiction. Consider "Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey," by Richard Rhodes. Then there's "Hot and Bothered: Sex and Love in the Nineties," in which Wendy Dennis gripes about how difficult it is to find an acceptable sex partner.
There's erotica for and by blacks, too. The newly published "Erotique Noire" includes fiction by some of today's most venerable writers -- Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor and Ntosake Shange -- plus a historical perspective from Temple University's Charles Blockson.
Says Ms. Banks in an interview: "People are saying, OK, let's admit it, just say it outright. We like sex and we like sex in books and sometimes we want to read a book where that's the whole point."
No doubt the most brash of all -- Madonna's "Sex," a $49.95 book of photos, poems and snippets of prose -- is the talk right now.
Strip off the hype, though, and not even Madonna can claim this is anything new.
How come we want to know all this stuff? Has America suddenly gone voyeuristic?
Get real. We've always wanted to know more about sex. What seems to be new is that now it's OK to openly want to know more about it.
It's all part of a general loosening up of society, one in which "once-taboo words are now freely spoken on network television," writes author Walter Kendrick in his New York Times review of "Vox," Nicholson Baker's novel about telephone sex.
While sexually explicit material for males has for centuries been presented unapologetically -- albeit somewhat clandestinely -- today's erotica seems to feel a need to legitimize itself.
Erotica may be just as graphic as porn, but it's softened with the hint of a relationship, writers and publishers say. And erotica sort of takes longer, while porn "cuts to the chase," as Michelle Slung, editor of the women's collection "Slow Hand," puts it.