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The girls get steamy between the covers

By Edel Coffey

Maeve Binchy is famous for her unique humour and insight; Cecelia Ahern is popular for her unlikely twists and touches of magic; Charlotte Roche has a different formula for success -- haemorrhoids, hairy armpits and halitosis, mixed together into an unlikely erotic pot-pourri.

Her book Wetlands has become a massive success in Germany, where its seedy sexuality has led to a million sales. And from today you can buy it here.

The book starts with Helen in hospital, recovering from anal surgery after a shaving accident. From the start, it is clear that this is not women's fiction as we know it -- the opening line is: "As far back as I can remember, I've had haemorrhoids."

Readers expecting a romp through adolescent fantasies should be warned that this book is not about titillation. It is a relentless and detailed exploration of Helen's orifices and secretions. The book has even been known to make people faint.

So, is this tawdry tale likely to hit the Irish jackpot too? Well, certainly erotica for women has become the surprise hit of the last few years.

It probably started with TV series like Sex and the City, which was followed by internet blogs where anonymity was the big attraction for women writers -- the pleasure of being as explicit as they liked without fear of judgment. The most notorious was Belle du Jour, which became a huge success and led to a book and a TV adaptation starring Billie Piper.

Maggie Alderson is a novelist and editor of a new collection of erotic fiction, In Bed With ... She said: "I think Sex And The City has had a real impact on women's relationship to their own sexuality. You're not a slut for having 'dirty' thoughts; you're just a healthy human being. A strong libido is a healthy libido. The Samantha attitude to sex -- I like it, so I'm going to have it -- is a very healthy one."

Maddie West, Assistant Editor with Mira Books, an imprint of Harlequin Mills & Boon, says erotic fiction for women -- or 'romantica' as it is branded -- is an expanding market. "Women are just increasingly open talking about sex, especially since the success of things like Sex And The City."

While we may be more liberated, Ms West says some women still have a problem with being seen to read erotic fiction. Modern erotic got around this problem by cleverly disguising themselves as harmless chick-lit, with bland pastel book covers and pretty line drawings. Let's face it, nobody wants to be seen reading a book with a naked couple in a steamy clinch on the cover on the morning commute to work.

'That's something we've worked very hard on," says Ms West. "We've been looking at how you make the covers convey erotica without them being too saucy. One thing we looked at is how do women find these books in bookshops. We found that it's tough for a woman to walk into a bookshop and go straight to the Erotica section. What's exciting for us at the moment is eBooks, because people will happily download something in the privacy of their own home."

The incredible success of erotic fiction by women for women has led to a proliferation of the genre, which includes the good, the bad and the downright gratuitous. Such mixed standards have drawn accusations of a cynical 'sex sells' attitude by authors.

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"I think with any successful book there are always band-wagon-ers," says Alderson. "Look back to Bridget Jones's Diary. That unleashed lots of single-women-in-their-30s novels, but I think the reason Bridget Jones was so successful was it was absolutely expressing something that was very much of the moment. I think, post-Bridget Jones, it was Sex and the City and I think this is the next stage of women's sexual liberation."

As for accusations that women writing explicitly about their sexual adventures is anti-feminist, Alderson says, "There's been some stuff in the press here about how women being unembarrassedly sexually active is not liberating to women and I just don't agree with that. As long as it's on your own terms and you're not doing anything you feel uncomfortable with, how can it possibly be bad for you?"

Well, one female lawyer discovered exactly how bad it could be when she was sacked for publishing an erotic novel online. Perhaps it's best to stick to the anonymous blogging until you've secured the publishing deal.

Wetlands is published by Fourth Estate today.

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