My sister, like many people, read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy — twice. She went on vacation and reported back that “every single female on the beach” was reading them, too. Judging by the massive success of the books, you would think women had never had access to erotic books before.
Maybe a lot of women hadn’t. They don't really sell Anaïs Nin’s books at Target or place them in the checkout line at CVS. Fifty Shades of Grey was a hit because it brought erotica to the masses, to the superstores, to the book clubs that normally stuck with Oprah picks and weepy romances. But there’s a long and illustrious (smutty/illustrious?) history of literary erotica, much of it written by women. Sure there are chains and whips and floggers and spiked collars, but there are also stories that would make Christian Grey blush. There are illicit love affairs, orgies, animals (yes, animals), sex carnivals… One of the great things about erotica is that the stories can be out there. Some of it is completely insane, which is why it’s so fun to read.
So if you’ve been looking for a book that will get your heart racing and your pulse pounding, take a look at these 10 books. They make Christian and Anastasia’s tryst look pretty vanilla.
1. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin
Nin is a grande dame of erotica, and Delta of Venus is a perfect place to start. It’s a series of vignettes about erotic encounters, and her writing is sensual, not smutty. (Well, depending on your definition of smutty.) The stories definitely aren’t tame, and they make Fifty Shades look like Mary Poppins . Check out her book Little Birds, too, or Tropic of Cancer by her onetime lover Henry Miller.
2. House of Holes by Nicholson Baker
Baker’s book Vox was an erotic novella about phone sex that got a bump in sales when everyone found out that Monica Lewinsky supposedly gave a copy to Bill Clinton back in the day. House of Holes is a series of vignettes that take place in an erotic theme park, kind of like a carnival of sex. Meg Wolitzer called it “wild and hallucinatory,” and Slate’s Kate Roiphe called it “A sexy, disturbing, funny book.” It’s always a good sign when smart women approve.
3. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
This one is about a female teacher’s seduction of her 14-year old student, so the subject matter is controversial for obvious reasons. But Nutting handles it with intelligence and dark humor. It’s like a reverse Lolita , with a little bit of American Psycho thrown in. Plus lots of sex.
4. Story of O by Dominique Aury/Pauline Réage
Ask anyone about the top five erotic books, and Story of O will probably be on the list. It caused a sensation when it was first published in France in 1954, especially because no one knew the author’s real identity until… 1994! It’s about a beautiful fashion photographer in Paris who has a lover a little like Christian Grey, but he especially likes it when she’s sexually tortured by other men. There’s bondage, whips, and chains, and it’s well written. In 1994, after her identity was revealed, Aury (who wrote under the name Réage) said she wrote the book for her lover at the time, after he told her she wouldn't be able to write an erotic book. Ha!
5. The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet
This erotic book is a memoir about a woman’s sexual indulgences over several years. She takes part in orgies or gang bangs in the Bois du Boulogne park in Paris, depending on the day. The heroine doesn’t apologize or rationalize her sexual appetites, which is refreshing. It’s not the most beautifully written book ever, but it is frank and honest. And horny.
6. The Lover by Marguerite Duras
This one became a massive worldwide bestseller, and it was turned into a massively erotic movie in 1992. It takes place in 1929 French Indochina, and it’s about a French girl who falls for an older, wealthy Chinese man. Their affair is forbidden for many reasons (she’s a teen, he’s older; she’s French, he’s Chinese; she’s poor, he’s rich) and if you want a sensual book that has a touch of romance, take a look.
7. Emmanuelle by Emmanuelle Arsan
On a flight to see her husband in Thailand, Emmanuelle meets a stranger. He seduces her, and by the time they touch town in Bangkok she’s basically become a gold member of the Mile High Club. Emmanuelle’s sexuality has been awakened, and she goes on a quest to fulfill all of her desires. Every last one of them.
8. Exit to Eden by Anne Rice
There’s more to Anne Rice than sexy vampires. She wrote this one under the name Anne Rampling, and it’s about Lisa, who is the head mistress in charge of The Club, a tropical resort where wealthy people can indulge in all their sadomasochistic fantasies (basically it’s Christian Grey’s dream vacation). When Elliott comes to The Club, he and Lisa go to town, so to speak.'
9. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
If you like your erotica to be a little more literary, check out Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior . You know the movie Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal? It’s based on one of the stories in this collection. Gaitskill looks at the darker side of humanity, from unrestrained sexual desire to drug addiction. It’s about life on the fringe, the search for connection, and the nature of desire. It was a National Book Award finalist, too.
10. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
No list of erotica books would be complete without story of repressed, horny Constance Chatterley, who falls in love/lust with the gamekeeper at her husband’s estate. Lawrence’s writing isn’t raunchy, but man is it sexy. What’s not said is the key here — it’s all about using your imagination.
So whether you want highbrow erotica or low, take a look at these 10 books and see if they don't make you blush or break into a cold sweat. Have fun.
Image: Universal Pictures