Let’s cut right to the chase: Erotica has gotten a bad rep, and we’re sick of it. You just say the word “erotica,” and people immediately think of Danielle Steel or 50 Shades of Grey. And sure, there is plenty of sex writing out there that is nothing more than smutty, senseless garbage, but there’s also a great deal of highbrow sex writing. We consider the 10 novels below highbrow not just for their quality of writing, but because they cover more than sex. They speak to issues of gender politics, classicism and cultural differences, and show how those issues affect sexual relationships. In other words: Expect no Fabio.
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The ne plus ultra of highbrow erotica, Lolita has stood the test of time, and for good reason. First published in Paris in 1955, Nabokov’s classic novel tells the story of literature professor Humbert Humbert’s obsession with his stepdaughter, the 12-year-old Dolores Haze, or, as he calls her in private, “Lolita.” The book is told from Humbert’s perspective, drawing on fragmented memories to produce a twisted account of incest and hebephilia.
2. Sexus by Henry Miller
This is the first book in Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, which fictionalizes the six-year period of Miller’s life in Brooklyn, which he spent falling for his second wife and struggling to become a writer. Sexus is about the break-up of Miller’s first marriage and his introduction to the sultry, mysterious dancer who would become his second wife. Of the book, The New York Times wrote, “Miller uses licentious sex scenes to set the stage for his philosophical discussions of self, love, marriage, and happiness.” Take that, romance novels that you buy at the airport!
3. Little Birds by Anais Nin
This is a collection of 13 short stories covering a wide variety of topics. Nin, who jokingly referred to herself as the “madam of this snobbish literary house of prostitution,” writes about everything from lesbianism to pedophilia with stunning clarity. The title is a reference to actual birds that one of the story’s protagonists uses to seduce young schoolgirls up to his attic, as well as the young girls themselves, who flee when the protagonist finally exposes his true motives. Little Birds is Nin’s second book of erotica, and it’s worth noting her first book, Delta of Venus, as well; many of Nin’s characters appear in both.
4. The School of Whoredom by Pietro Aretino
The title alone is enough to make you want to read this book, but it’s what’s inside this 16th-century book that’ll keep you up all night reading. Aretino is recognized as being the originator of European pornographic writing, which, let’s face it, is just highbrow erotica. The School of Whoredom is about a mother teaching her daughter the ways of men, love and sex, and will put whatever birds-and-bees conversation that your parents sat you down for to utter shame.
5. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
This 1973 novel stirred up quite a bit of controversy when it was first published, and even in 2014, it’s easy to see why. Jong’s book is written in the first person, told from the perspective of Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, who, on a trip to Vienna with her second husband, starts an affair with another man. Jong does not paint Isadora as some flirty, silly girl-woman; she’s a successful poet, focused on finding her place in the world of academia and literature. So often lowbrow erotica paints women as driven by love, but Isadora is driven by success. She goes after what she wants, and when she finds herself unhappy in her marriage, that means going after sex. Jong thus provides an unapologetic take on female sexuality.
6. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
This is Flaubert’s debut novel and his most well known. The story centers around Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife who spends her days engaging in affairs in an effort to escape her unhappiness with her marriage. When it was first published in 1856, the novel was attacked for being obscene, so you know it’s good. If you can hack it, read the original French version, as Flaubert claimed he was always searching for le mot juste, the precise word. However, if you can’t read French, the Lydia Davis translation is regarded as being the best alternative.
7. A Woman Alone at Night by Tamara Faith Berger
Check out that cover — now, that’s some erotic erotica! Berger’s novel tells the story of Mira, who willingly enters the world of sex work but soon finds herself conflicted: She wants to be part of this world, but she’s disgusted by the realities of it. The other girls are judgemental, and the men are often cruel. Berger writes with honesty and clarity about Mira’s situation, and she will likely change your understanding of how the industry works.
8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Woolf's novel follows a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society woman in post-World War I England who shares a love affair with Sally Seton, a married mother of five. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf describes the closeted relationship of Clarissa and Sally in breathtaking prose, giving us the most stunning metaphor for the orgasm that literature has ever seen.
9. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
Lawrence’s novel tells the story of the physical and emotional relationship between an upper-class woman, Lady Chatterley, and a working-class man, Oliver Mellors. Like we mentioned, one of the chief aspects that makes highbrow erotica highbrow is that it isn’t just erotica; it must also be anchored by a heavier topic. In this case, that topic is class. Lawrence, whose own life is rumored to have been the inspiration for this novel, uses this book to highlight the unfair advantages that the upper class has over the working class.
10. Juliette by Marquis de Sade
This novel tells the story of — you guessed it — Juliette, who is a nymphomaniac. De Sade's book was published in 1797 and remains one of the raciest on this list. There are plenty of steamy sex scenes to make you look at the 1700s in a whole different light. If anyone thinks people are more sexual in 2014 than they were back in the day, point them to Juliette.
The above list might make you a little red in the face on the train (or prompt some weirdos to come up to you), but it’s worth it — and not just because it’s fun to read about sex. These books also provide insight into so many different facets of relationships and offer us a look into the history of sex.
But these aren’t the only books that do so! Which other erotic highbrow novels have you enjoyed? Which literary sex scenes have been permanently seared into your memory? Tell us all about it in the comments below!
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
(Image credits, from top: from Stanley Kubrick — Deserving of Worship; from Wikimedia Commons; from Grove Atlantic; from Penguin; from Amazon; from The New York Times; from NPR; from Amazon; from Amazon; from Penguin; from Ken Hollings)
KEEP READING: More on Literature