A few months ago, just in time for Valentine’s Day, we brought you “Literotica,” a list of titles to help you enjoy the holiday. We chose novels that weren’t merely sexual but stood as works of literature, complete with bold writing, subtle social commentary and the power to do more than just turn you on.
If you’re looking for 50 Shades of Grey, you won’t find it here (but we’re not going to judge if you picked up a copy at your local used bookstore). These are 10 more great examples of highbrow sex writing:
1. Story of O by Pauline Reage
The ultimate story of dominance and submission, Story of O chronicles the journey of a young woman who willingly subjects herself to the whips, chains and more. French author Anne Desclos surprised many, who assumed the S&M story must have been written by a man, when she revealed in 1994 that the work was hers and written as a tribute of devotion to her lover, Jean Paulhan. Think O isn’t worth your time? The French government would disagree; they included the work in a “list of national triumphs.” But be warned: The Story of O is not for the faint of heart. If you struggled with 50 Shades of Grey, you might want to pass on this novel.
2. Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
Wondering where the inspiration for Bjork’s egg-fetish in her “Venus as a Boy” video came from? Look no further. Bataille’s novella, written in 1928, details the sexual escapades of the unnamed narrator and his girlfriend Simone. The two go from having kinky sex to having the kind of sex there’s no appropriate way to summarize. Story of the Eye might alternatively turn you on and disgust you or just disgust you, but either way, you probably want to wait until the second date to bring it up.
3. Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Austrian author Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, intended as the first volume of his unfinished Legacy of Cain series, tells the story of an unnamed narrator who dreams of talking to Venus about love. Like any bro, our narrator turns to his boy about the dream and is advised to read Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man, a story of male submission.
Fun fact: Masochism is derived from the author’s last name.
4. Vox by Nicholson Baker
Before there was literal phone sex in Her, there was Baker’s novel, the story of two people gettin’ it on via a pay-per-minute service. It’s not all X-rated imagery, though; Baker uses the scenes as a tool by which the reader learns more about the characters and their associations with sex. If that doesn’t convince you to pick up a copy, consider this: Monica Lewinsky gave a copy to Bill Clinton.
5. Justine by Marquis de Sade
Story of O not heavy enough for your taste? Try Justine by de Sade. The work chronicles 14 years in the life of Justine, starting when the title character is a mere 12 years old. Justine can’t catch a single break and is subjected to sexual abuse every single time she attempts to do good. De Sade’s work is indoubtably sadistic (a word he too inspired), but at the end of the tale, the author makes a point about the nature of virtuous behavior through a surprising twist.
6. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain by Anonymous
One of Oscar Wilde’s picks, this series of essays include anecdotes from the life of Jack Saul, a male prostitute whose name was taken from real-life Cleveland Street scandal.The Sins of the Cities of the Plain was one of the first pieces of homosexual pornographic literature ever written in English, so when you pick up a copy, tell yourself that you’re not reading smut, you’re reading history.
7. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Written in first-person, Tropic of Cancer is the story of Miller’s struggling writing career in France from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. Part autobiography and part fiction, the novel switches off between past and present, and occasionally delves into stream of consciousness. It also has more than a few graphic sex scenes. Though the novel was published in 1934, it wasn’t legal to sell in the United States until 1961 (though it was smuggled into the country before then). But don’t be embarrassed to read a copy of Miller’s novel while you’re on the subway: The work was famously defended by some of literature’s greatest, including George Orwell and T. S. Eliot.
8. Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland
If you thought Orange is the New Black was interesting prison literature, pick up a copy of Cleland’s erotic novel, written in a London debtors’ prison and published in 1748. Cleland’s book, composed in the form of a series of letters written by Fanny and addressed to an unnamed woman, features the story of Fanny’s life in her own words, centered around various sexcapades, including prostitution, masturbation and a lot of really big penises.
9. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
This semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1928, revolves around a young man, Orlando, who metamorphosizes into a woman. The novel has plenty of steamy sex scenes, but even more compelling is the look it forces readers to take at gender and seuxality. Yet more reason to pick up Orlando: It’s considered to be one of Woolf’s easiest to read novels. Basically required reading.
10. The Autobiography of a Flea by Anonymous
This anonymously written erotic novel (later revealed to be the work of Stanislas de Rhodes), published in 1887, is the story of a young woman named Bella, though told from the perspective of a flea. Bella is sexually taken advantage of by a cast of characters that include the local priest and her own lover. The novel ends with an orgy that is likely to inspire a religious crisis for even the most devout of readers.
Just because it might not be the kind of literature that you want to admit to having read, doesn’t mean the erotic isn’t a genre that demands dialogue. Many of these books alternate between sex scenes that are enticing and upsetting — perhaps surprisingly so, forcing readers to confront their own sexuality. Others prompt conversation about the way we view sex and gender. (What does the fact that everyone expected the author of Story of O to be male say about society?) More than one title on this list had an impact on censorship, proving that smut can get you off in more than one way.
Sound off below on any thoughts related to erotica or specific novels on this list. And if you have any titles to add — whether they’ve shocked, confused, or interested you — suggest them too.
Adina Applebaum is Michigan native studying English and creative writing at Barnard College. Her crowning achievements in life are memorizing all the lyrics on The Slim Shady LP and eating an entire gallon of chocolate-covered raisins during orientation week of college.
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