At my daughter’s raucous sixth birthday party, I overheard a lively discussion going on between a group of middle-aged women seated at my dining room table. The topic: how much they abhorred Fifty Shades of Grey and erotic fiction in general.
As someone who has read some extraordinary—and truly transcendent—erotica in my life, I had to say something. I took a seat at the table and pulled up my soapbox…
The phenomenal popularity of E. L. James’ erotic romance sequence has been a blessing and a curse for erotic fiction. While it has brought millions of readers to the storied genre, it has also created an undeserved stigma; this trilogy is most definitely not representative of erotic fiction.
Fifty Shades and erotica in general can be a divisive topic, so let’s start with the obvious: the “quality” of erotica is completely subjective. What is double fudge brownie ice cream to one reader may be vanilla to another. I’m a pretty open-minded guy who has read all kinds of erotic narratives (gay and lesbian, alien, and even zombie!) and, for me, it’s all about the story. It has to be well-written, atmospheric, and multilayered, and it must feature characters who are intriguing and easy to identify with. There is a level of vicariousness in erotic fiction, and if a story moves me physically and emotionally, that’s success in my book.
But let me tell you—that is much easier said than done. I have read countless erotic stories and novels that are either explicit to the point of revulsion, or so overly flowery in their description that they verge on comedy.
Whether you’re a hardcore fan of Fifty Shades looking for new reads or someone who has been sadly disappointed by Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey’s carnal escapades and decided to seek out “the good stuff,” this list of novels should more than satisfy you.
Here are six—fittingly, a dirty half-dozen—of my all-time favorite erotic reads:
1. Delta of Venus, by Anais Nin
I can honestly say that this collection of short stories, originally published in 1978, changed my life. I found this unassuming little paperback book on my mother’s nightstand when I was young (maybe in fifth or sixth grade) and, aside from some of the taboo topics, I was mesmerized by Nin’s brutally honest writing style. Reading erotica from the female perspective also helped me to understand more than a few things about women…
2. The Story of O, by Pauline Réage
I didn’t encounter this classic 1954 novel about domination and submission until my early adulthood, when I began managing bookstores. More than a little disturbing but virtually unputdownable, it’s the inspiration behind hundreds of contemporary—and undeniably derivative—stories and novels.
3. The Story of X, by A. J. Molloy
While the comparisons between this soon-to-be-released novel and Réage’s classic are inevitable considering its title, I enjoyed The Story of X much more than The Story of O. Revolving around the relationship between a naïve American grad student living in Naples and an enigmatic billionaire who is rumored to have ties to organized crime, this novel—which features debauchery, orgiastic sex, and spiritual eroticism—is, above all else, an unforgettable romance. Ingeniously constructed, richly described, and undeniably steamy, this is an “I’ll-have-what-they’re-having” kind of read!
4,5, and 6. The Sleeping Beauty trilogy, by A. N. Roquelaure (pseudonym for Anne Rice)
Originally published in the early ‘80s, this trilogy (The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty’s Punishment, and Beauty’s Release) were the first novels I’d read by Anne Rice. Like The Story of O, these novels deal with some highly taboo topics, but Rice’s eloquent and immersive writing style and the fusion of fairy tale, fantasy, and erotic romance make this a remarkable reading experience.
One last thing before I get off my soapbox: erotic fiction can be so much more than just adult literary escapism. It can offer up invaluable insights into the human condition, and it can help us to better understand ourselves, our partners, and the world around us. If you do decide to read any or all of the above books, read between the lines—you might be pleasantly surprised with what you find.
Which erotic novels do you recommend?