10 works of Erotica better than 50 Shades of Grey
Who's saying what
Heidi Maier writes
E.L James’ 50 Shades erotica trilogy may have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide since May, but what are you to do if the poorly written prose and badly enacted sequences of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, make you laugh out loud more often than they titillate or arouse? Heidi Maier offers 10 books suggestions that prove that erotica can rise above 50 Shades:
1. Forever (1975): Oh, the guilty surreptitiousness with which my best friend and I passed this book back-and-forth during grade nine, hiding it from our mothers and writing long letters to one another about its contents.
This teen classic, in which Blume writes frankly and explicitly about her female protagonist’s sex life, taught me far more than any cursory physical education sex ed class ever did and, to this day, I have yet to encounter anybody who, having read it, hasn’t forevermore associated the name ‘Ralph’ with the word ‘penis.’
2. Best Women’s Erotica: Published yearly by US indie feminist press Cleis since the early 1970s, these anthologies are best described as pornography for the discerning female reader, whatever her sexual fantasies or desires.
Fancy some BDSM? Oral sex? Golden showers? Frottage? You’ll find it all in here, free of trite clichés and unintentionally funny euphemisms. Best of all, Cleis also publishes yearly anthologies of Best Gay Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica, Best Bisexual Women’s Erotica and Best Bondage Erotica.
3. John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748): This scandalous book was banned in the 18th century on the grounds of obscenity, and its author was arrested on charges of “corrupting the minds of the King’s subjects.”
Saucy, no? Even today, Cleland’s depictions of female desire, which run the gamut from conventional sex to flagellation, sodomy, masturbation and oral sex are truer and more honestly wrought than anything James’ florid imagination has conjured.
4. E.M Forster’s Maurice (1971): Forster’s novel about a gay male relationship in Edwardian England is as much about the romance of the friendship between its two protagonists as it is a moving, sensuous depiction of a life-altering physical and emotional entanglement.
Is it sexually explicit? No, not especially, but it’s proof that writing about sexual attraction, arousal, desire and sex itself doesn’t have to be hardcore in order to be arousing.
5. Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy (1991): Further proof that explicit doesn’t always equal erotic, Hansen’s sexually charged novel focuses on a young New York nun in 1906. Hansen invites the reader to bear witness to Mariette’s every paroxysm of desire and shame, shiver and flush, abrasion and wounding, bleeding, seizure, crucifixions and miraculous moments of ecstasy.
The lines between the eroticism of the spiritual and physical in Mariette’s world are brought to life through finely chiseled sentences, moments of lush vignette followed by austere fragments and shards of conventional prose narrative. It’s easily one of the most sensuously written books I’ve ever read.
6. D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928): We all know the Victorian era was one of inhibition and repression, so Lawrence’s novel was always going to court controversy with its explication of the forbidden affair between the titular Lady Constance Chatterley and her working-class gardener, Mellors.
The focus of obscenity trials worldwide, even now it’s easy to see what pissed the uptight upper-classes off: unselfconsciously pornographic, it was reviled for explicitly detailed sex scenes and frequent use of the words ‘fuck’ and ‘penis.’ Still, Lawrence’s smut is also about as poetic and tender as it gets.
7. Anäis Nin’s Delta of Venus (1978) and Little Birds (1979): Nin was always apologetic about having “written pornography and, in doing so, put my reputation as a literary writer at stake.” It’s true – Nin spares no detail, writing prose that is highly sexually charged and explicit.
Still, she’s no exploitative pornographer – these are stories that shun the objectification of women and instead put their protagonists firmly in control of sating their many and varied sexual appetites.
8. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999): Though it’s now synonymous with Ang Lee’s masterful film adaptation, Proulx’s powerful short story is an exploration of the deep and largely unspoken love between two men.
It is written with lyrical prose and a sense of heartbreak and longing that makes its moments of carnality all the more affecting, the graphic sex scenes manage to be at once tender, brutal, unforgiving and a heartbreaking symbol of a forbidden love, “the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.”
9. Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy: Fans of James’ trilogy might want to brace themselves – Rice’s uncompromising BDSM scenes make 50 Shades look like mere child’s play.
First published in 1971 and recently republished, Rice’s erotic trilogy resets Sleeping Beauty in a medieval fantasy world complete with some seriously hardcore pornographic scenes involving bisexual dalliances, BDSM, bestiality and sexual role-playing.
10. Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body (1992): Gay or straight, male or female, Winterson’s short, brilliant novel offers readers a subversive portrayal of androgynous passion and desire.
It’s a provocative, extraordinarily sensual story in which she articulates the ache of desire and longing with unmatched intensity and singularity, essentially dissecting both the female body and its desires in stunningly inventive, lyrical prose. It’s quixotic, sensuous stuff that does double duty, stirring both body and mind.