You May Also Like: Steamy Literature Edition
by Julia Carpenter
We live in a world of instant literotica, Tumblr porn GIFs, and Snapchat-timed smut. But it’s still exciting when a hardcover, real-life book manages to get it right. Girls in high school still trade copies of the scandalously steamy Tamora Pierce series, and dirty nerds still scan any college curriculum offering an Anaïs Nin deep-dive.
The latest book to excite my beloved cadre of gutter-minded bookworms is the British blockbuster “Maestra.” The Guardian called it “historical biography meets erotica,” and the author photos alone (black heels red wine) are enough to signal to curious readers that yeah, this isn’t just another “good book.” In 2011, Salon began awarding new books the “Good Sex Award,” given to the most tastefully risqué sex writing. But for those of us searching for bawdiness beyond the best-seller list, it gets more difficult to find something good. You know. Good. And not just Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
So I’ve polled some women and put together a starter’s guide to the delightfully indecent. And sure, the barometer for “good” here varies depending on what you fancy: some is sensual, some is suggestive and some involves whips and chains. But the loose standard for the collection below was whether the answer was yes to each of these questions: “Is it better than ’50 Shades?’” “Can I read it on the train? Like, the actual book, not the Kindle version?” and “I shouldn’t recommend it to my mom, right?”
- Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
A wonderfully dramatic family friend, who continued dying her hair jet black well into her seventies and practiced ballet up until the day she died, pressed a well-worn copy of this book into my hands when I was eleven. A mere thirty pages in, I was experiencing a miniature sexual awakening, brought on by Zimmer Bradley’s intricate reimagining of Camelot. Her main character, Morgan Le Fay, has anonymous sex within the first chapter.
But he seemed to notice nothing, fondling her breasts, taking the nipple between his fingers and then, gently, between his lips and teeth. Then she lost thought altogether, nothing existing in the world except his hands touching her, the pulse of awareness in her own fingers … It seemed he was not yet ready, though she was all alive to him, her body flowing with the pulse of life and desire in her.
- Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Remember that scene in “Gilmore Girls” when sweet, doe-eyed Rory’s introduction to sexting is just pecking out quotes from Henry Miller’s notoriously “obscene” novel? It’s not a bad strategy.
I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’ chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces.
- Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
When Leaves was deemed “obscene literature” in 1882, publishers demanded poems like “A Woman Waits for Me” be removed.
Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself,
In you I wrap a thousand onward years,
On you I graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and
The drops I distil upon you shall grow fierce and athletic
girls, new artists, musicians, and singers,
The babes I beget upon you are to beget babes in their turn,
I shall demand perfect men and women out of my love-
I shall expect them to interpenetrate with others, as I and
you interpenetrate now,
I shall count on the fruits of the gushing showers of them, as
I count on the fruits of the gushing showers I give now,
I shall look for loving crops from the birth, life, death,
immortality, I plant so lovingly now.
- My Education by Susan Choi
Not exactly a teacher-seduces-student scenario — more like stressed-out Ph.D. candidate collides with femme-fatale graduate adviser — but bodice-ripping nonetheless.
Her body had changed. I thought of the tide going out of a marsh, that slow removal of repletion, and the tender exposure, so that beneath my fingers and tongue her skin gave slightly more than it had in the past for the slightest moment longer held my mark — and so that I uncovered her that much more quickly, with a mercilessness that stole the human from her voice and the grace from her limbs, so a deafening animal groan tore from her and her drenched pubis, bucking at me, split the lip on my teeth.
“No permanent damage,” she afterward said, repeating her earlier promise while kissing the blood from my wound.
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’s tale of Cal’s journey from Calliope to Detroit to Vegas and back — descriptions of naked bodies, changing bodies and more — won the Pulitzer Prize, so you know the sex scenes are top-dollar. I read one passage so much as a horny 15-year-old that my copy of the book now falls open to this page:
We locked onto each other. Meanwhile the Object was very subtly flexing her legs. I was aware of the mound beneath her cutoffs rising toward me, just a little, rising and suggesting itself. I put my hand on the Object’s thigh, palm down. And as we continued to swing, looking at each other while crickets played their fiddles in the grass, I slid my hand sideways up toward the place where the Object’s legs joined. My thumb went under her cutoffs.
- The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton
Sexton’s poetry decorates even a seemingly mundane sexual experience with heart-racing detail. One Goodreads commenter wrote: “There are certain poets whose names I have seen and automatically wanted to read. Anne Sexton is one of them. Maybe it was the ‘sex’ in her last name that grabbed my attention.”
like the surf biting the shore,
again and again,
and the woman opens her mouth with pleasure
and her teeth gleam
like the alphabet,
Logos appears milking a star,
and the man
inside of woman
ties a knot
so that they will
never again be separate.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
Forget Twilight’s maddeningly staid vampire “romance” — the necks and teeth and tongues in the original Dracula are downright pornographic.
The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
When a friend of mine recommended Zora Neale Hurston’s legendarily beautiful saga of life and struggle in rural Florida, I paused: yes, it’s a masterful work, but I don’t remember it being a “sexy book” from my AP lit class. But I was wrong.
They wrestled on until they were doped with their own fumes and emanations; till their clothes had been torn away; till he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body, doing things with their bodies to express the inexpressible; kissed her until she arched her body to meet him and they fell asleep in sweet exhaustion.
- Delta of Venus and Little Birds by Anaïs Nin
These two collections of erotic short stories weren’t published until after Nin’s death. She’d originally written these scandalously sexy short stories on private commission for a nameless erotica enthusiast in Oklahoma. Lesbian orgies, dom-sub relationships and more. For further reading, try her journals for a peek into her own love life (including romance with Henry Miller himself).
When she closed her eyes she felt he had many hands, which touched her everywhere, and many mouths, which passed so swiftly over her, and with a wolflike sharpness, his teeth sank into her fleshiest parts. Naked now, he lay his full length over her. She enjoyed his weight on her, enjoyed being crushed under his body. She wanted him soldered to her, from mouth to feet. Shivers passed through her body.
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Reading about lesbian sex is fun, but reading a beautifully illustrated story of coming out, family drama and lesbian sex is even better. You know the one scene I’m talking about. Page 214 in the 2007 First Mariner Books edition, for ye uninitiated.