Steamy Literature: Recommended Reading
Books you can recommend to your book club if you’re feeling a little evil
Reading is sexy.
And you know that from more than just “50 Shades” and “Outlander” and “Maestra.” Reading was sexy when you were an adolescent, devouring those comic books with the big-busted supervillainesses crashing through the pages and into your heart; when you were a teen reading Cosmo’s sex column, with words like “thrumming” and “pulsing” taking on salacious new importance; and yes, even in English class, when a seemingly innocent book would shock you with its surprisingly sweaty sex scenes.
Howard Jacobson put it perfectly when describing the power of Austen “sex scenes”:
Softcore porn is the literary equivalent of those feathery wimp-whips and talcum’d cufflinks you see in the windows of sex toy shops. But as far as writing goes, the best sex is the most implicit.
The curated reading selection below caters to those same sensibilities. The ones that say “I want something fun — but also something good.” Something you can read to warm your cold, cold loins. Something to recommend to book club when you’re feeling a bit evil, so you can watch the moms blush and sigh.
His Dark Materials Trilogy, Philip Pullman
OK, talk about a baby sexual awakening for yours truly, and all you other bookish, slightly-goth millennials out there. These books are infamously loaded with subtext — about religious thought, about capitalist control and more. Animal-like “daemon” companions accompany the characters, priests rule science and humans study the effects of Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace.
But while the first two books travel across tundra landscapes and underground prisons, the final book in the trilogy, “The Amber Spyglass,” the two teenage protagonists — Lyra, from one world, and Will, from our world — find themselves stranded in a lush, forested landscape. So, duh, in this small break from world-on-world war and religious examination, they take advantage of their surroundings. As in, they finally do it.* And all sex scenes tucked inside fantasy war books and long epic sagas, there’s something all the sweeter about two characters finding the time to get it on amidst intergalactic conflict or universe-colliding drama. Like, they deserve it.
Will put his hand on hers. A new mood had taken hold of him, and he felt resolute and peaceful. Knowing exactly what he was doing* and exactly what it would mean, he moved his hand from Lyra’s wrist and stroked the red-gold fur of her daemon.
Lyra gasped. But her surprise was mixed with a pleasure so like the joy that flooded through her when she had put the fruit to his lips that she couldn’t protest, because she was breathless. With a racing heart she responded in the same way: she put her hand on the silky warmth of Will’s daemon, and as her fingers tightened in the fur, she knew that Will was feeling exactly what she was.
And she knew, too, that neither daemon would change now, having felt a lover’s hands on them. These were their shapes for life: they would want no other.
*This “doing it” point is hotly contested in the thousands of “His Dark Materials” message boards and fan communities out there. Did Will and Lyra actually have sex? Or did they just indulge in some heavy petting? And what does the answer to either of these questions say about the ongoing plot of this trilogy’s convoluted plot and the (newly announced) books to come? And so to those folks I say this: Like a lot of the other texts on this list, Philip Pullman’s work is so poetically vague and layered that it’s hard to parse out what happens beyond some sweet kisses and loaded innuendo. So I included it in this list because it’s hot. Explanation over.
‘Persuasion,’ Jane Austen
Alright, ladies, quell your expectations. It’s Austen, after all, so it’s a couple steps down from Anne Sexton, but still several up from Ernest Hemingway. In Austen, the sex is all about the suggestion and the gesture. And in Persuasion, where each of the female characters is laced and buttoned and gloved to the point of bursting, a simple touch on the wrist or breath across the cheek is enough to send things a-flaming.
Take, for example, this simple scene when Captain Wentworth offers Anne an umbrella:
She now felt a great inclination to go to the outer door; she wanted to see if it rained. Why was she to suspect herself of another motive? Captain Wentworth must be out of sight. She left her seat, she would go; one half of her should not be always so much wiser than the other half, or always suspecting the other of being worse than it was. She would see if it rained. She was sent back, however, in a moment by the entrance of Captain Wentworth himself, among a party of gentlemen and ladies, evidently his acquaintance, and whom he must have joined a little below Milsom Street. He was more obviously struck and confused by the sight of her than she had ever observed before; he looked quite red. For the first time, since their renewed acquaintance, she felt that she was betraying the least sensibility of the two. She had the advantage of him in the preparation of the last few moments. All the overpowering, blinding, bewildering, first effects of strong surprise were over with her. Still, however, she had enough to feel! It was agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery.
He spoke to her, and then turned away. The character of his manner was embarrassment. She could not have called it either cold or friendly, or anything so certainly as embarrassed.
After a short interval, however, he came towards her, and spoke again. Mutual enquiries on common subjects passed: neither of them, probably, much the wiser for what they heard, and Anne continuing fully sensible of his being less at ease than formerly. They had by dint of being so very much together, got to speak to each other with a considerable portion of apparent indifference and calmness; but he could not do it now. Time had changed him, or Louisa had changed him. There was consciousness of some sort or other. He looked very well.
‘Fanny Hill,’ John Cleland
Fanny Hill is one of those books that sits innocently in the “old British novel” section, alongside Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. And then you crack open its quiet spine and discover the subhead: “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.” And then you read the first few chapters, and man — this book contains a whole world of 17th century pornography. In fact, many historians consider “Fanny Hill” to be England’s first-ever widely-published piece of erotic fiction. Maybe that’s all the maypole metaphors.
Not even kidding — a fucking maypole.
I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant. Its prodigious size made me shrink again; yet I could not, without pleasure, behold, and even ventur’d to feel, such a length, such a breadth of animated ivory! perfectly well turn’d and fashion’d, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root.
‘Annie on My Mind,’ Alice Garden
Nancy Garden wrote Annie on my Mind in 1982 — as a young adult novel, one of the first to feature two gay characters. At the time, schools and libraries banned the book from its shelves. But today, it’s a staple in LGBTQ reading circles, lauded for its simple portrayal of gay awakening. “First of all this book touched me,” one Goodreads commenter wrote. “I don’t remember now what scene or thought ‘it’ was, but for a brief moment I felt young and in love (on a sunny day).”
Without thinking, I put my arm across her shoulders to warm her, and then before either of us knew what was happening, our arms were around each other and Annie’s soft and gentle mouth was kissing me.
‘The Sun Also Rises,’ Ernest Hemingway
Oh, God, it’s not so much the sex scenes in The Sun Also Rises as the lack of sex scenes in The Sun Also Rises. Because remember? He can’t have sex. That’s the big reveal, which I’m sure just went right over your head in high school English class. Whats-his-name is in love with whats-her-name, who is just devastatingly gorgeous with her close-cropped hair and tight pants and boyish style. Talk about a bit of a queer awakening for all your budding ladies out there — Brett (that’s her name) in her no-nonsense riding pants, dressed to devastate. The type of woman who is called “handsome.”
Anyway, because whats-his-name (it’s Jake, of course, because this is Hemingway, so everyone has to have a name that is plain and manly and sad) lost his dick in the war (I’m not joking! That is seriously an entire part of the plot) and so he just stares at Brett longingly. The scenes of the two just aching for one another, aching for one another and a release so bad it’s totally unattainable — God, this stuff doesn’t even need to be spelled out. It’s palpable through the pages.
While I dressed I heard Brett put down glasses and then a siphon, and then heard them talking. I dressed slowly, sitting on the bed. I felt tired and pretty rotten. Brett came in the room, a glass in her hand, and sat on the bed.
“What’s the matter, darling? Do you feel rocky?”
She kissed me coolly on the forehead.
“Oh, Brett, I love you so much.”
“Darling,” she said.
Oh my GOD.
“Do you want me to send him away?”
“No. He’s nice.”
“I’ll send him away.”
“Yes, I’ll send him away.”
“You can’t just like that.”
“Can’t I, though? You stay here. He’s mad about me, I tell you.”
“Do you feel better, darling? Is the head any better?”
“Lie quiet. He’s gone to the other side of town.”
“Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”
“I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it.”
“I stand it now.”
“Isn’t it rotten? There isn’t any use my telling you I love you.”
“You know I love you.”
“Let’s not talk. Talking’s all bilge. I’m going away from you, and then Michael’s coming back.”
“Don’t look like that, darling.”
“How do you want me to look?”
“Oh, don’t be a fool. I’m going away to-morrow.”
“Yes. Didn’t I say so? I am.”
“Let’s have a drink, then. The count will be back.”
I mean — God.
‘The Folding Star,’ Alan Hollinghurst
This story turns upon a single moment, eyes locking across a crowded room: and then suddenly Edward, an older gay tutor, is besotted with Luc, his young pupil. Yes, classic forbidden love. So poor Edward finds himself in a series of affairs — all written in that vivid, slightly-taboo voyeurism that characterizes Alan Hollinghurst’s style. One Amazon reviewer said it best (worst): “Good writer but too many idealized sex scenes which distract from the story.” *eye roll emoji*
Alan Hollinghurst described his sex scene approach to the Queer Cultural Center:
There’s something taboo and also idealizing and deeply romantic about Edward’s fixation on Luc. It’s one of those things that exist in ignorance. He knows hardly anything about the boy and part of the reason he is an object of obsession is that Edward can inscribe his own feelings upon his blankness. At the same time, his desire for Luc is constantly thwarted; his feelings are channeled into a sort of proxy of fetishism or voyeurism instead of the thing he wants.
‘Sula,’ Toni Morrison
Damn, Toni Morrison. Beloved very nearly made this list, for that one scene with Beloved and Paul D, when she tells him “I want you to touch me on the inside part.” And that is some super sexy ghost-human love.
But instead I’ve selected this fantastic scene from Sula, Morrison’s earlier novel, chronicling the life of two friends, Nel and Sula. Their friendship ultimately devolves from a series of events, culminating in Sula’s (super hot) affair with Nel’s husband.
He liked for her to mount him so he could see her towering above him and call soft obscenities up into her face. As she rocked there, swayed there, like a Georgia pine on its knees, high above the slipping, falling smile, high above the golden eyes and the velvet helmet of hair, rocking, swaying, she focused her thoughts to bar the creeping disorder that was flooding her hips.
Like, all of her poetry, Anne Sexton
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: you should read some Anne Sexton. Her poems have names like “Jack’s Naughty Bits” and “When Man Enters Woman.” Anne Sexton isn’t a poet who shies away from fluid — her poems slosh with froth, sweat, spit, semen, tears and more. Recommendation: read in bed. Alone.