Sexy Romance Books & Erotica
“Fifty Shades of Grey” may have ignited a renewed interest in erotica since it was published in 2011, but it’s definitely not the first novel to chart taboo territory. If you, dear reader, are in search of your next steamy read, don’t make the mistake of overlooking the classics.
GAYOT’s list of the Best Sexy Books explores erotica with history’s more literary examples of titillating writing, from fin de siècle smut to the naughty novellas of the 1940s to more modern (and female) perspectives on the subject.
And since you’re already in the mood for stimulating enrichment, be sure to browse our list of the sexiest movies of all time, which just might leave you gasping for more.
By: Joseph Kessel
Originally Published: 1928
One woman is so bored with her marriage, she decides to work in a brothel when her husband is gone.
Imagine you had a wife who was so bored with her bourgeois marriage that she decided to work in a brothel during the day to indulge in her sadomasochistic fantasies. If this sounds shocking today, imagine how it was received by the world when it was first published in 1928. The book that inspired the famous Luis Buñuel film is a bit of a quaint read, but it’s also titillating and deeply psychological. As the author explained in the foreword: “With ‘Belle de Jour‘ I tried to show the terrible divorce between the heart and the flesh, between a true, deep and tender love and the implacable want of carnal senses.”
By: Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
Publisher: Grove Press
Originally Published: 1958
Based loosely on Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, Terry Southern’s 1958 book features some pornographic satire of its own.
This book was considered so scandalous that it was initially banned in France and England, but went on to become a bestselling novel in the United States. Now a classic, Candy is the story of a young girl’s sexual initiation into a world populated by horny and hilarious characters. Both comical and erotic, the novel finds the young heroine in a string of bizarre and graphic situations — all of it making Candy a cultural icon of the 1960s American sexual revolution.
By: Edmund White
Originally Published: 1996
Edmund White’s lyrical novel is infused with an erotic spirit on every page.
The protagonist, Gabriel, is a young man growing up in a dilapidated manor where he is initiated into the pleasures of sex by an animalistic tribal girl. Gabriel’s journey continues to the Paris-like fictional capital — a world of foppish dandies, passionate mistresses, aging beaus lusting for fresh flesh and other debauched creatures. This erotic adventure is a feast for literary minds and lovers of old, decadent milieus populated with capricious, superficial pleasure seekers.
By: Anaïs Nin
Originally Published: 1977
Anaïs Nin’s collection of racy short stories originated in the early 1940s as commissioned pornographic bits.
Nin and her Paris café society friends had to eat, so they put their literary ambitions aside and created porn, prompting Nin to crown herself the “madame of an unusual house of literary prostitution.” Nin, who is adored today for her feminine, poetic style, was asked to cut her usual flowery fancies and focus on the old in and out, but she still infuses the prose with her signature dreamy elegance. Some of the material (incest, rape, necrophilia) is absolutely shocking. But keep in mind that these are fantasies intended to stimulate, not to be taken at face value.
By: John Cleland
Publisher: Peter Holmes (original publisher)
Originally Published: 1748
First published in England in 1748, Fanny Hill has incensed censors ever since.
In fact, its last ban in the United States wasn’t lifted until 1973, when it was finally deemed to have merit as a literary and historical oeuvre. These days, most critics would call the work bawdy rather than obscene. Sure, some of the pornographic adventures of working girl Fanny are not ones we’d want to live through ourselves, but that’s why the book is such a good read aside from offering erotic encouragement. It shows that even back in the good old buttoned-up days, before Internet porn and casual encounters on Craigslist became the norm, it took more to excite people than a bit of exposed stocking or a dropped handkerchief. From flogging to voyeurism, John Cleland’s novel covers all 50 shades of sex and then some.
By: Erica Jong
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
Originally Published: 1973
Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying is widely regarded as a critical piece of literature in the second-wave feminism movement of the 1970s.
The story of Isadora Wing, a young woman who becomes disenchanted with her marriage and the institution of marriage itself, resonated with many women of the era who were grappling with their dissatisfaction of being placed in the confines of idealized femininity. In her depiction of Wing’s tryst with another man and the exploration of sexuality, Jong does not hold back. Jong uses a frank and unapologetic tone to portray a woman who desires sex, wants to take ownership of her desire and is unabashedly honest about it.
By: Guillaume Apollinaire
Publisher: Peter Owen Publishers
Originally Published: 1907
Depravity alert! Les Onze Milles Verges is one of the strangest books we’ve ever come across.
Written in 1907 by Guillaume Apollinaire, one of France’s favorite literary sons, it is pornography nonpareil, putting to shame even some of Marquis de Sade’s most sadistic works. In fact, Apollinaire did dream of becoming the Marquis’ worthy successor of letters. Les Onze Milles Verges tells the story of count Vibescu Mony, whose excesses cover every sexual variation under the sun, from necrophilia to ondinism to S&M to vampires (not the Bella/Edward kind, though). Admittedly, it’s not the kind of romantic book that gets dames dreaming of tall, dark and handsome strangers doing seductive things. But as an unabashedly obscene work on the subject of sex, it’s an intriguing read that serious erotica collectors will want on their shelves.
By: Henry Miller
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Originally Published: 1983
If any writer deserves a spot on GAYOT’s Top 10 Sexy Books list, it’s Henry Miller.
We had a hard time choosing the raunchiest Henry Miller book. From Sexus to Crazy Cock to Tropic of Cancer, the master of stream-of-consciousness free association candidly writes about sex in pretty much all of his major works. In the end, we settled on his naughtiest creation: Opus Pistorum. This pornographic oeuvre is not for the faint of heart, containing explicit, misogynistic, and often scandalous and depraved passages. The adventures of Jean Jeudi (that’s the nickname of the protagonist’s “tool”) originated as commissioned short stories Miller wrote in 1941, when he was low on cash and far from fame. Granted, this is not the kind of writing that turned Miller into one of the literary greats of the 20th century. But it is juicy, raw and not without literary merit, expressing Miller’s wit and joie de vivre. The book is out of print, but you can get a used edition on Amazon.
By: Catherine Millet
Publisher: Grove Press
Originally Published: 2001
We initially picked up this graphic memoir by a French art critic because of the media ruckus it caused when it was first published in 2001.
Why all the controversy? Because here is a woman, a feminist and self-described libertine, who shoves into the reader’s face 30 years of promiscuous sex including orgies, gang bangs and empty one-night stands. The book is not erotica per se, but it is certainly titillating. It’s not sexy in any traditional sense; instead of candles and caressing, you get just coitus — in saunas and cemeteries with endless lines of faceless penetrators, described matter-of-factly, detachedly, the way Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski would. Despite its absence of seductive settings, it’s the kind of book you devour in a few nights, because you just need to know what happens next — which act of depravity is to follow.
10. Story of O
By: Pauline Réage
Publisher: Jean-Jacques Pauvert
Originally Published: 1954
Story of O is an elegant S&M fantasy that has resonated with erotica fans worldwide.
In fact, the heroine’s signature ring is often worn by BDSM practitioners as a discreet sign of allegiance. Known simply as O, the tale’s protagonist is a beautiful fashion photographer who voluntarily submits herself to all sorts of domination, including whipping, branding and piercing. Published in uptight 1954, the book was banned in some places yet received literary awards and sits today on a list of national triumphs in France. Many assumed for a long time that it was written by a man, for no woman would dream up such scenes of debasement and depravity. On the contrary, it was created by a Frenchwoman who wrote under a pseudonym and who didn’t fess up to her authorship until 40 years later!