Long before movies and television, there was the written word. Novels have often controversially transcribed both subtle and graphic sexual acts in all their amusing, erotic and sometimes even disturbing forms.
This isn’t true only in contemporary novels; authors were blazing trails and breaking taboos during those times in history when candid conversations about sex — let alone detailed stories about them —were critically shunned or downright banned. Since magazines like Hustler and Allen Ginsberg’s poetry collection Howl challenged the laws on what is obscene and what is art, however, a whole new world has opened up in mainstream literature. Although some authors always wrote erotic novels, now the average person is no longer afraid to indulge in the more juicy, and usually unexplored, aspects of human relationships through their reading material. Of course, the anonymity of the e-reader has undoubtedly helped the erotic genre grow to become a dominant player in the world of literature.
Sexuality may be a little daunting for writers and readers alike, but the authors listed below — who became known for some of the most frank and graphic depictions of sex and sexual themes in literature —go all the way in their shocking books. Most of these authors likely knew their works would be at least met with disapproval and at worst shunned by the literary community at large. But they wrote them anyway, and thank goodness they did; these 8 erotic novels have proven to be some of the most popular and gamechanging in literary history.
8. Blue is the Warmest Colour – Julie Maroh
A graphic novel, Blue is the Warmest Colour deserves a spot on this list for its explicit depictions of love and sex between two women who have fallen in love with each other. Written by Julie March and published in 2010, the story follows Clementine, a young student, and Emma, and older woman with dyed-blue hair. The two women eventually fall in love and start a sexual relationship that is — literally — graphically depicted in the novel. In 2013, the book was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film that garnered much more appreciation than it did controversy.
7. Candy – Terry Southern
Terry Southern, a writer who worked on such films as Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, wrote and published this novel with collaborator Mason Hoffenberg in 1958. Candy is a young girl who, in trying to help others, becomes sexually involved with men who wish only to possess and dominate her. Featuring sexual scenes of an illegal nature, the novel is quite controversial even by today’s standards. Playboy magazine listed the novel as one of the 25 sexiest books ever written and it was adapted into an adult film in 1978.
6. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
When Henry Miller finally managed to have Tropic of Cancer published in 1932, it was banned in America. With a first-person narrative that seemed more like memoir than fiction, his descriptions of life in down-and-out Paris were extraordinarily realistic. In the book, Miller cursed (avidly and often), criticized people of different races, and depicted women in acts considered to be lewd and outrageous at the time.
Miller left nothing to the imagination when it came to sex but this piece of literature is far from a “romance” novel. The more risque scenes were part of an overall artistic vision that didn’t necessitate titillating the readers. The novel became famous in the more liberal Paris where it was allowed to be bought and sold in book stores. When its ban was lifted in America during the 1960s, it became a staple in many bookstores.
5. Delta of Venus – Anais Nin
Spanish-Cuban, French-born Anais Nin moved to Paris in 1924 with her husband Hugh Parker Guiler. There, she was influenced by both French and ex-pat American writers and wrote furiously in her private diary that became a main source of ideas for many of her books. She also met writer Henry Miller and his then-wife, June and according to books written by both Miller and Nin—and, in many cases, their private letters—Nin was involved in a spicy love-triangle between Miller and June. In Delta of Venus, published posthumously in 1977, Nin explores many taboo sexual themes including voyeurism. Her collection of fifteen stories was commissioned by a “collector” who wanted the stories for his private consumption. Like most of Nin’s work, Delta of Venus focused on the exploration of women.
4. 50 Shades of Grey – EL James
Since its publication in 2011, EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey has become one of the best-selling and most talked about contemporary novels. At one point, she even outsold J.K. Rowling in the United Kingdom. Originally based on Twilight fan fiction, the story tells of a young student, Ana, who meets Christian Grey – a wealthy entrepreneur – and the two engage in a ‘master and servant’-type sexual relationship. Not only was the book critically panned, with some describing it as “dull and poorly written,” it also stirred considerable controversy with its frank depiction of dominant sexual practices. Some states in America, such as Florida, removed it from their libraries. Brazilian city Macaé ruled that it must be removed from bookstores altogether.
3. The Story of O – Pauline Reage
Published in 1954, The Story of O is a novel written by French author Pauline Reage that explores themes of dominance and submission. The title character, O, is a woman brought to an elite club for training and body modification relating to dominance; among them is a brand on her buttocks and a tag of ownership in the form of a piercing. O, under the influence of her “owner,” Sir Stephen, convinces a fashion model to join her “just to see what it’s like.” The model is eventually enslaved, too. At the very end of the novel, O is abandoned by Sir Stephen and requests “permission” to die, which is granted. The novel was written originally as a series of love letters from the author to her lover who admired the works of Marquis de Sade (see 120 Days of Sodom). Due to the graphic nature of the book and the period in which it was published, Reage was a pen name used by the actual author, Anne Desclos.
2. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita was published in 1955 (Paris) and 1928 (New York) by Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov. It shocked the literary community and world at large — not for its depiction of eroticism, but rather for its open discussion of one man’s sexual attraction to a much younger girl. Humbert Humbert, a scholar, moves into a boarding house for a summer. It’s there he meets the daughter of the proprietor, Dolores. He soon becomes infatuated with Dolores and makes several attempts to seduce her. At one point, he takes her to a hotel and gives her sleeping pills with inappropriate intentions. The book came under heavy fire from critics and readers alike for its first-person description of one man’s perversion. Despite its controversy, the novel is considered today to be one of the finest ever written in the 20th Century, coming fourth in a list compiled by the Modern Library of the greatest English-language novels.
1. 120 Days of Sodom – Marquis de Sade
Written on a 12-metre long piece of paper by the imprisoned French nobleman Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom consistently ranks as one of the most influential, widely-read ‘erotic’ novels. It was written in 1785, telling the story of four rich noblemen who decide to experience the ultimate gratification in a series of orgies and disturbing sex acts. The men lock themselves in a castle with 46 “victims,” most of whom are young men and women. There, the sexual acts increase in perversion and violence until, finally, the 46 victims are slaughtered for the pleasure of the men. The novel was adapted into a film in 1975 that was, of course, controversial in its own right. Both the novel and the film, although controversial, have been hailed as great works.