Erotic books by E.L. James: You, your friends, your mother and most strangers on the sidewalk or the subway know not only the name and reputation of the S&M trilogy which begins with Fifty Shades of Grey, but likely more than a few intimate details about the story. As happy as we are that people are reading, the truth is that this so-called mommy-porn tale is nothing more than a slightly naughty, poorly written melodrama. The following ten erotic books are alternatives we at TONY find riskier, sexier and simply better written than E.L. James’s feminist-baiting juvenilia.
Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard
In this slim volume, New York Times book critic Broyard details what it was to be an artist in Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Between opening a bookstore and attending the New School, Broyard discovers what sex can be with an artist named Sheri Martinelli, a protégée of Anaïs Nin: “She made love the way she talked—by breaking down the grammar and the rhythms of sex. Young men tend to make love monotonously, but Sheri took my monotony and developed variations on it, as if she were composing a fugue.” There’s also lots of rewarding talk about underpants.
Vox by Nicholson Baker
This master of minutiae—he once wrote an entire novel set on an escalator—is also well known for his erotic tales. This is the book Monica Lewinsky famously gifted to Bill Clinton—and it’s no wonder she did. The entire book is a steamy conversation between two strangers, who talk about all of their sexual fantasies. In one memorable passage, Baker goes so far as to evoke the carnal noise pasta makes when you stir it with olive oil.
Trouble by Kate Christensen
For an erotic novel that’s both entertaining and impressively crafted, pick up this book by award-winning novelist Kate Christensen, who paints vivid pictures of contemporary society. The two romantically unsuccessful friends in Trouble take a vacation to Mexico City—where they aim to escape their midlife crises and rediscover their youth. As with all of her titles, Christensen proves herself a poet of the senses by making her descriptions of food just as tantalizing as the sexy encounters.
The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort, M.B., Ph.D.
Okay, so you don’t read this book as much as sneak a look at the scandalous pictures—especially when you’re 12 years old and staying at a friend’s house, and notice said friend’s parents’ copy on their bookshelf. If a picture is worth a thousand words, we’d say just one of this book's evocative illustrations—e.g., the oral encounter Comfort identifies as “mouth music”—is definitely worth more than several thousand words from the James’s pen.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
What’s sexier than a red-haired cross-dresser who can walk on water? In Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, Villanelle loses her heart to a noblewoman with whom she is in love. Part historical fiction (set during the Napoleonic Wars) and part magical realism, this fairy-tale-infused novel is rich with beautiful sentences. Winterson locates passion somewhere in the nexus of fear and sex—what’s more of a turn-on than that?
How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
When a friend of mine made a cross-stitch inspired by this book (with the words “I’ll be giving blow jobs in Heaven”), I knew I had to read it. In this “Novel from Life,” Heti records conversations with artistic friends, in an attempt to get at the essence of who she really is. But there are plenty of wonderfully racy scenes in which she describes sex with a total creep (who happens to be good in bed): “I don’t know why all of you are reading books when you could be getting reamed by Israel, spat on, beaten up against the headboard—with every jab, your head battered into the headboard. Why are you all reading? I don’t understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done.”
The Poetry of Pablo Neruda edited by Ilan Stavans
Poetry is romantic, yes, but many verses composed by this Chilean master and Nobel Prize winner are also undeniably sexy. Feel the yearning in just one representative poem, “Love,” as translated by Ilan Stavans: “Woman, I would have been your child, to drink / The milk of your breasts as from a well.” Put that alongside the line about Christian Grey’s “oh-so-happy trail” and tell us which makes you weaker in the knees.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
An ex–combat nurse named Claire reunites with her husband (a soldier) at the end of World War II, in the first sci-fi adventure-romance novel of the Outlander series. Soon after, she is transported back in time and falls in love with Jamie, a handsome Scottish warrior. There’s lots of sex on rudimentary mattresses—plus men wearing kilts! And good news: It was recently announced that Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica) is adapting the series for television.
Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell
Essayist Chloe Caldwell’s collection of biting and honest essays can stand up to Fifty Shades for one essay alone, in which Caldwell talks about masturbating. Everyone does it, but Caldwell writes about it with an unparalleled humor and intelligence: “A great way to have an explosive orgasm is to turn the sound down on the porn video, and put on a song that gets you off. Blast it while you watch your porn of choice. BAM!”
Inferno (a poet's novel) by Eileen Myles
For fans of Patti Smith and raw, poetic writing, this iconic New York writer fills her Dante-influenced “poet’s novel” with her distinctive personality. It so happens that her personality is an incredibly sexual one: “There’s a moment in a woman’s life when she discovers she can have sex with as many people as she wants. Suddenly everyone is a potential partner. That’s when men get in the act which is why lesbianism isn’t really a thing it’s just this unbridled lust. It’s like god. If writers are the only people, I mean the last ones who have lives, lesbians are the only people who have sex.”