Fifty Shades of Grey has become the talk of the ‘erotic’ literary world and ‘sex’
workshops are being held based on the book. Erotic
literature has been around for a long time and many have become literary
sensations. What are the few such books that have caught the world’s fancy over the years? Here is Time magazine’s picks
Fifty Shades of Grey
by EL James
Don’t be fooled by the tame grey necktie splayed across the front cover — Fifty Shades of Grey has very little business inside. It also has very little clothing. The steamy novel tells the story of a budding relationship between naïve college student Anastasia Steele and hunky billionaire Christian Grey. And the book, has been called the ‘Twilight for grown-ups’ and ‘mummy porn’, because of its highly graphic S&M scenes. At its heart, Grey is a love story, written by EL James, a London TV executive. Despite being released in June 2011, the novel only recently shot to the top of bestseller lists, prompted primarily because of word-of-mouth sales and eager book clubs across the country. Since then it has been nearly impossible to find, as the tiny Australian publisher who published the book did not foresee the overwhelming demand. The novel was recently picked up for a large
imprint by US publishing giant Random House. And for readers without such colourful imaginations, this book has already been sold as a movie.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 classic is just as disturbing today as it was when it was first published. The novel is narrated through the eyes of literature professor Humbert, a man obsessed with girls, or what he calls ‘nymphets’. Humbert’s fixation finds an outlet in 12-year-old Lolita. What follows is a twisted love affair, including a marriage between Humbert and Lolita’s mother (so Humbert can stay close to his Lo), sexual relations between Humbert and the young girl, and later, the addition of another older man who longs for Lolita, which leads to a violent confrontation between the man and Humbert. The novel is one of the giants of 20th century fiction, and 60 years later, it’s still shocking.
by Grace Metalious
Sex, lies and betrayal are par for the course in Peyton Place, the fictional town at the heart of Grace Metalious’ 1956 novel of the same name. Behind the picturesque façade of an idyllic New England setting lays a hornet’s nest of lust, incest, abortion, and adultery. The book proved both fascinating and repellent: As millions devoured the tome — it was on The New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks — it was also banned in several conservative areas of the country. The scandalous tale was turned into both a television show and a movie and the term ‘Peyton Place’ has since become shorthand for any locale thought to have a wealth of secrets behind its closed doors.
by Philip Roth
It is a hysterical tale of guilt, shame and lust as told by protagonist Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst Dr Spielvogel. Portnoy’s Complaint takes place in 1969 — the apogee of the sexual revolution — but there is nothing free about Portnoy’s love. He is frank and vulgar about his desires yet, conversely, racked by guilt over them, often due to the baggage associated with having been borne of a conservative Jewish immigrant family from Newark, New Jersey. All bets are off when he meets Mary Jane Reed, aka the Monkey, one of the only women who can go libido to libido with him. Politics, identity, culture — everything is viewed through the lens of sex, often in unsparing detail and crude language, which led to the book being briefly banned in Australia and some libraries in the US.
The Story of O
by Pauline Réage
Anne Desclos’ lover, a fellow writer and admirer of Marquis de Sade, said it was not possible for a woman to write erotica. In an attempt to impress her lover — and prove him wrong — Desclos’ published her prose under the pseudonym ‘Pauline Réage’ in 1954, and went on to win a major book award. It caught the attention of government censors, who brought charges of obscenity against the publishers. Reactions ranged from literary praise for its brilliantly rendered female perspective, a rarity in erotic novels, to those who accused the author of misogyny for scenes wherein the protagonist finds herself in violent sexual situations.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is now known as a masterpiece of American post-modernism, but for 30 years after its 1931 publication, it was illegal to sell the raunchy novel in the US. Miller’s frank description of his narrator’s sexual exploits in bohemian Paris was far outside what was accepted by the American mainstream of the time. The case against the book was most eloquently put forward by Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno. In the case which finally removed the state’s ban against the work in 1966, Musmanno wrote in the dissenting opinion, “Cancer is not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” Thankfully, Miller’s fellow writers held the work in much higher esteem. Luminaries from George Orwell to Norman Mailer said they were inspired by the Cancer’s unconventional narrative and intoxicating prose and made sure the tale did not slip too far from America’s consciousness. When the ban on the work was finally lifted, it went on to enjoy great success.
Couples by John Updike
John Updike gained a reputation for sexual explicitness with such novels as 1960’s Rabbit Run, and his 1968 novel Couples was a doubling down on that approach. The novel features Updike’s famously clinical description of sex acts, and, more importantly, an incisive examination of late-sixties, upper-middle class American society. An increasingly oversexed society demanded this
kind of frankness, and Updike was up to the task. As Wilfred Sheed wrote in a New York Times review in 1968, “Rumour has it that Couples is a dirty book. But although Updike does call all the parts and attachments by name, so does the Encyclopedia Britannica. And if this is a dirty book, I don’t see how sex can be written about at all.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
by DH Lawrence
DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is about an aristocratic woman who finds escape from a frustrated marriage in the arms (and other body parts) of her husband’s gamekeeper. It was printed in Italy and France in the 1920s, but banned in the US and the UK. The book was not published in the US for almost three more decades. In England, the literary merit of the unexpurgated version triumphed in a 1960 obscenity trial — and when Chatterley finally made it to British bookshelves in November of that year, the first print run sold out in one day.
Fanny Hill by John Cleland
The true name of Fanny Hill, the most explicit work one might have read in the 18th century, is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. John Cleland’s tale, first published while he was in debtors’ prison in 1748, is told through two long letters from a reformed and reflective Francis Hill, the eponymous harlot who is swept into London’s “whirl of loose pleasures” after being orphaned as a young country girl. There’s sex, love, voyeurism and, of course, tea. During Cleland’s time, the notorious novel was banned and printed underground, while the author and publishers were arrested; a bishop even blamed the ‘vile’ thing for two earthquakes. Two centuries later, the enduringly scandalous Memoirs was put on trial in America when the state of Massachusetts deemed it obscene and sought to suppress it.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Published in 1973, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying resonated with women who felt trapped in sexually unsatisfying marriages. The novel is narrated by a fictional woman named Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, a 29-year-old poet. While on a trip with her second husband, Wing has a torrid affair with another man, indulging in sexual fantasies that she felt uncomfortable expressing to her spouse. The novel quickly became a national sensation, with the public wondering if it was partially autobiographical. Fear of Flying is credited with providing some not-so-endearing terms for the American lexicon, such as the phrase ‘zipless f___’, of which Jong explains is, “Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff”.