Isabel Allende, the Chilean-American author of Eva Luna and Of Love and Shadows, once wrote, “for women, the best aphrodisiacs are words.” All fans of erotic fiction — men and women alike — will nod in agreement and attest to being captivated by beautiful romantic writing; the voluptuousness of a titillating turn of phrase almost impossible to resist.
The literary critics over at Salon certainly seem to agree. So much so that, back in February 2011, the online arts and culture magazine launched the Good Sex Awards, convening a panel of well-read judges to recognize the best sex writing in fiction.
Despite selling over 100 million copies to date, E. L. James’ record-breaking Fifty Shades trilogy - arguably the most popular erotic romance series ever published - is unlikely to earn such recognition; James’ writing is often panned and parodied (Salman Rushdie famously slamming the author's work for making “Twilight look like War and Peace”) and many, like the novelist Sophie Morgan, have called the gender politics of the best-selling books into question.
Negative reviews notwithstanding, James’ novels have found a place in the pop culture zeitgeist and are now synonymous with the erotic genre: Fifty Shades is the modern shorthand for frisky writing.
With the trailer for the Fifty Shades Darker film breaking online viewing records and emphasizing just how popular James’ novels are among a cross-section of readers, we’ve decided to put together a short list of less divisive, critically-acclaimed books all lovers of great literature should appreciate.
These are excellent works of fiction enlivened by passages of skin-tingling imagery and supple sentences that, read aloud, play on the ear like music - books so hot they might just steam up your reading glasses.
Here, in no particular order, are five engaging must-reads with well written sex scenes that sing and lilt on the page; like Teddy Pendergrass in paperback.
'Delta of Venus' by Anaïs Nin
“We hate you,” Anais Nin wrote, addressing her ‘Dear Collector,’ the mysterious man who commissioned the French-born novelist and her group of illustrious friends - famous authors like Henry Miller and George Baker - to put their talents to use in conjuring erotic stories devoid of all poetry and analysis at a dollar a page.
“Sex,” Nin complained in her letter to the Collector, “loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone; when it becomes a mechanistic obsession.”
Contrary to what Nin might have felt about the quality of her work, the erotic manuscripts she produced proved to be anything but “mechanical.” These stories, collected in the posthumously published anthology, Delta of Venus, showcase Nin’s stunning imaginative powers, with the prodigiously gifted writer crafting a new “language of the senses” to express her deepest desires and explore her womanhood.
Marked by her poetic pencraft, Delta of Venus makes for a delightfully engrossing read; the exquisite short story, “The Veiled Woman,” is one of many highlights. The enchanting tale is a fine example of Nin’s distinctive brand of erotica, where the story is animated by alluring descriptions of its titular character’s “provocative ripeness” and “satin curves.”
'In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda' by Stephen Vizinczey
Originally published in 1966, Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women is a coming of age story like no other; the remarkably intimate and insightful novel juxtaposing the sexual education of its engaging narrator, András Vajda, with one of the most eventful periods of European history.
While it might not have the same pop culture currency as Catcher in the Rye or Bell Jar, In Praise of Older Women is without a doubt a classic of its genre; the touching novel one of the great bildungsromans of the 20th century.
Recounting the amorous adventures of the aforementioned Vajda, In Praise of Older Women paints a stirring portrait of love, loss and lust. Its unique blend of politics, history and tender eroticism sets it apart from almost every other book concerned with the finer points of sex and romance.
Vizinczey’s majestic writing distinguishes the novel as a truly outstanding work of fiction; his elegantly rendered sex scenes perfect little dramas of loneliness and longing.
Take, for example, Vajda’s first night with the serious and intelligent Maya - a married, middle-aged woman with a “soft musical voice” and “golden-brown complexion."
Having wasted precious time “drifting around the shores of her body,” the young and eager virgin, finally resolved to take the initiative, successfully seduces the stay-at-home wife, “discovering the ways of her strange territories” and becoming a man in the process; someone with all the “qualities of leadership.”
Sex - in fiction, at least - has never been more edifying or transformative.
'This Is How You Lose Her' by Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz’s wonderful compilation of stories about “the rise and fall of a young cheater” reacquaints us with his compelling alter-ego, Yunior.
A brilliant but deeply flawed man, the intriguing character is a macho romantic enamored with women and the female form - the fervor of his passions kindling intense romances and affairs only to break hearts and burn bridges. Detailing the fire-fighting that ensues, This is How You Lose Her chronicles Yunior’s relationships and infidelities; urging us as readers - romantics, too, no doubt - to also consider the “half-life of love."
By scrutinizing the chauvinism and insecurities of its womanizing protagonist, the book explores what it means to love - to truly love - to give one’s self wholly, honestly and completely to another; fears, foibles and all.
Uncompromising and perceptive, Diaz’s writing lays bare in personal, painstaking detail, the contradictions and hypocrisy of a man - a chronic cheat - beset by his infatuation with women; the honesty, wonder and the ardor with which Diaz describes these characters - clearly looking at them through Yunior’s eyes - is stunning.
There is Magda, Yunior’s “heart” - “the nerd every librarian in town knows”; a “Bergenline original”, with “dark curly hair you could lose a hand in”; her bouncing curls the color of night.
There’s Alma, with her “tender horse neck” and gorgeous ass that exists “in a fourth dimension beyond jeans”; an ass “that could drag the moon out of orbit.” “Slender as a reed” Alma. One of those “Sonic Youth, comic-book-reading alternatinas” with an affinity for painting.
And then there is Miss Lora. Miss Lora with the big bronze eyes.
Intense and heartrending, the sex in This is How You Lose Her is full of meaning; Yunior’s final night with the sad Veronica Hardrada in “Flaca,” for example, bordering on the spiritual. Recounting Yunior’s last days with the shy, self-effacing teacher, the closing passages of the beautifully elegiac story depicts their lovemaking as a sort of religious experience, their seductive, reverent use of water almost sacramental.
'The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love' by Oscar Hijuelos
A treat of sensuous storytelling, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love will sate all book-lovers' yearning for an engrossing, visceral read. Lush and musical, the fascinating novel delights with all the imagination and rhythm of prose poetry.
Written by Oscar Hijuelos, Mambo Kings tells the story of two Cuban brothers; the gifted musicians, Cesar and Nestor Castillo. A gripping tale of poverty and assimilation, love and music, Hijuelos’ enthralling novel treats romance as something magical; the writer’s bewitching wordplay conjuring some of the most captivating and vivid sex scenes put to paper.
Whether describing the hot, sordid nights Cesar and the shapely Vanna Vane spend floating through “wall-less rooms flitting with black nightingales,” or revisiting Nestor and beautiful Maria’s romantic evenings necking on piers by the sea, Hijuelos distinguishes himself as a master of the euphemism; an amazing writer with a musician’s ear for passionate, heartfelt storytelling.
'The Thing Around Your Neck' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Far less explicit than anything produced by Nin or Vizinczey, Diaz or Hijuelos, The Thing Around Your Neck is an illuminating collection of short stories that explores the “ties that bind men and women.”
Though “racy” might not be the first word that comes to mind when describing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels, her writing is often embellished by passages of subtle eroticism. “On Monday of Last Week,” a lovely short-story about a Nigerian post-grad’s obsession with a married artist, showcases her work’s unassuming sexiness.
The intimacy shared between Kamara, the smitten babysitter with a master’s degree, and Tracy - the self-assured artist - is delicately brought to life by Adichie’s sensitive writing; the Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun author animating their exchanges and interactions with some serious sexual tension.
“Their eyes held and suddenly Kamara wanted to lose weight and wear makeup again,” Adichie writes; such lines teasing at an unspoken attraction between the two women with revealing insights and vividly relayed gestures.