Erotic fiction that puts 50 Shades in the shade

As EL James’s new Fifty Shades book Grey breaks sales records, here’s a top 10 list of literary erotica that has stood the test of time

Tropic of Cancer (1934), Henry Miller

Written during Miller’s nomadic period in Paris, Tropic of Cancer was banned on publication in the US and thirty years later resulted in obscenity trials that eventually saw the Supreme Court row in and deem it decent. Fortunately, after all that bother, it’s considered a literary masterpiece by many, with Miller seeking help from Anaïs Nin to edit the book. Centred on Miller’s life as a struggling writer in late twenties bohemian Paris, the book gives an explicit account of the narrator’s sexual encounters in a first-person narrative that blends autobiography and fiction.

The Story of O (1954), Pauline Réage

A variety of masochistic acts, including anus widening, make up the contents of this classic erotic fiction novel by the French author Anne Desclos, who published the book under a pen name. The story centres on the beautiful Parisian fashion photographer O and her willingness to partake in acts of female submission. Even John Banville is a fan, giving the book a backhanded compliment in the Guardian a few years back: “I find The Story of O deeply erotic precisely because the woman at the centre of it holds all the power, even though she seems the one most cruelly treated. Also the book is beautifully and tenderly written, in its odd way. Someone with a decent prose style should do a proper translation of it.”


Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), Hubert Selby Junior

The lower-class echelons of the Manhattan suburb in the 1950s are the focus of this cult classic crammed with sex, violence and criminal activity. Divided into six parts, with each part prefaced with a passage from the Bible, the book follows characters on the fringes of society, from transvestite hookers to violent teenage gangs to closeted gay men who beat their wives to prove their manliness. Giving a frank portrayal of topics such as gang rape, prostitution and homosexuality, the book was the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK.

Fear of Flying (1973), Erica Jong

An important work in the development of second wave feminism, Erica Jong’s bestselling novel debunked traditional assumptions about sexuality and gender, coining a new phrase for a sex act along the way. Isadora Wing is the book’s 29-year-old American narrator, a writer of erotic poetry stuck in an unfulfilling marriage. A trip to Vienna with her husband leads her to explore her fantasies with other men. Relating Isadora’s adventures and misadventures with a frankness usually reserved for male characters, Jong’s novel ignited the debate about women and sexual liberation in seventies America.

Delta of Venus (1977), Anaïs Nin

Written for a private client known as “Collector”, Death of Venus features exotic Brazailian dancers, Peruvian opium dens and Hungarian adventurers in a variety of sexual encounters. Mixing literary technique with the writings of Krafft-Ebing and the Kama Sutra, Nin’s fifteen short stories, published posthumously, are pornographic, other-worldly, and still transgressive 70 years after she penned them.

Wifey (1978), Judy Blume

When the popular American writer wasn’t helping to make plain the facts of life to teens all over the world in her young adult books, her fiction transported themes of sex and desire to an adult market. Wifey is definitely not for children, with its tale of a bored New Jersey housewife looking to spice up her life by having an affair. Set in 1970s suburbia, Blume focuses on the open marriage politics of the day, giving graphic examples of Sandy’s fantasies, not to mention a fairly explicit scene involving a tampon.

Exit to Eden (1985), Anne Rice

Exploring the subject of BDSM decades before the Fifty Shades phenonemon, Anne Rice initially published Exit to Eden under the pseudonym Anne Rampling. Protagonist Lisa Kelly is the manager of a secluded BDSM resort that offers its rich clientele an exotic location where they can play out their fantasies. As head trainer (of the submissive slaves), Kelly gets her pick of the new talent and a burgeoning romance blossoms. Even more bizarre than that plotline, a film adaptation in 1994 was heavily rewritten as a buddy-cop comedy starring Rosie O’Donnell and Dan Ackroyd, to no great acclaim.

Bad Behaviour (1988), Mary Gaitskill

Blurring the lines between literature and erotica, Gaitskill’s debut collection of longing, love and desire secured the American short story writer a nomination for a National Book Award. Depicting a disenfranchised urban fringe generation, the stories deal with sexual humiliation, dislocation and masochism. As much about the appalling emotional games men and women play as it is about the sex.

Baise-Moi (1999), Virginie Despentes

With a film version that’s considered an example of New French Extremity, it comes as no surprise that violence and sex are the major preoccupations of Despentes’s novel. Described as “a porny Thelma and Louise”, two young female friends suffer a horrific gang rape attack and decide to go on a sex and murder spree to get their revenge.

Kelly + Victor (2002), Niall Griffiths

Sexual obsession, urban despair, spiritual absence and a world inundated by pornography form the backdrop of the Welsh writer Niall Griffiths’s dark love story. When Victor spots Kelly in a Liverpool bar at the end of an evening of millennial celebrations, the two embark on a sex-fuelled, sadomasochistic relationship. As Kelly switches from sweet girlfriend to knife-wielding lover, Griffiths attempts to portray, through a narrative written in dialect, the intricacies of the pair’s relationship and their longing for something better and more magical than what modern society offers.