It’s getting cold out there, and though there are a few ways of keeping warm, one which most people don’t talk about is reading a steamy book. But it can be hard to choose the right one. Most people want a book that doesn’t carry the shame of the E.L. James cover or the — let’s face it — often terrible quality of the writing of most erotica online. We sympathize with people who don’t want to read straight-up pornography, at least not always, and who like a little wordplay in their sex. Here are 25 works of great, nearly-great, or at the very least significant erotic fiction of the last several centuries you could try on for size, and see if they keep your blood circulating to all available extremities.
Caveat emptor: in constructing this list, one finds that the books meeting this description currently are low on gay sex. Let’s hope the next century provides us with wider variety in our smut.
Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin
Plot, if any: More short stories than a whole novel. Nudes posing for artists, etc.
Teaser quote: “I would tell him how he almost made us lose interest in passion by his obsession with the gestures empty of their emotions, and how we reviled him, because he almost caused us to take vows of chastity, because what he wanted us to exclude was our own aphrodisiac — poetry.”
Fanny Hill by John Cleland
Plot, if any: A young girl comes of sexual age in 18th-century London. This includes a long and colorful stint in a brothel.
Teaser quote: “Now, disengag’d from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant.”
The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
Plot, if any: Old gay man and young gay man meet and discuss their experiences as gay men in London.
Teaser quote: “I lay on the bed and watched him put on dark socks, clean Y-fronts, a laundered white shirt, dark blue trousers with red side-tapes like the soldier I still wanted him to be. Then he took the shirt off again, and smiled at me sweetly as he put on his high-collared blue uniform jacket over his bare skin. I was stunned by his body, but thrilled to see him dressed up, warm and hard, privately beautiful in his uniform. He say down again to lace up soft-soled black shoes, and leant over me before going and kissed me with a charming assumed air, as if I were a country girl with whom he had enjoyed a night of passion before riding off to join his regiment at dawn.”
Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
Plot, if any: Incest. Incest. Incest.
Teaser quote: “The fire you rubbed left its brand on the most vulnerable, most vicious and tender point of my body. Now I have to pay for your rasping the red rash too strongly, too soon, as charred wood has to pay for burning. When I remain without your caresses, I lose all control of my nerves, nothing exists any more than the ecstasy of friction, the abiding effect of your sting, of your delicious poison.”
Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille
Plot, if any: Teenagers descend, and I really mean descend, into a sexual relationship punctuated with fetishes.
Teaser quote: “To others, the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness. They are never frightened by the crowing of a rooster or when strolling under a starry heaven. In general, people savor the ‘pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid.”
The Story of O, by “Pauline Réage”
Plot, if any: Young woman becomes slave of sadomasochistic sex club in French château.
Teaser quote: “Finally a woman confesses! Confess what? What women never allowed themselves to confess. What men always criticized on them: they only obey the blood and everything is sex on them, even the spirit.”
“Beatrice Palmato” by Edith Wharton
Plot, if any: Short story fragment that resurfaced when one of Wharton’s biographers went through her papers. Father-daughter incest!
Teaser quote: “At the same moment the other hand softly separated her legs and began to slip up the old path it had so often traveled in darkness.”
Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Plot, if any: Older man seduces younger woman for sport, and also so he can get in knickers of older woman, a refreshing attitude when you come to think of it.
Teaser quote: “Thanks to the exhaustingly hot weather we are having, I can see her supple curves through her simple linen gown. A single muslin kerchief covers her breasts, and my eyes, covert but penetrating, have already taken the measure of their enchanting contours.”
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet
Plot, if any: Memoir by art critic, involves lots of group sex.
Teaser quote: “Undressing, I love to gaze on a promising-looking cock.”
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Plot, if any: Writer drinks and screws his way through Paris.
Teaser quote: “I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with it’s painful gall-stones, it’s gravel and what-not; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul.”
Heptameron by Marguerite de Navarre
Plot, if any: Short stories, told by women, about their experiences of love and sexuality in the 15th century. Surprisingly still pretty vivid.
Teaser quote: “For fear, then, of being guilty of disobedience, Sister Marie looked at him, and thought him so ugly, that it seemed to her more a penance than a sin to look at him. The reverend father, after talking of the love he bore her, wanted to put his hands on her breasts. She repulsed him as she ought; and the reverend father, vexed at so untoward a beginning, exclaimed in great anger, “What business has a nun to know that she has breasts?”
Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger
Plot, if any: A 16-year-old on vacation dreams of losing her virginity, and ultimately does.
Teaser quote: “At the beach, college girls lay in groups on the sand around buckets of drinks, their bums curved up like fruits. Mine didn’t do that.”
Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel
Plot, if any: Repressed housewife seeks masochistic outlet.
Teaser quote: “The pleasure the degradation had given her had vanished almost as soon as the man who caused it touched her. He had taken her dead.”
Venus in Furs by Leopold van Sacher-Masoch
Plot, if any: Man volunteers to be sex slave to woman.
Teaser quote: “You put an aureole on vice, provided only if it is honest. Your ideal is a daring courtesan of genius. Oh, you are the kind of man who will corrupt a woman to her very last fiber.”
The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
Plot, if any: Young man stops time, uses pause to explore sexuality.
Teaser quote: “She would slide the ice bucket forward and lean her torso lower and lower over it, supporting some of her weight on one hand. She would allow one of her breasts to descend into the round opening of the bucket and then let it dip silently in the water. This would get me crazy.”
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
Plot, if any: Tales of love and lust from the 14th century.
Teaser quote: “Wherefore, young ladies, you that have need of the grace of God, see to it that you learn how to put the Devil in hell, because ’tis mightily pleasing to God, and of great solace to both the parties, and much good may thereby be engendered and ensue.”
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
Plot, if any: Young girl falls in love with older man.
Teaser quote: “I am dead. I have no desire for you. My body no longer wants the one who doesn’t love.”
Nine and a Half Weeks by Ingeborg Day
Plot, if any: A memoir of sado-masochism, from the perspective of the submissive.
Teaser quote: “The searing pain is an inextricable part of a wave of excitement; every cell in my body is awash with lust.”
The Black Book by Lawrence Durrell
Plot, if any: Struggling writers, whiling away the hours with sex.
Teaser quote: “I can lift desire in my fingers like this small bud of a breast.”
Ulysses by James Joyce
Plot, if any: Mmmm, really you probably just have to read this one and make your own judgments.
Teaser quote: “He surprised me in the rere of the premises, your honour, when the missus was out shopping one morning with a request for a safety pin. He held me and I was discoloured in four places as a result. And he interfered twict with my clothing.”
The School of Venus by Anonymous
Plot, if any: Younger woman tutored in the ways of the world by older man and older woman.
Teaser quote: “[S]ometimes my Husband gets upon me, and sometimes I get upon him, sometimes we do it sideways, sometimes kneeling, sometimes crossways, sometimes backwards… sometimes Wheelbarrow, with one leg upon his shoulders, sometimes we do it on our feet, sometimes upon a stool.”
Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue by the Marquis de Sade
Plot, if any: Young woman encounters unspeakable perversions.
Teaser quote: “The completest submissiveness is your lot, and that is all.”
The Autobiography of a Flea by “Anonymous”
Plot, if any: Young woman exploited by older men, including a priest.
Teaser quote: “In a trice, she liberated his sexual weapon, and her eyes widened with amazement at the sight.”
My Secret Life by “Walter”
Plot, if any: A man with a sex obsession trawls through London in search of relief.
Teaser quote: “Suddenly I became conscious that she was looking me full in the face, with a peculiar expression, her eyes very wide open, then, shutting them “Oho-oho”, she said with a prolonged sigh, do – oh, take away – oh – your hand, Walter dear, – oh I shall be ill, – oho, – oho,” then her head dropped down over my shoulder as I knelt in front of her; at the same moment, her thighs seemed to open slightly, then shut, then open with a quivering, shuddering motion, as it then seemed to me, and then she was quite quiet.”
Memoirs of a Young Rakehell by Gullaume Apollinaire
Plot, if any: Young man comes of sexual age, as described by surrealist.
Teaser quote: “The room’s atmosphere was one of mixed odors emanating from the girls’ bodies. Their clothes were hanging in disarray from wooden pegs, or were draped across the foot of the bed. At first these odors were disagreeable, but as soon as one got used to them they became exciting rather than suffocating: the veritable odor di femina — the perfume which gives an erection.”