Valentine’s Day is here, and the pressure to be sexy is on. Run of the mill avenues of seduction include flowers and a lingering dinner followed by something sweet. A few of us throw lingerie and jewelry into the mix. But what about the gift of sexy literature? It worked for Monica Lewinsky (see below.) And for the male suitors out there, take it from Isabel Allende: “For women, the best aphrodisiacs are words.”
The erotic novel has had a long and storied past (we’re going to assume you already know all about Anais Nin and Henry Miller). Here are five steamy contemporary books to get you in the mood. A warning to readers though: romantic books these are not. At least not in any straightforward, Hallmark-approved way. Since the best fiction — like the best sex — is complicated, think of this list as five ways to say I want you. Let the flowers speak to the love stuff.
by Nicholas Baker
This is the 1992 phone sex novel Monica Lewinsky famously gifted Bill Clinton. The fantasy life of Nicholas Baker is a wondrous thing. Baker is a master of minutia and here he spreads an entire novel, albeit a short one, over the amount of time it takes for two strangers to dial a sex line, switch to a private conversation, and bring each other to climax. The beauty is in the sentences, which are pitch-perfect throughout. And once you’ve finished Vox, check out one of his later books, each one more filthy and imaginative than the last. House of Holes, for example, is set in a sexual theme park.
A Sport and A Pastime
by James Salter
The New York Times called this incredible novel a “tour de force in erotic realism” and “a romantic cliff-hanger” American wayward, Philip Dean, romps around the provinces with that special combination of intensity and boredom reserved for ex-patriots. When he meets nineteen-year old, Anne Marie, the novel opens up into a graceful exploration of the body. The writing is lyrical and lusty, sweeping us happily into the pure pleasures of their heated affair.
by Mary Gaitskill
This was Mary Gaitskill’s infamous debut collection. It arrived to gushing reviews despite the fact that each of the stories had been widely rejected by literary magazines before the book’s release. Call girls, sadomasochists, and sexual deviants share the stage in this collection of erotically charged tales about the fringes of society and the people who live there. Gaitskill writes about her character’s desperate desires with such charge, the experience of reading this book can sometimes feel as if someone has just grabbed you by the throat and you like it.
by Mary Gordon
The LARB-reader’s alternative to Fifty Shades of Gray. Middle-aged painter, Monica Szabo, is treading professional water when one of her collectors, a future’s trader, referred to simply as B, offers to step in and be her muse. The role of modern muse, as B sees it, includes financial provider and sexual workhorse. What follows is a feminist investigation of the relationship between desire and creativity.
by Stephen Elliott
This is an S&M novel by the indie, San Francisco writer and activist. Our narrator, Theo, is made a ward of the court at age 13 and is bounced around from one group home to the next. This is where he meets and falls in love with a young Maria, whose damaged past rivals his own. They reconnect as adults and slip into a lengthy and painful relationship that includes all kinds of sexual deviance. This is not an easy read as the main characters are admittedly plagued with a pervasive sorrow, which they are forever trying to get out from under. But the writing is as raw and startling as the difficult experiences it recounts. And this gives the reader something to cling to when everything else seems to be spiraling out of control.
Now it being Valentine’s Day, we feel we’d be remiss not to provide you with a couple of poems. We love Neruda but you’re going to be seeing a lot of him this week, so why not try something new. Vacation Sex by Dorianne Laux or Getting It Right by Matthew Dickman would both be excellent choices.
Erika Recordon is a writer living in Los Angeles, and a new editor at Los Angeles Review of Books.