I was walking by a toy shop on the Upper East Side the other day, and in the store window's far corner, near the plastic clown doll and a psychedelically colored board game was a copy of E L James' Fifty Shades of Grey. I presume the marketing concept was, Mom comes to buy toys, grabs a bit of steamy reading.
That, I thought, was new.
The emergence of the mega-hit best-seller as something wildly fresh and erotic for women, however, is not new. The book, tagged "mommy porn" with tongues wagging worldwide (and a film deal in the works), had me reflecting on similar fiction, called sexually ground breaking in its time.
Following are five novels that, in pre-Twitter, YouTube, Facebook times, went viral (or at least had readers gasping and gossiping) in a printable sort of way. All have also been made into films.
As a footnote, this is also the reading list (minus Anais Nin) I sent a conservative relative, prior to the publication of my debut novel, Diary of a Sex Addict. I wanted to gently guide her toward the concept that fiction can be both erotically charged and quite literate.
Considered a ground-breaking feminist work, Kate Chopin's gorgeous novel (my personal favorite in the group) was published in 1899 and censored (though not banned) due to its unblinking depiction of a married woman's sexual desires, and flight to self realization. This is a must-read, brimming with delicious prose, sensual longing and one of the strongest depictions of an internal "awakening" I have ever read.
D.H. Lawrence's classic tale of an upper-crust wife who has an affair with the hulking games keeper was an absolute scandal when it first appeared in 1928. It actually was banned and not published in the U.S. until 1959. It addresses a woman's need for a full physical and sexual life, among other things. Most interesting is its lengthy discussions of desire and need.
Anais Nin has become affiliated with perhaps the wilder side of sexual exploration in literature (her novel Incest deals with, among other things, her early incestual relationship with her father). Henry and June, though published in 1986, is based upon material excerpted from the unpublished diaries of Nin. It corresponds to the first volume of Nin's published diaries, written between October 1931 and October 1932. Her work, overall, is unflinching, along the lines of the Marquis de Sade.
Perhaps the most similar in theme to Fifty Shades of Grey, this steamy book was published in France in 1955, faced obscenity charges, and didn't get inked in the U.S. until 1965. It was written by Anne Desclos, under the pen name Pauline Reage. The plot involves a submissive (and gorgeous) model, O (the use of the one letter name is said to relate to the diminishing of the heroine as an object). She grants full permission to a lover to be his submissive, and therefore blindfolded, chained, branded and pierced.
This is the one book in the group I read as a teenager (hiding the paperback in a bush in my Missouri backyard for secret devouring, along with the novels of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins). Based on the gruesome death of New York City school teacher Roseann Quinn, Judith Rossner's 1975 mega-best-seller (and hit film starring Diane Keaton) stoked controversy in relation to a modern woman's sexual appetite and the type of sex she desires. The book's heroine teaches children by day, and picks up men at bars by night. It does not end well. Mostly notably, the book declares: a woman can have casual sex, without getting married or pregnant, because she wants to. Sexual freedom is an option.