Fifty Sexy Literary Alternatives to Fifty Shades of Grey

I hate to be anti-book—any book, really, even awful ones—but Fifty Shades of Grey barely qualifies as a book, and it’s utterly dreadful to think that a Twilight knockoff that started as Twilight fanfiction (!) is now sold in bulk across the world when there are so many good books out there—salacious, sexy, erotic books at that. But, like I said, I hate to knock on something when it’s more productive to offer an alternative. So: a list.

This list is subjective, occasionally weird, and hardly complete (feel free to point out what I’ve left off). I’ve only included works that I’ve read in part or in whole. I’m clearly aware that certain stuff like D.H. Lawrence, much of Updike, and infamous classics like Walter’s My Secret Life are not on here—if it’s not on here, I haven’t read any of it. I vouch for everything else.

  1. Song of Songs (Old Testament)
  2. Juliette, Marquis de Sade
  3. Justine, Marquis de Sade
  4. The 120 Days of Sodom, Marquis de Sade
  5. The Pearl, William Lazenby (ed.)
  6. The Story of O, Pauline Réage
  7. Delta of Venus,  Anaïs Nin
  8. Little Birds, Anaïs Nin
  9. Lost Girls, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
  10. The Soft Machine, William Burroughs
  11. Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille
  12. The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway
  13. Ada, or Ador, Vladimir Nabokov
  14. Fanny Hill, John Cleland
  15. Poems of Sappho
  16. Crash, J.G. Ballard
  17. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  18. House of Holes, Nicolson Baker
  19. Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker
  20. Satyricon, Petronius Arbiter
  21. “Penelope”/Molly’s monologue from Ulysses, James Joyce
  22. “Nausicaa” from Ulysses, James Joyce
  23. “Circe” from Ulysses, James Joyce
  24. Boccaccio’s Decameron
  25. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
  26. Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller
  27. Women, Charles Bukowski
  28. Poems of Catullus
  29. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
  30. Kama Sutra
  31. Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
  32. The Ways, Caracci and Aretino
  33. Vox, Nicholson Baker
  34. Ars Amatoria, Ovid
  35. A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews
  36. Casanova’s letters and memoirs 
  37. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
  38. Snow White, Donald Barthelme
  39. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  40. Briar Rose, Robert Coover
  41. Frisk, Dennis Cooper
  42. Song of Myself, Walt Whitman
  43. Hotel Iris, Yoko Ogawa
  44. “Wild nights! Wild nights!”, Emily Dickinson
  45. Various selections of Robert Crumb
  46. Dream Story, Arthur Schnitzler
  47. A few choice passages from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
  48. Venus in Furs,  Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
  49. The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
  50. “I started Early – Took my Dog -“, Emily Dickinson
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Hotel Iris — Yoko Ogawa

Seventeen-year-old Mari, the narrator and subject of Yoko Ogawa’s new novel Hotel Iris, is something of a Cinderella figure. Her dad dies a violent death when she is only eight years old and her grandparents soon pass on as well, leaving her in the sole custody of her money-grubbing mother who works poor Mari like a slave in the upkeep of their shabby hotel. The titular Iris is a crumbling structure with only one seaside view, frequented in the off-season by prostitutes and only bustling in the sweltering summer months. It’s in the off-season when Mari first spies the transformative figure in her life–a man fifty years her senior who gets into a raucous fight with a hooker in the hotel. Transfixed by his commanding voice, Mari follows the man the next day as he performs banal errands. When he confronts her, the two strike up a strange friendship (very strange, it will turn out). The man lives on a small island where he works translating mundane Russian texts like tourist pamphlets–although he is hard at work at a passion project, translating a strange Russian novel. The translator begins writing Mari letters and she eventually sneaks away to meet him. In the seaside town he treats her with quiet deference, but when Mari visits his small, austere home on the island she undergoes a bizarre, sadistic sexual awakening. To continue a proper review of Hotel Iris will necessitate some mild spoilers. I won’t reveal any major plot points, but those intrigued may wish to stop reading here. Otherwise, on to the aforementioned bizarre, sadistic sexual awakening.

It’s pretty simple, really. The translator, a sexual sadist, has found in Mari a perfect masochist, a young girl so alienated and lonely that she can only find pleasure in extreme pain, beauty in brutal ugliness, and freedom in bondage. Her initial attraction to the translator, his commanding voice, goes to extremes in his isolated house on the island, where he strips her naked, ties her up, and forces her into all sorts of sexual humiliations. In a strange mirror of her Cinderella-life at Hotel Iris, he forces her to clean his house while strapped to a chair. He takes thousands of degrading photographs of her. In a scene reminiscent of “Bluebeard” he hangs her from the ceiling of a tiny pantry and whips her with a riding crop. He never engages in direct coitus with her; in fact, he never even removes the suit and tie he wears even in the sweltering summer. In each scenario Mari expresses the true happiness and pleasure she finds in the translator’s torture. “Only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure,” she tells us.

That young, naïve Mari should narrate the novel is the genius of Ogawa’s program. Her first-person immediacy communicates the confusion and despair of a neglected, overworked teen trapped in a dead-end job in a Podunk town. As the plot spirals it tempts the reader to endorse the “love” that Mari feels for the old man who tortures her. Just as Nabokov manipulates his readers via the charms of Humbert Humbert, Ogawa, writing her reverse-Lolita, repeatedly cons us into normalizing the relationship, in viewing it only from Mari’s perspective. It’s through the slipped, oblique details of Mari’s past that we construct a more coherent image of a long pattern of abuse. Her mother, always bragging about Mari’s beauty, tells the story of a sculptor who used Mari as a model (Mari, of course, believes herself ugly). “The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me.” The only maid in the hotel repeatedly claims to be “like a mother” to Mari, yet she attempts to blackmail and humiliate the poor girl, and even tells her that she was Mari’s father’s “first lover.” Late in the novel, a drunken hotel guest gropes Mari’s breast and her mother brushes the abuse off, blaming implicitly on her daughter. The focused, purposeful sadism of the translator–a result of the man’s own painful past–is thus a form of love for Mari. Yet we see what Mari can’t see, even as we accept the savage doom of their romance.

Hotel Iris recalls the dread creepiness of David Lynch, as well as that director’s subversion of fairy tale structures (perhaps “subversion” is not the right word–aren’t fairy tales by nature subversive?). There are also obvious parallels between Mari’s story and The Story of O and Peter Greenaway’s fantastic film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. But these are perhaps lazy comparisons–I should talk about Ogawa’s deft writing, her supple, slippy sentences, her sharpness of details, the exquisite ugliness of her depictions of sex and eating. She’s a very good writer, and translator Stephen Snyder has done a marvelous job rendering Ogawa’s Japanese into smooth, rhythmic sentences that resist idiomatic placeholders. Hotel Iris is not for everyone, but if you’ve read this far you’ve probably figured that out already. Readers who venture into Ogawa’s dark world will find themselves rewarded with a complex text that warrants close re-reading. Recommended.

Hotel Iris, a Picador trade paperback original, is available today.