In case you hadn’t noticed the tidal wave of internet hater-ade about it, let me remind you that the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey opens in theaters this weekend. While there are multiple reasons to find James’s series problematic, my librarian issue* with Fifty Shades is all the attention it’s getting. James is hardly the first writer to tackle the more shadowy realms of erotica; you could be looking at any number of other, better books and films hidden by the disproportionate fuss made over her work.
If you normally wouldn’t touch this topic with a ten-foot riding crop, you might want to skip the rest of today’s post and go tell suzy why she’s wrong about those Primanti’s sandwiches. If you genuinely enjoyed Fifty Shades, fret not: the Library will continue to keep it in stock for you (it’s how librarians roll). But for everyone else, here’s a selection** of books and films that completely outclass Fifty Shades in every way imaginable.
Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey. This series, which combines elements of erotica, historical fantasy and political intrigue, follows the adventures of Phèdre nó Delaunay in the court of Terre D’Ange. Born with a scarlet mote in her eye that denotes her as favored of a particular god, Phèdre rises from humble beginnings to become one of the most admired, desired and feared women in the kingdom. But Kushiel is a god of very specific tastes, and his chosen children are bound—in a manner of speaking—to a particular form of service. Call this series erotica for the thinking person, and if that sounds like you, start with Kushiel’s Dart. Then, when you’re done with the set, move on to Carey’s Namaah Trilogy.
Secretary, a film by Steven Shainberg. Adapted from short fiction by Mary Gaitskill, the movie stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway. Lee’s life is a hot mess, but she’s silently determined to get over her neuroses and find happiness. This involves getting a job, which means meeting Edward Grey (James Spader), which means sparks flying as the two gradually realize their particular tastes mesh quite well. Although the film is incredibly erotic, the sex play is simply the vehicle for a larger scheme of liberation as Lee learns to see herself more clearly, and love herself exactly as she is. Add in some tender hilarity (yes really) and it all adds up to a Really Good Film.
Best Lesbian Bondage Erotica, Tristan Taormino, ed. Given that Taormino has an established reputation as an alternative sexpert, you can bet that any collection she’s put together merits the adjective “best.” The stories collected here describe the variety of games people play within the context of mutually negotiated limits and fantasies, in a variety of power dynamics and queer identities. If that sounds like fun to you, you might also enjoy other books by the publisher, Cleis Press, which publishes “provocative, intelligent books across genres,” including human rights, LGBTQ studies, and—of course—erotica.
9 1/2 Weeks, a film by Adrian Lyne. Based on Ingeborg Day‘s novel of the same name (she wrote under a pseudonym, like you do), Lyne’s film chronicles a Dominant/submissive relationship that plays out over the course of a relatively brief time. Although some reviewers argue that the film is inferior to the book, the movie succeeds on its own merits as a fascinating peek at how people can behave one way in their “real” lives and very differently in their erotic ones. It’s also an examination of what happens when a game that used to be mutually satisfying turns uncomfortable for one of the participants. Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke’s chemistry tips this one into the check-it-out column.
The Sexy Librarian’s Big Book of Erotica, Rose Caraway, ed. With a name like that, I kind of have to write about it, but don’t go getting any funny ideas! The titular librarian is a fictional construct whose job it is to guide you through the realm of fantasy, not a flesh-and-blood creature you should proposition at the reference desk (that’s just creepy). Caraway’s collection, another stunner from the folks at Cleis, is set in a very special library, where people can find exactly the sort of thing they need, but might be too shy to ask for. It’s a clever, if slightly overdone, conceit that unites various erotic tastes into a unified bouquet of short stories that you can pick and choose from, either sticking to what you know or trying something new.
Your turn: will you be lining up for Fifty Shades this weekend? Why or why not?
*My personal issue with FSoG is that Christian’s treatment of Anastasia isn’t BDSM—it’s abuse. If your romantic relationship exhibits certain behaviors, and/or you feel unsafe with your partner, keep in mind that you have options, and you’re not alone.
**Far too many titles for one blog post. Leave a comment if I’ve left out your favorite.