As an author and reader of romantic fiction with a hint of naughty, I have sex on the brain more often than the average person. It can be a little distracting to think about imaginary characters being intimate when I am trying to focus on the mundane yet necessary activities of my non-writing life (which includes a 9-to-5 in the most unsexiest professional field ever: testing).
However, I manage my sanity by remembering that the concept of sensuality is more important than the physical act. No matter how kinky, raunchy, or titillating the sex may be, if there’s no sensuality, you’ve got nothing – in the bedroom or in a book.
When I think about the books that influenced my sensual side and encouraged me to be a better romance writer, well…the list may surprise you:
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: While Hurston’s nominal classic isn’t what the average reader would classify as a ‘romantic novel’, the evolution of the protagonist Janie Crawford from a scared girl in a loveless marriage with an older Svengali into a vibrant woman in a torrid love affair with a younger man takes on a unique approach to sensuality. The overshadowing of racial tensions and gender inequality in the 1900s serve as a backdrop to Janie’s search for self. Her love for Teacake is given a deeper and richer light, all while the affair comes to a tragic end (as some timeless love stories do).
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong: Where do I begin with Isadora Wing, the heroine of this guilty pleasure novel from the sexually free Seventies? In a first-person account, we follow Isadora – a sad wife of a successful analyst – as she travels with him to a conference in Vienna. Depressed about her own fledgling writing career, she takes up with another man during her travels. One of the aspects that makes Fear of Flying so groundbreaking in the world of romance and erotica was the introduction of the term ‘zipless fuck’: a sexual encounter devoid of feelings or attachments. Rare is the writer before Jong that created such a bold and brash female character. She provided an intrigue that still resonates almost forty-five years later.
~ “The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is.
And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.” ~
Sula by Toni Morrison: Hands down, Morrison is my favorite author. She is the Prince of literature for me: there will never be another and she looks great in purple. In her 1973 masterpiece, we are introduced to best friends Nel and Sula. While Nel is raised conservatively, Sula is born a wild child. The two find comfort in each other over the years until Sula makes the grave mistake of sleeping with Nel’s husband.
What makes the narrative memorable for me was the effect the affair had not only on Nel and Sula’s friendship but on their close-knit community of Bottom, Ohio. One woman’s indiscretion turned the town upside down – something that parallels the reactions to bold representations of female sensuality in present day. Sula is regarded as a hallmark of black feminist literature and is a book I go back to often for my own writing inspiration (because if Toni Morrison can’t inspire you to be a better writer, who the hell can?)
Whether you’re a writer, a reader, or a psychotic combination of both, I highly recommend these novels for your next throwback reads. When I feel myself coming to a crossroads with my own writing, I come back to one of these three to reaffirm myself. I know that without these essential authors, I never would have become one – and a sexy one, to boot.