What was the first illicit or forbidden novel you read? Flowers in the Attic? Forever...? Fifty Shades of Grey? The New York Times Book Review wants to know. In honor of its upcoming Sex issue, the Book Review will be publishing the best responses on Friday, along with essays from Nicholson Baker, Alison Bechdel, Rachel Kushner, Geoff Dyer and Jackie Collins. We're especially interested in hearing what dirty book first shocked Baker, whose phone sex ode Vox instantly comes to mind with the phrase "illicit books."
As of now no one has commented on The Times website (there have been a few Twitter comments), but Anna Holmes (who recently guest edited The Wire) and Francine Prose shared their selections for the Book Review's Bookends feature. Prose wrote about the vast range of sexual narratives that have fascinated her, from implicit sex in The Bible to plays where characters have explicit affairs with animals. Holmes praised Judy Bloom's Forever... for being more concerned with foreplay than intercourse, but also for writing in the female first-person:
For those of us who came of age in the AIDS-anxious, post-second-wave 1980s, extracurricular education about human sexuality focused on the female form: the nudie magazines and racy college comedies that introduced us to sex were populated by the voluminous breasts and carefully groomed pubic mounds of a million heterosexual male fantasies; young women were the observed, not the observers. Blume took this sense of curiosity and desire, this male gaze, and upended it, making it legitimately, unapologetically female.
In a world where Fifty Shades of Grey can become a bestseller, it seems odd that any publication would still frame sex as something taboo. Entertainment Weekly more or less asked its readers the same illicit book question last year. And yet, this feels like new ground for The Times' Book Review, if only because editor Pamela Paul asking the readers to join the conversation and talk about books that may be more smutty and/or lowbrow rather than literary. For every Lady Chatterly's Lover there's a The Clan of the Cave Bear fan, which might please a few people who think the The Times ignores mainstream fiction.