From hooker memoirs to hooker novels, and other great writings about loss, murder and anxiety, these are 10 books that have been very important to me, and brief explanations why. By Karley Sciortino.
- SEXUAL PERSONAE: ART AND DECADENCE FROM NEFERTITI TO EMILY DICKINSON
Camille Paglia is one of the most controversial feminists of all time, and also one of the most compelling. This mammoth book, put very shortly, examines the representation of sexuality in Western art. But it also goes into fierce discussion about religion, literature, art history, psychology, the brutal forces of sex and nature, and the amorality and pornography present in great art. As someone who personally writes a lot about sex work, one of my favorite lines in the book is, “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.”
- THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING
I guess it’s a bit obvious to have a Joan Didion book on my list, but she is my most loved writer of all time. This book is a memoir about the year the followed her husband’s sudden death, and is one of the greatest books about grief and loss ever written. I re-read it last year, after going through a breakup, and it really helped me. I recommend it to anyone who’s dealing with the loss of someone or something.
- HOW TO SELL
This is my favorite novel of the past decade. It’s so sexy, scandalous and hysterically depressing. It follows two conniving brothers as they pull of jewelry scams, take a ton of cocaine, sleep with hookers, and generally make questionable life decisions. It’s largely based on the writer’s own experiences, and after I read it I became sort of sexually obsessed with him, and would fantasize about him constantly. I eventually started sending him erotic messages on Facebook, but he never replied.
- BAD BEHAVIOR
Bad Behavior is largely about sex, but it’s not cheesy or cheap. In this book of short stories, Gaitskill writes about women in the sex industry, people in power play relationships, S&M, and the general psychology of people who engage in so-called “bad behaviors” in a way that’s honest, sometimes brutal, and always beautiful. (For example, the darkly erotic film Secretary was adapted from a story in the book.) I first read this book around the time that I started Slutever, my blog about sexuality that still exists today, and it gave me confidence that writing about sex was a legitimate pursuit, and could be seen as intelligent, meaningful, and maybe even poetic.
- IPHIGENIA IN FOREST HILLS: ANATOMY OF A MURDER TRIAL
Janet Malcolm is such an intellectual badass. This book was an extension of her piece of journalism in the New Yorker, where Malcolm has been a contributor for decades. It’s the fascinating story of a murder trial in the insular Bukharan-Jewish community of Forest Hills, Queens, in which a young physician is accused of hiring an assassin to kill her estranged husband, a respected orthodontist. Malcolm uses the case as a way to examine how a murder trial is conducted, and to look at the American judicial system as a whole. It was the book that first sparked my interest in true crime.
- WHITE NOISE
If I had to choose my number 1 favorite book of all time, it would be this. (And as this is widely considered one of the great American novels, I’m clearly not the only person who’s been hugely affected by it.) White Noise uses the story of a college professor and his family in small Midwestern town to explore American paranoia, consumerism, and novelty academic intellectualism. I love this book for its ability to to be dark, beautiful, smart, and hysterically funny, all at the same time.
- THE HAPPY HOOKER
This book is a landmark in terms of sex-positive feminism, and it’s one of the funniest, most honest books I’ve ever read. It’s a memoir by Xaviera Hollander that tells the story of her sexual life, from her first sexual experiences, to becoming one of New York’s highest paid prostitutes, to being the madam of one of the city’s most infamous brothels. She’s one of my heroes, lol.
- A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN
David Foster Wallace
Another obvious choice, but I have so much love for DFW. I have always been more drawn to his non-fiction, and this collection of essays is my favorite. The first writing of his that I ever read was the title essay of this collection, and it made me want to be a better journalist. It think DFW is a writer that generally inspires other writers to want to be better.
- THE PHILOSOPHY OF ANDY WARHOL: FROM A TO B AND BACK AGAIN
This book will be relevant forever: if you re-read it at various points in your life, every time it means something different to you, but it always feels fresh. In it, Warhol shares his musings on topics such as love, sex, money, underwear, and beauty, among others. So much of what he says is so simple and yet so powerful. I admire his ability to be at once superficial and profound.
I was obsessed with Dennis Cooper during my early 20s. Admittedly, I don’t connect to his writing so much anymore, but his fiction had such an impact on my early writing that I couldn’t leave this book out. His work generally explores sex, death, boredom, perversion, sex work, and usually follows a sexually fluid and/or confused male protagonist who’s tall and deathly thin—aka my exact “type”—so besides being a literary influence, Cooper’s books were also a form of porn for me, I suppose.