30 of Literary Fiction’s Most Risqué Book Covers

From Lolita to I Love Dick

May 9, 2017  By Emily Temple

Recently at Literary Hub Headquarters (read: the bar down the street from our actual office), the editorial staff sat around discussing the books—and more specifically, the book covers—that have drawn the most blatant stares on the subway. We’ve all been there, right? You glance up from the book you’re oh-so-innocently reading to see that everyone in the car is staring at you, their expressions ranging from amusement to to shock to disgust. Is there something on your face? Have you been absently humming to yourself? No. You’re reading I Love Dick. Or there’s a printed nipple poking out from between your fingers. And you thought you had a perfectly literary novel in your hands.

Well, you probably did. After all, while racy covers are expected for works of erotica, literary covers like to create a little shock and awe sometimes too—and when they do, they also tend to be sneakily suggestive, in ways that compel us to keep looking, whether with their titles or their—ahem—representative iconography. Below, a few favorites to take on the subway with you on your next commute—if you dare.

Part One: the Art of Suggestion

The UK edition of Nutting’s novel, published by Faber and Faber, makes the staid and traditional teacher’s blouse into something deliciously vulgar. (The US cover is less visually stunning, but has a tactile sensation that’s hard to forget. It feels even dirtier than the subway.) The back cover of this gem features an image of the button itself, which only makes you think a little harder about, you know—buttoning.

This is a journal and not technically a book—but in the vein of Tampa, it’s a cover so perfectly suggestive that it can’t be ignored. There’s a lot to unpack in(to?) that coin purse.

John Gall’s original design for the 50th anniversary edition of Nabokov’s classic had the lips rotated, making the image much more suggestive. Maybe I’m biased because I can’t see the one without thinking of the other—and because I know what’s between the pages—but even the half-obscured, non-rotated lips seem to me to be fairly pointed.

On the left is one of the killed designs by Jason Ramirez (art directed by Rodrigo Corral) for the cover of this Tin House anthology; on the right, the final version—yet another vagina-that-is-not-a-vagina. A faux-gina, if you will. Both manage to be pretty dirty without any actual dirtiness.

This one actually makes me shudder. I haven’t read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but my impression is that it isn’t nearly as terrifying as this cover treatment makes it appear. After all, the ladies of Sterling Cooper seemed to think it was pretty swell.

It may look like this fellow is crying, but the photograph—”Orgi-astic Man One” from Peter Hujar’s Orgiastic Man series—actually shows a man in the midst of orgasm in 1969. “I really wanted that image,” Yanagihara said. “It’s a really striking image, and I think the tone of it is just right. It’s not literally how I imagined Jude looking like, or Willem for that matter, but I do think there’s something unsparing about it and something sort of helpless, too.” Indeed.

Part Two: Talk Dirty To Me

No suggestive imagery or pictures here. But a title like this is more or less guaranteed to garner you your very own squadron of “men making asinine comments on the 4 train.” (That said, the effectiveness of this particular title may be watered-down this month due to the posters that are popping up for the Amazon show—but that’s just in New York. Unlike subway posters, books can come along with you anywhere, horrifying others all the while.)

The cover would be striking even if it didn’t have that title emblazoned across the woman’s forehead. And it’s not one of Miller’s better known works, either, so that should add to the confused glances (more on Miller later).

A little less straightforward than the above, but the look of dawning realization on the faces of idle book-cover-scanning passerby is totally worth it.

Part Three: Body Parts

Dirty old man indeed! Though actually, this man looks relatively clean and young, all things considered. I do want to make some jokes about the word “spine,” but lucky for you, I’ll restrain myself. This cover was created in 1976 by Studio Mendell + Oberer (design by Pierre Mendell, photograph by Claus Oberer).

As a book, it’s a provocative selection of Hempill’s poetry and criticism. As a book cover, it is a provocative shaded section in the lower right hand corner.

A racy book cover for our contemporary moment, in which, for better or for worse, everything must be documented—including our most private parts. Those fingernails, though.

This 1962 Signet Classics illustration by Thomas Upshur is suggestive when taken at face value—woman, hair, breast—but there’s also the weird Wittgenstein-esque “duckrabbit” effect. Squint and turn your head, and you’ll see the figure lapping rapturously at the woman’s face.

A novel that entered a particular phrase into the lexicon—one that’s doing double duty here. “The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving”. No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.”

These two covers of Salter’s extremely sexy book titillate by means of obscuration—you hope to turn the book over and see the rest. (The rest is inside, dear reader.) Salter is the only male writer who has ever, to my mind, written a completely convincing sex scene, so I’d say he deserves this kind of treatment.

(The French, on the other hand, get rather closer to the point of it all.)

Couldn’t have a list like this without Anaïs Nin, who, as we know, was rather interested in sex, and in writing about it. I love the brazenness of this cover; it suits its author. Design by Mick Brownfield; art direction by John Hamilton.

The bodies here barely look like bodies—they actually remind me of the naked women swimming around the eyes on the cover of The Great Gatsby (which I personally only recently discovered). And yet, bodies they are. Design by Mark Melnick; photo by Edward Weston.

Part Four: Henry Miller

Sure, he’s getting his own category: volume speaks for itself. Henry Miller is one of those literary novelists whose reputation has been cemented by his writing about sex—I can’t count the number of women who have told me that some guy gave her a Miller novel as a seduction tactic. His covers tend to reflect that fact. These are the current ones from Grove Press.

And here are some even racier versions—despite the fact that they’re illustrations and not photographs, because I see what’s going on here—created for Penguin Modern Classics by Tracey Emin.

And here’s an even racier series, from Harper Perennial Australia.

Emily Temple
Emily Temple
Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

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