World’s Strangest

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Secret Romance Novelists


Before becoming the Vatican’s top dog in 1458, Pius “the coolest-pope-in-history” II was an adventurer who traveled abroad on spy missions for the papacy, a smooth-talking diplomat, and a prolific writer. (Think of him as a kind of medieval James Bond with a slightly different collar.) His Eurialus and Lucretia is still read today, partly because it’s an excellent example of the epistolary novel, but mostly because it was written by a man who became pope-and it’s dirty! Full of erotic imagery and surprisingly funny, it’s comprised of salacious love letters between Lucretia (a married woman) and Euralialus, servant to the Duke of Austria.


One of America’s greats, Joyce Carol Oates, has become synonymous with high-falutin’ literature. So what’s a writer oft-nominated for the Nobel Prize doing with pulpy romance novels like Soul/Mate and The Stolen Heart on her resume? She never meant them to be: Written under pseudonyms “Rosamond Smith” (a feminization of Raymond Smith, her husband’s name) and “Lauren Kelly,” respectively, Oates was surprised and disappointed when her cover was blown by an anonymous source in 1987.


If you’re hoping for a heaving bosom or two, Benito Mussolini’s The Cardinal’s Mistress, serialized in a socialist newspaper long before he was an iron-fisted fascist leader, is bound to disappoint. While filled with purple prose, there’s not a lot of action between the sheets. The story, about a cardinal’s unhappy affair with a doomed woman, is mostly a soapbox for its author’s anticlerical ranting. Sorry, Duce-propaganda makes terrible beach reading.


In between all his Kurd-gassing, Kuwait-invading, and dissident-murdering, Iraq’s own Great Dictator somehow found the energy to pen Zabiba and the King. Published anonymously after the first Gulf War, the book’s authorship by Saddam was revealed by a Saudi newspaper in 2001. But was its provenance really a mystery? Not only was there zero criticism of the novel upon its release (the Iraqi press called it an “innovation in the history of novels”), the book’s thinly-veiled allegories were a total giveaway: A kindly leader (Saddam) loves a beautiful commoner (the Iraqi people) who is raped by her cruel husband (the United States).


Just another breathy melodrama when it was published in 1981, Sisters sold poorly and was soon out of print. So why are paperback copies selling on the internet today for $300? Because Sisters makes its author [former] second lady of the United States and vocal gay marriage ban advocate Lynne Cheney look like a big fat hypocrite. It’s a lesbian romance set in the Old West that features lots of romance and sex-both in and out of wedlock-and promotes contraceptive use for women who want to remain “free”. Asked to comment on Sisters by the New York Times, Cheney said “I don’t remember the plot.” Apparently, gay marriage is even more controversial now than it was in 1981.


From mental_floss’ book Scatterbrained, published in Neatorama with permission.

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