10 Stories From Famous Authors That Were First Published in Playboy
From James Baldwin to Joyce Carol Oates, literary giants graced Hugh Hefner’s pages alongside the centerfolds
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Okay, yes: Hugh Hefner, who died on Wednesday, was not a good guy. But whether because of or in spite of its founder’s influence, Playboy has long been an undeniable platform for writers and their stories. That old joke about how people “just read it for the articles”? That’s obviously a lie, because they probably read it for the fiction too.
Whatever you thought of Hefner, and whatever you thought of his magazine’s T&A content, you have to admit that the text in between the naked ladies was frequently tremendous. Here are 10 works that helped elevate Hefner’s legacy from “dirty old man” to “dirty old man who was also sometimes a patron of the arts.”
Joseph Heller, “Yossarian Survives”
In The Paris Review Interviews Vol. 1, Robert Gottlieb talks about editing Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He compared the process to surgery: “you just cut the work open, deal with the offending organs, and stitch it back up again.” They came across a chapter Gottlieb wasn’t particularly fond of—it was “pretentious and literary”—and Joseph Heller didn’t hesitate to take it out. It wasn’t too pretentious and literary for Playboy, though, and the story was billed as “The Lost Chapter of Catch-22” in the December 1987 issue.
Ray Bradbury, “The First Night of Lent”
Ray Bradbury was all over Playboy; he published excerpts of Fahrenheit 451 in the magazine, gave interviews, and wrote original content—such as “The First Night of Lent.” In this story, published in 1956, a writer makes a startling and humbling discovery about his reliable driver, Nick, who is described as “the most careful driver in all God’s world.” The two have a casual discussion on their Lenten sacrifices, and Nick swears that he’ll be giving up cigarettes. The next day, the first day of Lent, Nick is irritable and reckless, hurtling down the highway at an alarming speed. It turns out, instead of giving up cigarettes, he had given up whiskey. The writer pays him generously and asks that he makes sure to drink before picking him up again.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”
One of the most respected authors of our time, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, wrote “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” for Playboy in 1971. A village comes together after a mysterious male corpse — the handsomest one in the world — washes up on the seashore. The story draws greatly on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallott,” but with a twist that makes it both very Playboy and very Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Roald Dahl, “The Visitor”
If you don’t already know about the short stories that influential children’s author Roald Dahl wrote for a grown-up audience, you’re in for a treat—they’re surreal, disturbing, wildly inventive, and definitely not for kids. Sometimes, they’re even pretty raunchy. Dahl’s 1965 story “The Visitor” was appropriate for its venue, in that it concerns a passionate (and regrettable) sexual encounter. Womanizing “Uncle Oswald” is traveling in Cairo, and stays at the home of a man with a beautiful wife and equally beautiful daughter. At night, one of the two slips into Oswald’s bed, but it’s so dark that he doesn’t know which, and his silent companion has disappeared by dawn. This fantasy scenario takes a turn when Oswald discovers his host has a second daughter who had not been introduced to the guest—because of her contagious leprosy.
Joyce Carol Oates, “Saul Bird Says: Relate! Communicate! Liberate!”
Joyce Carol Oates published this piece, for which she won Playboy’s “major work award,” in the October 1971 issue. The story, a dark satire of radical campus politics, was later republished as “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
As a female writer, Joyce Carol Oates received much push back for choosing to work with Playboy. The National Organization for Women wrote to Oates vehemently disapproving of her choice with the hopes of persuading her to boycott the magazine. She responded:
I have never published anything in any magazine on the basis of my agreeing, entirely, with every page of that magazine. In a democratic society, there must be avenues of communication in publications that appeal to a wide variety of people, otherwise writers with certain beliefs will be read only by people with those same beliefs, and change or growth would come to an end. Playboy is astonishingly liberal, and even revolutionary in certain respect.
Haruki Murakami, “The Second Bakery Attack”
Haruki Murakami, a master of the written word, wrote for Playboy in 1985. “The Second Bakery Attack” opens with a newlywed couple unable to satisfy their hunger. This hunger, and too much beer on an empty stomach, inspires the husband to reveal to his wife that he and his friends attacked a bakery when he was younger and he feels the experience left him under a curse—one that, his wife says, can only be lifted by attacking another bakery. And so, the newlywed couple find themselves at a McDonald’s for a second go-around. This one is available to read online.
Jack Kerouac, “Before the Road”
“Before the Road” was published after On The Road, in 1959, but takes place before the events of Kerouac’s seminal (in a couple of senses) novel. It’s a story about freewheeling Dean Moriarty before he meets Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise and they start crisscrossing the country together. The first page and one of the illustrations can still be seen online.
David Foster Wallace, “Late Night”
“My Appearance” was the original title of this story by David Foster Wallace, his first piece of fiction in a major magazine. It was republished on the five year anniversary of his death to Playboy’s online archives with an introduction from Playboy’s fiction editor for 22 years, Alice Turner. After turning down several of Foster Wallace’s submissions, Turner accepted “My Appearance” with few edits except the title, which she saw as uninteresting to readers of a men’s magazine. Foster Wallace was fond of the title because it worked on two levels—the story is about a woman who appears on David Letterman and feels anxious about being put under a microscope—and Turner notes drily, “I won for Playboy but I think he went back to his original title in his own collection.”
James Baldwin, “Words of a Native Son”
“Words of a Native Son,” published in the December 1964 issue, was an essay rather than a work of fiction. The piece, which was reprinted in Baldwin’s collected nonfiction anthology The Price of the Ticket, concerns writing in general, and writing a play in particular (at the time, Baldwin’s second play Blues for Mister Charlie, about a black man’s murder by a white man, was on Broadway).
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Nine Lives”
Ursula K. Le Guin published “Nine Lives” in 1968, under her initials so as to not intimidate the male readers. It’s a story about a spacecraft crew who are all clones of the same young man, but apparently that was less chilling to Playboy’s audience than the idea of a female science fiction author. Nevertheless, “Nine Lives” (which is available online) was endorsed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Le Guin gained a fast and devoted following for her work. “Nine Lives” was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 1969.