Hussein Ibish at The Baffler:
There’s an especially bitter irony in Sade’s image as a cheap pornographer: he was not in any recognizable sense creating pornography at all—nor can he be neatly pigeonholed into any other literary tradition. Sade was an astonishingly prolific writer who produced an enormous oeuvre covering a huge variety of genres. Much of it is mediocre to the point of being unreadable, particularly his conventionally sentimental or comedic dramas and stories. There seems little doubt that without his notorious “libertine novels,” most notably Justine, Juliette,Philosophy in the Boudoir and, especially since its rediscovery in the early twentieth century, 120 Days of Sodom, Sade would have been quickly forgotten. Instead, these works, and a few others, have assured him of a profound—albeit highly contested and unstable—artistic and intellectual influence.
Because of the centrality of his erotic novels to his legacy, later critics have often caricatured Sade as not only a pornographer, but as the arch-pornographer, representing either the worst or the best of the genre. But this is deeply misleading. Insofar as pornography is a commodity of mass-marketed and stylized representations of sexual practices, Sade is better seen as an anti-pornographer. His work is unquestionably obscene, and transgressive in the extreme, but its impact is neither conventionally pornographic nor erotic. Although much of his fiction bears a great deal of similarity to the Gothic novel genre (of which he was a noted and serious critic), his best work, in the “libertine” series of fiction, is sui generis.