David Guterson beat off “stiff competition” (his award-accepting spokesperson’s pun, not mine) on Tuesday night to win the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award for his novel Ed King, a modern Seattle-set reworking of the Oedipus myth. The prize, now in its 19th year, was founded by the Literary Review’s then-editor Auberon Waugh (the novelist Evelyn’s son) to “discourage” the “crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel," sex scenes that were included, he argued, purely to boost sales figures.
It is, however, a truth universally acknowledged that sex sells, and judging by this year’s nominations, which included the bestselling authors Lee Child, Stephen King, and Christos Tsiolkas, badly written sex sells even more. A “disappointingly high number of books” made it onto this year’s longlist, Alexander Waugh (Auberon’s son) lamented as he introduced the evening’s entertainment (live readings of the six titles shortlisted from the original 12 nominated), suggesting that Auberon’s plan hadn’t quite worked as originally envisaged. Indeed, the award party itself—held at the In and Out Club (pun definitely intended) in London’s St. James’s—is one of the hottest tickets in any of the London literati’s social calendar, and, yes, there is without doubt an air of Carry On comedy surrounding the event—ever more so this evening as the film series’ veteran Barbara Windsor presented the prize.
We might well picture the Literary Review’s offices transformed into a steamy hotbed of arousal as everyone gets hot under the collar, secretly knocking one out under their desks as they rifle through the nominated extracts like naughty schoolboys. The reality, though, as Jonathan Beckman, senior editor of the magazine and Bad Sex Award judge, took pains to assure me, is actually the more laborious and not half as satisfying task of browsing the shelves of the local bookshop (the only arousal incurred is the staff’s suspicion if they notice him thumbing multiple “dirty passages”). But he readily admits the way in which the award has “evolved” over the years, as “it is rather hard,” he explained in a recent piece in the Financial Times, “to convey the redundancy of a passage to an audience that has not read the entire novel,” so instead it has come to “acknowledge the absurd, the implausible, the overwritten and the unwittingly comical.”
This year’s longlist certainly ticked all the boxes, though I might suggest that the problem of extracting a single scene from the context of the larger book works both ways. Back when I first read it, I’d completely missed the comic potential of Sebastian Barry’s “wakening beasts” ridding themselves of their “damned clothes” in the Man Booker Prize longlisted On Canaan’s Side: “[…] and he was in me then, and we were happy, happy, young, in that room by the water, and the poetry that is available to anyone was available to us at last, and we breathed each other in, and in those moments both knew we would marry each other after all, and not a word needed to be spoken about it.”
Barry’s rather lackluster prose marks one distinctive type of Bad Sex nomination—that which tries to transcend the base physicality of the encounter, but in doing so ultimately falls back on insipid cliché. He was joined this year by Simon Van Booy with Everything Beautiful Began After, James Frey with The Final Testament of the Holy Bible (“It was the greatest second of my life. Really the greatest, and I knew in that one second I was experiencing God”), and both of the only two female authors nominated: Jean M. Auel with The Land of Painted Caves, and Dori Ostermiller’s Outside the Ordinary World.
Van Booy’s only real physical description—“He was hard and very heavy,” which is fairly straightforward and to the point—quickly gives way to the ecstatic postcoital bliss of “two people divided by the illusion of experiences.” An image that is given an odd maritime twist by Ostermiller: “For a moment, two moments, three, we’re part of the same organism: some outrageous sea creature washed up and tangled on the shore, terrifying beautiful, beyond hope.” Auel, on the other hand, falls back on the overused images of “petals” spreading “wide” to reveal the “warm, wet cave within” (though I’m equally, if not more, bemused by her description of a female nipple as the “Mother’s Gift of Pleasure”).
As Beckman warns, metaphor should be used sparingly (and perhaps bad translation should also be considered when it comes to Haruki Murakami’s assertion in 1Q84 that “a freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike”—is this metaphor?), but, as the extract from Peter Nádas’s Parallel Stories proves, metaphor combined with sensory overload is the real mood killer: “To mix the saliva accumulated in his mouth with the mucous strong-smelling urine-spiced excretion that overflowed her c--- and in which he was now splashing about with his overhardened, aching c--- as in a bottomless swap of dead fish and yellow lilies in bloom.” And if you think that’s bad, all I’m going to say about Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe is warn you that the term “churning compost” is used; it certainly made for a much-applauded reading this evening, though (the more ripe descriptions had been somewhat glossed over).
But it’s the absurd and the unwittingly comical that stood out from all the rest. There’s Chris Adrian’s protagonist in The Great Night who, “with both hands thrown high up over his head and his lady lifted to the stars on his impossibly stiff, impossibly eloquent c--- […] came and came and came,” inspiring one of the oddest postcoital celebrations I’ve read: “'Bravo!’ he called out, the words muffled by his lady’s breast. ‘Bravo, everybody. Well done!’”
And Stephen King’s depiction of inexperience in 11/22/63:
“Sadie? All right?”
“Ohmygodyes,” she said and I laughed. She opened her eyes and looked up at me with curiosity and hopefulness. “Is it over, or is there more?”
“A little more,” I said. “I don’t know how much. I haven’t been with a woman in a long time.”
It turned out there was quite a bit more … At the end she began to gasp. “Oh dear, oh my dear, oh my dear dear God, oh sugar!”
Through Lee Child’s The Affair—my own personal favorite of the shortlist—that, from the very first lines, promises to be a corker: “We were both thirty-six years old. All grown up. Not teenagers. We didn’t rush. We didn’t fumble. We took our time, and what a time it was. Maybe the best time ever.” As any clued-up reader realizes, Child has set himself up for a fall—and fall he does, for (and although I know there’s no accounting for taste) what follows isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, despite the fact it made for a lively performance on tonight's stage:
Then it was time. We started tenderly. Long and slow, long and slow. Deep and easy. She flushed and gasped. So did I. Long and slow.
Then faster and harder.
Then we were panting.
Faster, harder, faster, harder.
“Wait,” she said.
“Wait, wait,” she said. “Not now. Not yet. Slow down.”
Long and slow, long and slow.
“OK,” she said, “OK. Now. Now. Now!”
Faster and harder.
Faster, harder, faster, harder.
The room began to shake.
This might well be my idea of bad sex, but as Guterson summed his win up in his acceptance note: “Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I’m not in the least bit surprised.” His “relentlessly, acutely, even obsessively servile” protagonist (initially a selling point for the object of his attention, although after a while the lucky lady does find herself a tad frustrated as she’s left wondering, “How long was he going to go on with this erotic massage and general body worship without getting to her quim?”), has his fifth ejaculation in 12 hours after being “abused” with a bar of soap in the shower. I suspect it was the immortal lines “his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her ‘front parlor’ and ‘back door' ” that sealed his victory, but then again, it could well have been the “careful prodding of her perineum […] as good a starting place as any for Diane” or the description of a penis as a “skin flute"; quite frankly there’s a lot of bad material there to choose from.