Sometime nominee Ian McEwan, one of Britain’s greatest novelists, once graciously described the Bad Sex Awards as the prize every writer longs to win. He has yet to join the ranks of John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe, all of whom, in the awards’ 17 years, have been judged to have inflicted on readers the worst piece of erotic writing of the year. Every year the Literary Review compiles a short list of offending new fiction, with debut novelists as vulnerable as big stars.
One journalist was heard to utter the chat-up line, “You look like you could win a good sex award” at least twice, to at least two different women.
• David Weiss: My Unsafe Sex Life The awards, held at the In and Out Club in St. James, a conservative, members-only London club chosen purely for the bad-joke value of its name, are conducted in a Carry-On-Up-the-Literati spirit, which means that I can only describe myself as a Bad Sex Awards virgin. On a freezing night, while publishers are cutting back on lavish launches, here the Champagne flowed freely, and around 200 people were squashed into the usually sedate venue. Novelist Howard Jacobsen and historian Andrew Roberts, alongside just about every literary editor in London, all listened intently as the nominated passages were read aloud. This is the circus of smut and schadenfreude that is the Bad Sex Awards.
The prize is run by the Literary Review, a small but determinedly high-brow literary magazine founded by Auberon Waugh, Evelyn’s son. He set the award up to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”
To add to the theatricality, actors are engaged to entertain guests with performances of the most offending passages. There’s another sadistic flourish: The judges highlight what is unsexy but insist someone very sexy indeed hand out the prize. In past years, the awards have been presented by Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, and Jerry Hall; this year, it was actor Charles Dance. Though clearly his (aging) sex symbol status was why he’d been called upon, in true actor style, after years of smoldering his way through movies like White Mischief, Plenty, and Gosford Park, he bristled at the idea of being a sex symbol. “I don’t have anything to say about that… what does it mean… I mean… I suppose it’s not a bad thing… I suppose you could say, ‘It’s better to be looked over, than overlooked.’” Even though I had collared Dance in the name of reporting, it was rather humiliating to add my number to the throngs of literary lovelies who were mobbing him. London is quite short on devastatingly attractive male writers, or at least ones that would be seen dead at a Bad Sex party, so Charles Dance and Jeremy Irons are to the literary circuit what Robert Pattinson is to the rest of the world.
But then the party wouldn’t be such a fixture if there wasn’t some bad-taste flirting guaranteed. One journalist was heard to utter the chat-up line, “You look like you could win a good sex award” at least twice, to at least two different women. Only in London, you might say, does anyone think this is funny.
Nick Cave, nominated for his novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, has written countless genuinely sexy songs. Despite this, his publisher said he would have been “disappointed” not to be nominated. A threesome in Philip Roth’s latest The Humbling earned him a place on the shortlist, but it was the extract from Amoz Oz’s new novel, Rhyming Life and Death, that got the loudest laughs.
His hero is a famous “Author,” known just by that moniker, who at one of his own readings, naturally, attracts the attention of a literary groupie. Their collision is a regatta of nautical imagery: “with his fingers, now experienced and even inspired, he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port, to the deepest anchorage, right to the core of her pleasure.”
It was read with an almost Pinter-esque use of pauses. If anchorage weren’t enough, he deep-sea dives for a sonar analogy: “Attentive to the very faintest of signals, like some piece of sonar equipment that can detect sounds in the deep imperceptible to the human ear, he registers the flow of tiny moans.”
It’s a fine line between what’s sexy and what makes jaded literary hacks cackle. The body as territory to be mapped can be very sexy: think of all the cartography in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. And oceanic emblems are almost a trope. From Shakespeare (“Like as waves make towards the pebbled shore…”) to Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night,” where the consummation of his marriage is all told in the lapping of the waves.
Sadly nothing can save Oz from not waving but drowning: “as though he has been transformed into a delicate seismograph that intercepts and instantly deciphers her body's reactions translating what he has discovered into skilful, precise navigation, anticipating and cautiously avoiding every sandbank, steering clear of each underwater reef.”
Oz was sunk by Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which explores the Holocaust from the perspective of one of its perpetrators and has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. As well as the Bad Sex Award, it has already been lauded with the Prix Goncourt. The depiction of a rape by a character with a guillotine fetish is probably best not quoted here. However, there’s something compellingly awful about the following: “I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg.” The egg and spoon, to me, feel like nails scratched on a blackboard. I almost wonder if Littell is the right winner because his line is not so much a bad piece of writing, as really rather brilliant—if disgusting.
The question of whether an excruciating description of a bad sexual experience counts as bad writing will have to be left for another year. Bad writing that thinks that it is rendering an erotically charged depiction of good sex seems to be far more bathetic.
Like any circus, what’s done in jest plays on deeper fears. Pity the writers who spend their lives offering up their private thoughts. Even when there’s no sex to be found, writing requires a kind of nakedness. For novelists with their fragile egos, to be called a bad writer is perhaps almost as bad as being a called a bad lover.
The awards have no golden statuette or fat check—only a plaster foot—reminding all writers that they have feet of clay. However, there seems to be something quintessentially British about celebrating the slap and tickle of bad sex, rather than good. Charles Dance was outraged at this suggestion. “Not at all,” he purred. “I think the English like to celebrate good sex. It’s just the Literary Review who’ve got this obsession.” London’s literary bad-sex fetishists beg to differ.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View , will be published this fall.