It may have passed you by, but in the UK we recently had the marvellous spectacle of the Bad Sex Awards – an annual award for the worst sex scene in a mainstream novel.
The award was established by literary giant Auberon Waugh and is presented by the Literary Review. Its aim is one of ‘gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels’.
There were eight contenders for the 2012 award, and it was won by Nancy Huston for her novel Infrared. The winning (or offending, depending on your point of view) passage cited at the ceremony included a certain amount of purple prose – over-lengthy similes involving cellos, bows, fishes swimming in water (what else might they swim in?), stars, contellations, milky ways (the stars not the confectionary), a ‘delirium of restrained desire’ and carnal pink palpitations. You can read it for yourself on the Guardian website.
Winners in previous years have included many well-known authors – Melvin Bragg, Sebastian Faulks, AA Gill, John Updike, even Norman Mailer (in 2007, for his The Castle in the Forest).
This leads to some interesting questions.
Firstly, given that a large part of human experience is about sex, it seems reasonable that many literary books will include rather than avoid it. It also seems reasonable that they will be quite explicit about it. And the books that have been nominated are by writers often praised for their literary skills. So what’s up with the bad sex?
The answer offered by a Guardian columnist is this: if a book isn’t primarily about the kind of relationships that involve sex, then the sex scenes tend to stick out like a sore thumb and, if quoted away from the context of the novel as a whole, tend not to read well. As a previous winner notes, writing in the Independent, when read out at an award ceremony the reading tends to be in the tradition of a pantomime performance, any subtlety in the writing is lost and the audience generally responds with derision – even though in the context of the novel and read privately, the extract may read rather well.
And while there’s bad writing about sex – some of which is in the mainstream and some in specific genres such as erotica – there is course bad writing about everything. Which is part of the point of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which encourages deliberately terrible submissions so we can amuse ourselves reading them.
So then secondly, as the Guardian asks, why aren’t there ‘good sex’ awards?
Well, there are. Many of them, in fact. They’re just not mainstream. They’re awarded specifically to erotica (and no, we haven’t won any – yet). Jade magazine intermittently includes the written word in its awards, and there are special fiction categories in the awards given by the National Leather Association in the US (their website exists but is currently being renovated), and The Bondage Awards website (though the NLA and The Bondage Awards are specifically bdsm-related). And there are plenty of others that readers of erotica will probably be aware of.
There is, actually, great sex in some mainstream literature. You’ll find, for example, highly erotic passages in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – some of them based on the premise that one of the protagonists appears to be a human predictor of where the V2 missiles will fall in London (it’s set in the latter stages of World War II) since every spot at which he has an erection later becomes the site of a missile hit.
But maybe the interesting thing here isn’t what the mainstream is doing, it’s the fact that there is, seemingly, a distinct place for erotic literature. Good writing about sex is perhaps most likely to be found in narratives that are, in fact, about sex – and maybe it’s less likely that passages from such works are going to have that ‘stand out like a sore thumb’ quality. That’s not to say all erotica writes brilliantly about sex, because it doesn’t; just that the best and most insightful writing about sex is more likely to be found in the erotica genre.