Bad sex please, we're British: Can fictive sex ever have artistic merit?

When the unexpurgated Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover was finally cleared of obscenity, three decades after DH Lawrence's death and a highly-publicised trial, it marked a victory for literary freedom. Those who had not already got their hands on a contraband copy rushed to exercise their right to read of Lady Constance and her gamekeeper lover, in flagrante, uttering previously unprintable words.

Readers were not the only ones forming a hasty queue. In the decades following November 1960, writers exulted in their new-found Lawrentian rights to express their erotic imaginations before critics began questioning the artistic merits of this modern-day deluge of explicit sex in literary fiction.

By the early 1990s, a peculiarly British form of disapproval had grown out of the notion that sex and serious literature made for uncomfortable bedfellows. The priapic imaginings of otherwise revered writers – Philip Roth, John Updike, Amos Oz, John Banville – were selected and sneered at for inducing the wrong type of grunts and groans, in the annual tradition that has become The Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards.

The most purple of this year's blue passages is once again to be put in the stocks by the magazine at their awards ceremony later this month.

While these nominations provide testimony to the creative potholes authors can slip down when they stray into the bedroom, the awards themselves prove their opposite – good sex writing - does exist. Against that the bad is selected, according to Jonathan Beckman, assistant editor of The Literary Review.

But for all the vituperation at authors who get it wrong, there appears to be little consensus on how to get it right. Some writers follow the forensic language of anatomy, others adopt metaphor and euphemism, while opponents of literary sex shun it for crass approximations with pornography.

Ironically, the bad sex awards were originally conceived, in 1993, to celebrate good sex, before the editor, Auberon Waugh, was advised by co-founder, Rhoda Koenig, that this might be "less interesting" than plucking out the clichéd and the corny. Waugh went with her suggestion. "For something like 15 years I had to review a novel a week in various publications," he explained in an article for The Erotic Review, "and bit by bit I noticed how practically every novelist had taken to including a sex scene which had nothing to do with the plot and added nothing to the enjoyment of the narrative. Nobody could possibly have been aroused by these awkward, perfunctory couplings."

These days, the prize is viewed either as a dated literary joke, or more seriously, as a deterrent. Andrew Motion bemoaned the dearth of sex in this year's Man Booker prize long-list during his tenure as its chair, and raised the annual debate over whether the prize had not discouraged writers from unleashing their erotic imaginations on the page. This suggestion may go too far in assuming the awards' influence over the minds of novelists, but perhaps their continued existence serve to keep fresh the fear that any description of sex might veer perilously close to erotica, with its cheapening effect of sexual arousal. That was most recently expressed by Martin Amis, who spoke of the impossibility of writing sex in fiction without descent into pornography.

John Freeman, the editor of Granta magazine who oversaw a special edition dedicated to sex earlier this year, says that although contemporary fiction abounds with eloquent discussions "around" and "about" sex, there is a level of apprehension among some writers who find themselves searching for a fitting vocabulary to describe its actual mechanics.

"The feeling that sex isn't fully represented in literature proves to be a false one if you expand just beyond the actual act, to all the things that sex encompasses. But once you get down to writing the act, it's very hard to do it without sounding like bad erotica or embarrassing self-disclosure. I remember Adam Foulds saying at our event: 'You can almost see many male writers' brain chemistry change as they write certain scenes and their ability to judge what is good writing get away from them'."

Mitzi Szereto, an author and teacher of erotic writing workshops, says writers on her courses are held back when they seek refuge in their own sexual histories: "You wouldn't rely on personal experience for any other kind of fiction writing so why would you when crafting a sex scene? I encourage people to write beyond their own sexual encounters, and when they do, they are less inhibited and more creative."

Szereto thinks the best kind of sex writing needs to explore the "psychology of desire". In an age in which sex has been divested of most of its mystery (hard-core pornography is a website away and Mills & Boon has invested in a "raunchy" series), it may be that the "psychology of desire" is the only unknown territory to explore.

Howard Jacobson, who last month won the Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question, believes it is the discussion of sex that is the intriguing part, not its depiction. "The only point in writing a 'he puts that in there and she puts this in here' scene is to arouse, and I'm not interested in doing that. Some critics who should have known better complained that my last novel, The Act of Love, didn't arouse them. It wasn't meant to. It was a book 'about' compulsive jealousy. It wasn't intended to make them jealous or otherwise titillate them.

"To a novelist - to me, anyway - the 'about' is more interesting than the thing. Explicitness almost invariably takes you to bathos. The great sex scenes in literature for me don't show sex at all – Dorothea in Middlemarch, for example, registering the sexual horror of her marriage through her revulsion from Roman art... It isn't morality that determines this preference in me, but aesthetics."

Geoff Dyer's artistic judgement does not stop him at the bedroom door. The superannuated omission of sex in stories that deal with themes of love, passion and romance is as artificial as a black-and-white film featuring a Bogart-Bacall kiss which segues into the next, unrelated scene, he argues. He has sought to keep the film rolling.

"In 1989, I published my novel, The Colour of Memory. It had a lively romance in it and the climactic moment was this kiss. It was rather a nice kiss but I had a sense then that it was like a throwback to early film convention whereby the scene afterwards goes blank and everything else is implied. I wanted to depict a completely lively, non-weird relationship which included full-on sex.

"Once the decision had been made, that a relationship would be consummated between two people, then it seemed to me right in the modern age to follow them into the bedroom. It was in reading Allan Hollinghurst's books where you get, without any change of gear at all, this shift from beautiful, classical British prose to the words 'his cock was in my mouth' that I wondered whether it was possible to come up with a heterosexual equivalent."

The literary challenge in writing three detailed sex scenes for his latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, were immense, he admits, because "you are faced with a limited number of verbs and nouns". Yet the act of sex can be convincingly rendered, if done straightforwardly.

"It seems to me if you do write it, it has to be absolutely explicit – no metaphors, no hyperbole. After writing Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, I said to my editor, 'I will bet you any sum of money I won't be listed for the Bad Sex awards'. Descriptions of throbbing orbs lends themselves to the awards, not [a sentence like] 'he stuck his tongue in her arse'."

Beckman agrees with Dyer that it is "less ostentatious" sex that is the most effective. "The best sex scenes are the ones that are quite clinical and precise. Colm Tóibín's short stories are quite good, there is a good sex scene in Bret Easton Ellis's Imperial Bedrooms; Dyer wrote perfectly reasonable scenes in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He just tells you what happens; what's not good is the over-florid writing that imbues sex with transcendental meaning."

Philip Kerr, novelist and recipient of the Bad Sex Award in 1995 for Gridiron, is wary of conclusive theories on judging the good from bad. The passages deemed bad are sometimes the most original because description is "off the beaten track".

For Gridiron, he employed the gentle language of metaphor, and felt he was perhaps punished for it. "I think I won the award for one word – gnomon – which is the hard part of a sundial. When you are writing about [sex] and the penis, you are looking for comparisons, and I made this one given the transient nature of both time and an erection."

Kerr has not stopped writing explicit scenes in subsequent works, to reveal character and motivation. "I've just published my latest novel, Field Gray, and it's got one sex scene in it which has an old man having sex with a younger woman in Cuba. She's scared of being picked up by the Cuban police and she wants someone to cuddle her. He doesn't think this event has got anything to do with him being a sexy man - he is her protector so the scene is revealing that relationship between them."

Koenig casts doubt over this rationale: "I do think writers should ask themselves 'is this sex scene necessary?' In other words, what will we learn from following the people into the bedroom that we will not learn from simply being told that they have gone to bed together and liked it or disliked it or felt guilty about it or whatever?"

Do we even need these graphic interludes in an era which has made sex and its availability in all forms not only permissive, but pedestrian? asks Koenig. Modern literary battles are no fought by publishers over sex, as they were by Penguin in 1960. One wonders whether DH Lawrence would see sex, such a disposable currency today, as the same potent gift to literary fiction. The most interesting writing about sex in the past two decades has arguably come from gay and lesbian novelists – Hollinghurst, Jeanette Winterson, Edmund White - who have touched ground where there has still been sensibilities to disturb and imaginative barriers to break down.

"Nobody needs it anymore", says Koenig. "Not that long ago, people would read quality fiction (as well as, of course, lots of rubbish) to discover what actually went on during sex, how people did it. Virgins wanted information, and experienced people wanted inspiration. If you were too young or poor to buy pornography or instruction books and had to go to the library, it was a lot less embarrassing checking out Lady Chatterley than a sex manual."

In her introduction to the Penguin's 2004 edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Doris Lessing pokes gentle fun at the timidity of the sex scenes that caused such moral approbation in pre-1960s Britain. To us now, the book is not nearly as "explicit" as it once was, with its opaque descriptions of anal sex and pulpy scenes of Constance and Mellors weaving flowers in each others' pubic hair. But how it is still useful is in serving as "a report on the sex war of his [Lawrence's] time."

Yesterday's sex might be today's schmaltz, but Lessing appears to present a simple yet convincing argument in its favour. What such scenes capture so vividly is a kind of social history of the bedroom that deserves a rightful place in literary fiction. "The description of what happens in the bedroom, between the sexes with all the power-play between the genders is a vital and valid documentation in literature," she says. Bad sex, for this purpose, could be just as enlightening as good.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice