Boyd Tonkin: Stay in the bedroom, you literary chaps

The Week In Books

Does public scorn and ridicule deter future crimes? That principle of penology undergirds the Bad Sex Prize, mounted annually with such vim and vigour by the Literary Review. Presiding over this year's ceremonial pillory on Monday evening, Alexander Waugh made the thrust of the award plainer than ever. It aims not to thrash the blatant bonkbuster but to halt otherwise good writers at the bedroom door and so, like some mental chastity belt, forestall all future acts of fictional sex. Just say no, says Waugh.

This time, passages from novels by Philip Roth, Amos Oz, Nick Cave, Richard Milward and John Banville all found themselves in the figurative stocks. The prize, however, went to Jonathan Littell and his much-garlanded wartime epic, The Kindly Ones.

In Charlotte Mandell's translation from the French (and surely she should share the bouquets and brickbats?), Littell's incorrigible anti-hero of an SS officer comes across all Homeric at a climactic moment: "This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon's head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus who made me Nobody...." Und so weiter.

So aptly held at the "In and Out" Club in St James's, the party is always a treat. Only the most precious of critics could fret about the justified mockery of overblown prose. Yet once more I felt rather like (to use a Waugh family analogy) a pagan at High Mass. It strikes me that, in Britain above all, many male literary novelists should be writing more, and better, about sex. Instead, a certain rueful inoffensive blandness – you might call it the Hornby gauge – seems to have taken hold.

It becomes the default position for sensitive types way too anxious about exposing themselves to charges of machismo or – heaven forfend - "misogyny". How spineless, though, to tiptoe self-righteously around the pool rather than take the risk of a dip.

This is sheer funk, chaps, and simply will not do. In effect, for serious male novelists to slam the bedroom door - as the Bad Sex crew demand - would leave all the heavy literary lifting about the erotic life to women authors. And they have had to shoulder that burden for too long anyway. Although the op-ed pundits fudged this point, one strong sign of the authenticity of the research scientist formerly known as "Belle de Jour" was a comradely compassion about the foibles of masculine desire. This far outstripped in insight much of what passes for intimate analysis in male-written "literary fiction".

Between tacky raunch one the one hand and fastidious refinement on the other, a vast terrain of possibilities lies waiting for exploration. Yet so few literary blokes seem brave enough to go there. That makes the emergence of a talent such as Ewan Morrison, a gifted traveller down the byways of love as much as sex in books such as Distance and Swung, a real sign of hope. It gives to the fearless erotic comedy of Hanif Kureishi, who publishes his Collected Stories early next year, the role of a landmark and lifeline for those readers who still find the literary scene riddled with high-toned hypocrisy. Meanwhile, when in February Martin Amis releases his novel of the sexual revolution of the Sixties, A Pregnant Widow, let's hope that the kneejerk Amis "misogyny" row can give way to a more nuanced debate.

Some great authors thrive on indirection when it comes to passion. Others bloom in the full glare of revelation. On the male side of the ledger, a vibrant culture of fiction benefits from its DH Lawrences as well as its EM Forsters. And Britain needs a Good Sex prize.

P.S.Trivia quiz: Q: What connects super-stylist Gok Wan, comedians Jo Brand and Dave Spikey, Laila (Strictly Come Dancing) Rouass and Nathanial (Inspector Lynley) Parker? A: They will all help to present a book-club show scheduled to replace Richard & Judy's shut-down literary salon, and due to air on More 4 (with a Channel 4 repeat) from 17 January. Cactus TV chief Amanda Ross (left), the power behind the R&J throne, promises a dinner-party format for the programme, with the hosts introducing new choices and returning to some of the authorial success stories fostered by the Madeley & Finnegan team. Will the fresh slot, to be called The TV Book Club and slated for an initial three-season run, encourage serious reading rather than just celebrity chat? The choice of commercial sponsors does hold out hope. It will be Specsavers.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living