In defence of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award

It’s been mocked as puerile and prudish, but the prize shows how erotic writing is done badly so it may be done better, says Literary Review’s Jonathan Beckman

If you believe the latest scientific research, we’re so busy Instagramming our Cath Kidston duvets or Tindering until the skin on our thumbs peels off that sex has somehow fallen by the bedside. The pram in the hallway may be the bane of the aspiring writer, but the iPad in the bedroom threatens, in the long run, nothing less than the extirpation of the entire species.

There are some truly perceptive Cassandras, however, who have identified the real cause – as yet hidden from duller minds – of Western society’s erotic crisis: a small literary prize that I help to administer and judge. According to William Nicholson, one of this year’s nominees for Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award, its “chill shadow” spreads across the land, stilling pens as it passes, so “everyone knows how it’s done, but few know what it’s actually like for others”. Laurie Penny wrote in the New Statesman that we “may yet do for literature what pornography has done for cinema – namely, to widen the gap between sexual content and everything else”.

I’m a little smug, naturally, that these acute social commentators have attributed to me powers of such huge consequence, baleful though they may be, and acclaimed me the Dr No of oh yes, oh yes, Oh Yes, OH YES. Sadly, though, they manifest a fundamental misprision about the award’s purpose – a purpose that has evolved somewhat since the prize’s founding 20 years ago. Literary Review’s then editor, Auberon Waugh, was reviewing a novel a week and slowly realised that a number of worthy novels had gratuitous sex scenes dumped into them, at the behest, he presumed, of editors who felt that these would add to the books’ commercial potential. The prize was established to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. Pornographic and erotic novels were specifically excluded from consideration – Waugh had no problem with sex writing per se but with books that tried to accommodate sexual encounters with palpable discomfort.

Two decades later, literary culture and sexual mores have moved on. Although we have maintained the award’s rubric, in honour of its founder, the emphasis for the judges is much more on crudeness – crudeness of writing, that is, not the sex itself. For example, in 2010 we did not shortlist Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms – a work that contains, among many brutal procedures, the crushing of an eye – because the clinical detachment in which it was written conveyed, with shivering precision, the mind of a person who would carry out such acts. It is misshapen sentences that we’re after, those deformed by the dead hand of cliché or distended metaphor.

Every year, with the predictability of an astronomical orbit, criticism of the Bad Sex Award returns: we’re bullies, they cry, we’re prudes. These charges are grave but misguided. Prizes are just a form of criticism, arguably the most influential we have, and books rightly expose themselves to criticism – a healthy culture relies on incisive and robust critics – from the moment they are released into the world. Nomination for the Bad Sex Award is simply a different kind of book review. It acknowledges, unlike other prizes, that, miraculous and transformative though it often is, there is something fundamentally absurd about the conjuring of fictional worlds. Sex is a way in to understanding how these creations can go awry.

And unlike other prizes, whose commendations are invariably written in the international language of vaporous publicity release – “a darkly funny coming-of-age tale”; “a profound meditation on questions of identity and belonging” (what BLOODY questions?) – the Bad Sex Awards hold up individual sentences, the basic unit of the novel, to scrutiny. When Eric Reinhardt, nominated this year for The Victoria System, writes, “Victoria was like a deep nocturnal forest that I strode through without knowing where I was going, through woodland, amid ferns, under tall shivering trees, far from any path. There were noises, puddles, odours, dampness, shapes that vanished, treetops overhanging our bodies. I thought of nothing,” you have to wonder how Victoria moved from being the forest to being sheltered by it, and why the narrator stated he “thought of nothing”, when his mind was quite obviously in pursuit of an Amazonian adventure.

Accusations of prudery against the Bad Sex Award’s judges are inevitably followed by those of sexual repression bred in public schools, sniggering and sweating. Sorry to disappoint, but I attended a London day school, thus missing out on the opportunity to have my imagination warped by dormitory nights; and my laugh is almost certainly too staccato and not throaty enough to qualify as a snigger. But you’ve got me bang to rights on the sweating, though I’m pretty pleased about the evolutionary advantage it gives me in tropical climates.

Unlike Martin Amis, who claimed three years ago that writing about sex was “impossible” and “very few writers have got anywhere” with it, we don’t believe that novelists should steer clear of the bedroom – just that they should go about their business more adeptly. The two common errors we find when drawing up our shortlists are, in fact, symptoms of a pervasive coyness in the authors themselves, of an unwillingness to confront the deed full-on. The first of these is the near-hysterical grasping after metaphor, which seeks to translate the moment into something less carnal. One of my favourite examples of this is found in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, nominated in 2011:

“We turned to each other and gently kissed, then fiercely, like wakening beasts, and before we knew where we were, like a sudden walking storm down the lake that we had witnessed in the deeper weather, we seemed to go out into a stormy gear, we clutched at each other, we got rid of our damned clothes, and clung, 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.”

Whether the couple involved are animal, meteorological, poetical, or gaseous, the prose seems intent on obstructing our view of people having sex. One of my favourite books, James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, is shot through with erotic encounters, but employs clipped sentences and the sparing use of simile that compel the reader to attend to the coupled bodies themselves.

“A long time passes. Her head rests on his chest. She begins to kiss his stomach. The gravity of her movement betrays her. Suddenly he is certain of what she is about to do. He draws her up and presses kisses on her mouth. He can already feel it fitting over him. She moves down again. Her body is curled between his legs. Tenderly she explores him. Finally she begins. Dean touches her cheeks. He traces his finger around her mouth, outlining it. She stops as if for breath, then starts again, accepting more of it. He thrusts a little. He feels himself come. Great, clenching bursts. She doesn’t move. She draws back slightly. Finally she relinquishes him altogether. A solemn moment somehow occurs. She spreads part of the sperm on his belly with her index finger while she watches the last, reflexive spasms.”

The second pitfall is a diffusion of sexual ecstasy through time, space and consciousness. Take one of this year’s nominees, Manil Suri’s The City of Devi:

“Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and  atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world  over rejoice.”

In the yearning for sex to transcend the physical, to offer an experience of such unlikely intensity that it destroys celestial objects, one discerns a secularised version of the old Pauline distrusts of the flesh, which can be redeemed only by the Incarnate Word. In this case, our baser instincts require the words of the literary novelist in order to render them palatable. If it’s not earth-shattering, it’s not worth sullying yourself with.

The Bad Sex Award is not a bear pit of contempt. It’s a prize that cares deeply about writing, that shows how it’s done badly so it may be done better in future. I don’t know why Michael Gove doesn’t put us on the syllabus.

The ‘Literary Review’ Bad Sex in Fiction Award will be presented tomorrow at the In & Out Club, St James’s, west London

Jonathan Beckman is the senior editor of ‘Literary Review’ and one of the judges of its Bad Sex in Fiction Award. His first book, ‘How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne’, will be published in June by John Murray. It contains no sex scenes

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