Bad Sex Awards

One Bad Sex Award-winner's view on the 'bullying, prudery and ignorance' that tries to shut down literature's erotic side

With this year's shortlist for the Bad Sex Awards announced last
month, former winner Rowan Somerville challenges the purpose and
legitimacy of the accolade

When I realised that sex was going to be the central part of my novel The Shape of Her, I was a little worried. I sensed that to examine this subject with any authenticity required a suspension of defences, and that to do so in this country is to ask for a kicking.

When the book had been written and published, and I was told by an editor of the Literary Review, the magazine which runs the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, that I had won their annual prize, it felt like the closing of a circle.

Not only had I committed the crime of writing a novel in which sex was central. I had been quoted earlier that year describing the Bad Sex Award people as "sixth-formers sniggering because someone said penis", and in this newspaper I had referred to their award as a "tediously titillating spectre". So the response seemed inevitable. I arrived at the men-only "gentleman's club" in London where the awards were being held, curious to see how the scene would play out.

It was quite astonishing: an opulent ballroom packed with posh Londoners fizzing with excitement about the impending execution. Two (very) English actresses of a certain age were to read out passages from the shortlisted books, and the audience would laugh and howl at each pantomime enunciation of a "dirty" word.

Shortlisted with my novel were two far superior works: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap. In Freedom there is a brilliant but challenging moment where two young lovers, forced to live far apart, continue their passionate affair in phone conversations. The lovers "make their own worlds" through words, and at one point the boy uses a coprophiliac image as an expression of his unconditional desire.

The image aims to show the fearlessness of their communication and the intensity of his love, but all this subtlety is lost when the extract is read out and the audience dutifully roars with disgusted horror. As for Tsiolkas's passage, it is neither particularly bad nor good. But when read out in a terrible mock-Aussie accent, it is met with howls of derision.

I know that they are going to enjoy themselves when it comes to my novel. It is essentially about sexual abuse. The way the protagonists have sex is meant to be an expression of childhood experiences about which neither is consciously aware. The sex is deliberately wrong, cringeworthy, full of expressions of disassociation, of blocked passion and misunderstood urges.

When the young man finally has sex it is "like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin". This is meant to be an inappropriate and gruesome image. When the actress reads out the passage in a mawkish moan, the crowd erupts. I had an idea that I would explain how misguided it all was, but a boozy night in the club is no place to do so. So I collect the award and say that "there is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of a nation I thank you".

The Bad Sex in Fiction Award survives by taking sex out of its literary context and holding it up to ridicule. In some cases, the books that have been shortlisted and presented with it have not even read by the judges. A Literary Review staffer who was a "judge" revealed to me that he had not managed to read my novel - although he had voted for it.

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is generally accepted as one of the great novels of the 20th century, and a masterpiece in its evocation of sex. The scholar Maurice Courtier wrote that "never, since the Renaissance, has sex been evoked so poetically as well as so erotically as in Lolita". Indeed, my image of a "lepidopterist" was a nod to Nabokov, an obsessive butterfly collector.

But even for a master like Nabokov, if we take the passages that describe sexual activity out of context, they can appear ridiculous: "I gave her to hold in my awkward fist the sceptre of my passion"; or "I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known". If published today, no doubt they too would appear in the Bad Sex Award shortlist.

No one seems to question the legitimacy or purpose of this award, so let me do so. Given again next week, it is chosen and judged entirely by the staff of the magazine which benefits from it. Its purpose? Although they keep telling us the award was established "to draw attention to the crude and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel – and to discourage it", in reality it was devised by an editor - Auberon Waugh - renowned (at least in print) for his reactionary conservativism, as a publicity stunt to boost the readership of a failing magazine.

The editors keep telling us that it is "only a bit of fun": the mantra of so many children caught bullying in the playground. But the atmosphere within the awards, and the pillorying of Sebastian Faulks when he quite appropriately refused to collect his, should lead us to question this. The magazine editor has been quoted as saying that sex in books "just doesn't work, I don't think there are any cases where it works". So one wonders if this award is anything more than a sort of moral outrage dressed up as a quest for high standards in writing.

Amos Oz, Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe, Sebastian Faulks, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami and John Banville - to name a few - have all fallen under the shadow of the Literary Review's pointy finger. These are first-rate novelists who have provided inspiration to millions. This is not to say that great novelists cannot write bad prose, but if one looks at the offending passages in context, it gives another impression altogether. So what was the crime of these authors, if not bad writing? The answer is simple: writing about sex.

Sex, as we know, sells, but it is interesting to examine why this particular ritual benefits from an almost unheard-of suspension of journalistic disbelief. The answer may well lie in the fact that not only is the demographic of the Literary Review overwhelmingly male; 82 per cent of its readers are journalists or work in the media. Perhaps this goes some way to explain the appearance of bizarre non-stories such as, this year, "Bad Sex list leaves out JK Rowling". This is news about something not being there: evidence of absence. The reason that Rowling is not on the list for The Casual Vacancy, so the Bad Sex team tells us, is that despite "queasy moments", her sex is not bad enough. So, like misguided philosophers, we move from evidence of absence to absence of evidence.

And, speaking of absence, where is the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy? This is the biggest-selling work of fiction in British history... and it's about sex. Really, it should warrant more than a contemptuous dismissal from the judges that, as a deliberate exercise in erotic fiction, it belongs to the wrong genre. But the sexual depictions in 50 Shades are central to the emotional architecture of the novel. It would make no sense to imagine that these scenes can just be surgically excised.

Yes, in the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy the characterisation is obvious and slight, the language clunky and the plot frail and predictable. But in these respects, it is no worse than many a Hollywood blockbuster. One thing it shares with the mass-audience movie is that, however superficial the writing, people have an urge to discover what happens next.

Put simply, the story grips (at least initially). In his classic series of lectures given at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1927 (and published as Aspects of the Novel), EM Forster states that a story "can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next". It is clear by sales of the sequels alone that people are desperate not only to turn the page of this work, but to buy more of the same.

EL James, aka Erika Leonard, has done more than put together a gripping yarn; she has created a cheery and safe-looking high-street supermarket in an unexplored, guilty and subterranean corner of the mass consciousness. Yes, her prose is supremely anodyne, but it is precisely this quality that ensures its success.

The bland, easy-to-project-onto characters; the BDSM-lite; the reassuring but toxic idea that romantic love can change another person into the fulfillment of all your needs, and the shrewd use of a first-person present-tense narrative: all these features create an experience through which someone with a reading age of about 13 can explore desires that, prior to 50 Shades of Grey, were illicit and hidden. In short, James has moved this area of fantasy from taboo into Tesco.

I think the effect of 50 Shades of Grey is generally positive. Although the protagonists are more stereotype than archetype, and one might pause for thought while creating a romantic hero out of a (clinical) sadist who was abused as a child... at least the conversation is opened up.

Some would argue that the whole subject is much better hidden: we do, after all, generally have sex in private. But less and less is taboo in our society. With social networks making individuals the stars of their own movies, so we can follow every detail of their lives as it happens ("I just ate an apricot frosted cupcake...yum"), perhaps society's only real taboo will be restraint. While I have no desire to learn of interactions with a cupcake, I believe that literature should continue to shine light into the darker corners of psyches and societies.

Sex, as the 50 Shades phenomenon has confirmed, is a rich and important subject. Novelists should not be discouraged from experiments with different forms of expression by one small and noisy section of the population who - despite their proven excellence in creating empires, wars and gentlemen's clubs - have never been the go-to group when it comes to intelligent debates on sexuality.

Rowan Somerville's novel 'The Shape of Her' is published by Phoenix

This article appears in the 1 December issue of The Independent's Radar magazine

 

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