Rude awakening for the risqué writers

Why do so many great authors struggle with sex scenes? John Walsh looks forward to the award no one wants to win

And they're off. Another surging flood is heading our way, a flood of mixed metaphors, embarrassing similes, bathetic descriptions, throbbing members, secret petals, nipples that resemble musical instruments, tiny cries of rapture, flames licking someone's very core, the distant call of exotic birds, the twitching of orgasmo-seismographs and the image of two bodies splashing helplessly, like mackerel, on the shore of a great ocean...

The Bad Sex in Fiction Award is upon us once more, like an over-insistent erotophile in a billowing black cloak, seizing innocent members of the public in the street, and bellowing brief but pungent tirades of smut in their ears. For 17 years, since Melvyn Bragg won the prize for his sexed-up, anorak-ripping, Cumbrian romance, A Time to Dance, the prize has brought to our startled attention just how difficult it is to write about sex in a work of fiction. Previous winners and shortlistees include distinguished writers such as Norman Mailer, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Sebastian Faulks, Will Self and Wendy Perriam.

Tonight, a crowd of writers, journalists, media types and sufferers from chronic satyriasis will gather at the In and Out Club in St James's Square, London for the prizegiving, hosted by Alexander Waugh, editor of the Literary Review and son of the prize's founder, Auberon. Mr Waugh, grandson of Evelyn (who was no slouch at inept sex writing himself) will remind the crowd that the prize exists, "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it," and will muse on how successful his discouragement has been over the previous year.

It will be interesting to see who shows up this year. Last year's winner, Jonathan Littell, whose enormous Holocaust novel, The Kindly Ones, was awarded the Prix Goncourt earlier in the year, didn't come. Winners are traditionally expected to show up to receive their prize, or be considered bad sports. Will Alastair Campbell, the feral spin doctor turned novelist, be there? His second novel, Maya – about an A-list film actress – is hotly tipped to win. But he has strong competition from Jonathan Franzen (for a passage in Freedom concerning coprophagy and an eight-inch clitoris,) Christos Tsiolkas, author of the bestseller The Slap (whose erotic style can be conveyed in four words: "They fucked for ages") and Craig Raine, the poet and Oxford don, whose debut novel Heartbreak was published last summer, to mixed and mocking reviews.

Tony Blair's memoirs, A Journey, were nominated for the award because of a toe-curling passage about making love to his wife ("On that night of 12 May 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct...") but the judges decided it was insufficiently fictional.

It's hard to generalise about what makes a triumphantly, prize-winningly bad sex scene. Bathos, the kind that makes audiences howl with laughter, scores high. Rachel Johnson won the prize in 2008 for combining, in Shire Hell, cunnilingus with committee meetings: "... I find myself gripping his ears and tugging at the locks curling over them, beside myself, and a strange animal noise escapes from me as the mounting, Wagnerian crescendo overtakes me. I really do hope at this point that all the Spodders are, as requested, attending the meeting about slug clearance or whatever it is."

Bizarrely inappropriate images that lodge immovably in the reader's mind tend to be the ones that win the plaster foot, however. Last year's winner, Jonathan Littell, carried the day with a description of sex under a guillotine. At the moment of climax, the narrator describes how he feels: "... a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg."

Imagine. Or rather, don't. Can Alastair Campbell do worse than that? It won't be easy.

The Bad Sex in Fiction Awards are held tonight

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor