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
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The Independent Culture

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