This odd, and peculiarly English, occasion once had a semi-serious purpose to it. The permissiveness of the Sixties and Seventies had encouraged a rash of literary erotomania, it was argued. First, popular fiction succumbed, with ever more outlandish scenes of excess and kinkiness. Who could forget the goldfish scene in Shirley Conran's Lace, or the place where one woman kept a diamond in Sally Beauman's Destiny? Soon afterwards, serious fiction became infected, making voyeurs of us all. The Bad Sex Prize was introduced to discourage the trend by naming and shaming authors who had rashly taken on erotic explicitness and had ended up - sometimes literally - arse over tit.
As it happens, this was something of a hobby of mine at the time. It had occurred to me that a useful antidote to the ever-growing list of inspirational volumes about orgasms and g-spots would be The Bad Sex Guide, a collection of anaphrodisiac quotations. Opening with the classics, I would include from Mansfield Park: "I'm going to make my little Fanny feel as she's never felt before." Or from Martin Chuzzlewit: "She touched his organ, and from that bright epoch, even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began a new and deified existence."
There would be a section on first moves, from Alice Walker's "Something hot and passionate was opening in him, and it wasn't in his trousers: it was in his chest", to Leslie Thomas's less poetic "I lay beside her. She was like a warm lozenge. Her hands went to my thing." A chapter might be devoted to the breast, an area of particular difficulty to such English writers as Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond, whose line "Her breasts were so big she kept them strapped in a brassiere, otherwise they got in the way of her gun" demanded inclusion.
The guide's main thrust would deal with the act itself, taking in the peremptory, as expressed by John Cheever's journal, "I mount my wife, eat my eggs, walk my dog", to Stewart Home's more politically engaged, "As he came, he imagined his orgasm to be an all-out nuclear attack on what brain-dead patriots insisted was his country". There would certainly have been room for such journalistic efforts as the news from the Evening Standard in 1986 that "a painting of a nude Mick Jagger, taken from the rear by Cecil Beaton, was sold by London auctioneers Bonham's yesterday for pounds 1,050".
Cheap? Undignified? Of course, but there was a market in those days for the cheap and undignified, and I had a family to feed. Fortunately perhaps, my agent took a dim view of the enterprise and told me to go away and write a novel. A few months later, The Literary Review announced its prize.
It has been disastrously successful. Appealing, with its combination of giggly voyeurism and an abiding fear of pretentiousness, to the public school faction, it has become an event in the literary calendar. New novelists, aware as never before of the importance of public image, have frequently cited their terror of being humiliated at The Bad Sex Prize to explain why they are so buttoned up.
Less frequently pointed out is the fact that, for the serious novelist writing about attraction and relationships, sexuality is important. To shut the bedroom door in the reader's face, claiming, in the face of all evidence and experience, that we all make love in the same way, is a cowardly evasion. In bed is precisely where it all starts getting interesting. Imagine how impoverished the best works of Roth or Updike would be without their daring, and sometimes embarrassing, erotic candour.
Far from discouraging writers with its annual dirty-minded snigger, The Literary Review should mark its abiding interest in this subject by instituting a Good Sex Prize to reward particularly adventurous, perceptive, stimulating and unusual descriptions. Alternatively, if sneering is the order of the day, it might look to the area of true exploitation - the lifting of private marital pain, unmediated by any fictional device and offering no right of reply, into written form, in the manner recently achieved by Hanif Kureishi and Tim Lott. Time, perhaps, for the Bad Faith Prize.Reuse content