It was co-founded by the literary critic Auberon Waugh to deride the increasing number of badly-written sex scenes in serious fiction. Since it was conceived in 1993, the Bad Sex Awards are thought to have deterred novelists from depicting life beyond the bedroom door for fear of being ridiculed.
Now, Rhoda Koenig, co-founder of the annual prize awarded by the staff of The Literary Review, has told The Independent that before Waugh died, he had become bored of the prize which he thought had become “rather an old joke”.
“A few years before Auberon Waugh died (in 2001), when the award was four or five years old, he said to me ‘this joke seems rather stale to me now’. He thought the joke had been going on for long enough but when he said he was getting rather tired of it, he was told that it was still popular and it was getting a lot of support from the sponsor,” she said.
As its co-founder, Ms Koenig, a literary critic, admitted that even she now felt that 17 years on, “it’s a pretty old T-shirt”. Ironically, Waugh, son of the novelist Evelyn Waugh and then-editor of The Literary Review, had wanted an annual literary award to celebrate the best sex scenes in fiction, in order to gain more publicity for the magazine. But he was convinced by Koenig that ‘bad sex’ would be more interesting.
“We were talking about having an award to publicise the magazine. They (magazine staff) said they wanted to have an award for the best sex scene. I said ‘that’s boring. Why don’t we have an award for the worst?’ In the beginning, the point was to ridicule both the self-expression and the commercialisation of sex because there is so bloody much of both,” said Ms Koenig.
The Bad Sex Awards have sent-up the apparently purple prose of former Booker prize winners and Pulitzer recipients
Later this month on 29 November, The Literary Review will announce a winner from shortlisted extracts by writers including Jonathan Franzen for his novel, Freedom, Alastair Campbell for Maya, and the former British premier, Tony Blair's memoir. These extracts are traditionally read out at the ceremony for the amusement to the audience.
Geoff Dyer, the novelist who has been commended for the ‘good sex’ he writes into his novels, said he felt it was a peculiarly British feature to “have this idea that sex is somehow funny. I love joking but when sex is going well, it has never seemed funny. It can be embarrassing or unsuccessful.”
Philip Kerr, an award-winning author, whose book, Gridiron, won the Bad Sex prize in 1993, felt the joke had worn thin, if it had ever been funny.
“What I remember about the award ceremony most vividly is Germaine Greer reading out various chunks of other people’s novels in a school-girly, sniggering way, with lots of ‘oohs’ and gurning noises being made by the audience. It was like being in a living seaside postcard by McGill. Not long after I won the award, I went on a trip to France and mentioned it to people there and they looked completely nonplussed as if to say ‘only in England’. And there’s a sensationalist factor in the awards. By nominating writers like John Updike and Philip Roth, the modern sacred cows of literature are being put up as Aunt Sally’s,” he said.
Kerr thought is was sometimes the passages deemed bad that were, in fact, the most original because description is “off the beaten track”.
Jamie Mclean, editor of The Erotic Review, felt it was “sometimes unfair” to pluck out extracts in award did.
“I think the problem with bits of novels being extracted and laid on a plate, out of context, is that anything can seem ridiculous under this kind of spotlight and read out in a prurient voice. In some cases, it’s richly deserved, in others it’s a little bit unfair. Sometimes you do squirm or wince over a particular passage, but I put it down to personal preference,” he said.
Jonathan Beckman, assistant editor of The Literary Review, dismissed this idea. “The bad sex scenes are ridiculous in context as well, not just out of context,” he said.
He defended the prize’s continuing existence and felt it needed to be seen in its wider literary context. “Often it brings into focus the weaker aspects of a writer’s style. The award is not just about sex, it’s a spoof award in a culture that has an increasing number of awards. It’s a reminder of the sense of the ridiculous. If you take things too seriously – and often people do when talking about sex – you lose something.”
Writers over the years have responded differently to the prize. When Rachel Johnson won it for her novel, Shire Hell, in 2008, she called it an “honour”. Sebastian Faulks did not turn up at the ceremony to collect the prize, while Kerr said his microphone was turned off by prize organisers.
Currently, four staff members at the literary magazine decide on a winner from extracts that they, their readers, and their regular reviews send in throughout the year.