Only a society as fearful of fornication as ours could have a prize for writing badly about sex

No contemporary writer of fiction should be afraid of writing about desire

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The Independent Online

It is the time of the year when smart, amused literary types gather to laugh in a lordly way about sex and incompetence. At that supremely English event the Bad Sex Prize, whose shortlist has just been announced, there are many grubby pleasures to enjoy. You can scoff at Man Booker Prize winners, sneer at a Newsnight presenter, enjoy the hilarious awkwardness of their prose descriptions, while perhaps speculating over a glass of wine about their own intimate lives.

A rather good passing joke about finding the year’s clumsiest erotic description was first made by the Literary Review in 1993. Any expectation that since then a process of maturity might have taken place, that the view of sex taken by the funny but peculiar Auberon Waugh might by now seem a slightly embarrassing public-school joke, has proved ill founded. Today, the Bad Sex Prize is perfectly of its time.

For all our many and various obsessions with sex – the porny bestsellers, the scandals past and present lovingly explored in the media, the glamorised sexual violence of TV dramas – it begins to look as if we have become less grown up about sex, more fearful of it.

Consider the bad press that the mores of the 1970s have recently received. There is something about that time, with its cheerful openness about bad behaviour, which makes us uneasy. What was once seen as personal liberation is now suspect; we prefer to view the sexual lives of others through a prism of disapproval or sympathetic superiority, whether it is in documentaries about drunken teens in Ibiza, YouTube videos of loutish male behaviour towards women, or clammy explorations of personal hang-ups and dysfunction.

 

It is bad sex which now preoccupies us. Scenes of straightforward passion are avoided in mainstream films for fear of discomfiting audiences. Comedy around the subject is either debased and unfunny, like the grim “banter” of ITV’s fleetingly famous Dapper Laughs, or weirdly dismissive, treating it as just another necessary, frequently embarrassing bodily function.

By coincidence, I have been reading two novels about men and women in their thirties, one written more than 30 years ago, the other published in 2013. Both are well written and funny, and both deal with desire and frustration, but the attitudes they reflect are strikingly different. While Dan Greenburg’s What Do Women Want? throbs with authorial lust, Sam Byers’ rather brilliant Idiopathy treats the same subject with a world-weary coolness. For Byers’ characters, desire is something to endure. Lust is reduced, ridiculed.

A pornified culture has not only led to a bleary, joyless attitude towards sex but has also, in certain quarters, encouraged a new primness. Two or three years ago, I was able to sing, as part of a musical show, an English version of Georges Brassens’ rude celebration of male desire “Fernande”, a song so established in France that Carla Bruni has sung it. These days, after complaints worthy of Mary Whitehouse, it has been quietly dropped from the repertoire. Today, a similar theme – for example, in my song of a suburban dad’s secret life, “Harry Loves Porn” – is distinctly problematic.

We live in a time when no contemporary writer of fiction should be afraid of writing about desire – indeed, some of the best literary novels of recent years, such as Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, and thrillers such as Susanna Moore’s In the Cut derive their potency from pushing the subject to extremes. Yet it is the daring novelists who tend to be mocked in the Bad Sex Prize, in spite of the fact that the extracts nominated often seem rather good.

This year, Ben Okri’s description in The Age of Magic of a woman who becomes “aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour” has encouraged me to buy the book. The prize organisers have triumphantly held up for ridicule a passage in Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North – “he kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker-elastic like the equator circling the world” – but that too feels like a description which would work just fine in its context.

It is a high-risk strategy, trying to capture humans in the throes of passion, and even the best authors risk falling flat on their faces. In John Updike’s Toward the End of Time, there is a scene which describes “the vaginal canal lifted skyward at the proper tilt, like an ack-ack gun, to bring down ecstasy from on high”.

Imagery is often the problem when authors gets their characters into bed. Describing an orgasm in his novel Purple America, Rick Moody disastrously tried the multiple metaphor approach: “The first electrical storm passes through her at once, like a break in the clouds, like alliterative quatrains, like wind chimes, freshly mown grass, goat cheese, new car interiors, church choirs, grand slams.”

It was not, admittedly, Moody’s finest moment, but at least he was having a go, and it is never easy to imagine desire across the gender gap. Describing a male character, Alice Walker once wrote that “something hot and passionate was opening in him and it wasn’t in his trousers: it was in his chest”.

These writers are trying to celebrate the joy of sex and, in a culture hung up on bad sex, they should be encouraged. Does the Literary Review really want to return to an age of coyness when Kingsley Amis could describe a scene of passion with these words of gruff embarrassment: “There was some cheek, some panting, some movement, some pressure and lack of everything else”?

Come to think of it, that description works rather well for the Bad Sex Prize.

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