Literary London poured into the In & Out (Naval & Military) Club in St James’s Square last night to toast what is still the funniest and most charming award in British fiction. Nancy Huston won the 20th annual Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award for Infrared, a novel whose central character, Rena Greenblatt, is a photographer who enjoys nothing more than taking infrared snaps of her lovers mid-canoodle.
The award – established in 1993 by the late Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn) to draw attention to the “crude, badly written or perfunctory use of passages of sexual description in contemporary novels, and to discourage it” – could hardly have had a more deserving victor than Huston.
Here is one of her offending (not to say offensive) passages:
“He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, my self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate…”.
Sorry to go on at such length, but if it’s worthy of such a distinguished literary prize, it must be worthy of your time. In fact while we’re at it, you can find some of the (ahem) sensational passages below. Just so you know what the competition was like.
At a wonderful ceremony, champagne was quaffed with a vigour familiar to Waugh’s father Evelyn, as writers, journalists, publishers, agents and festival organisers said hello to the festive season. At least 400 crammed into the London venue.
One of the joys of this event each year is that it’s very democratic: young wannabes mix with old pros. Last year, for instance, I introduced myself to V S Naipaul, telling him I was an admirer of The Suffrage of Elvira, and enquiring if he’d read any good books on spin bowling in cricket lately. “What a stupid question!” he spat at me, more in anger than sorrow.
This evening, the luminaries included Naipual again, A C Grayling, Sir Tim Rice, and Edward St Aubyn. As feted as any of those was the Literary Review’s Jonathan Beckman, the organiser of this event, who gives the impression being able to throw a good party even when he doesn’t mean to.
“Nancy Huston is a worthy and gracious winner of this year's award,” he told me. “Her winning passage pushes a number of classic bad sex buttons: sea imagery, astronautical travel and the ripe use of alliteration.”
Alas the winner wasn’t there in person to receive the award. Huston, a Canadian, writes her books in French and then translates them into English herself. Only the third woman to win the Bad Sex Award, her latest novel left the judges wondering what exactly was lost in translation.
The Adventuress: The Irresistible Rise of Miss Cath Fox by Nicholas Coleridge: “In seconds, the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter,’ he commanded. ‘Lay it on with all your might.’ Cath did as she was told, swishing the twigs hard onto the royal bottom.”
The Quiddity of Will Self, by Sam Mills: “ … oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, Will, oh, yes, oh, semen-bedizened blood-pusillanimous bed onanistic quiddity fulcrating pelvic thrusts smoke thick typewriter’s click-clack-click Will Our Cock is Spent screaming loving Will is pleased Will is Saved I have done it I have done I am the Chosen One I am his Chosen One oh Will for ever I am yours for ever I am yours for ever I am.”
The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine: “And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.”
Noughties, by Ben Masters: “We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amongst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history. I dug after what I had always imagined and came up with even more.”
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe: “But then the tips of her breasts became erect on their own, and the flood in her loins washed morals, despair, and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his. Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw”
The Yips by Nicola Barker: “He knows her body now, even tightly sheathed and slippery as it is; a ripe, red plum, its yellow flesh pressing out against the smooth arc of its cool, fragrant skin. He understands the basic groundwork, has visited the orchard like a hungry finch, has gorged on the fruit and rejected the pips, has explored the geography.”
Rare Earth by Paul Mason: “He switched to some ancient steppe language as he ejaculated, blubbering and incoherent. Chun-li faked an orgasm, keeping her mind focused on an eighth-century lyric of sadness, and her face still as a lake in winter. Khünbish collapsed below the neck of the horse, where he clung now, like a forlorn circus rider, as the steppe cacophony segued seamlessly into the kind of trickling-stream-plus-birdsong music they play in mental hospitals to calm things down.”