Sexual failure in a literary form: the Bad Sex Awards and writers who don't say what they see

The publishing world gags itself expertly with this dose of self-censorship

The Bad Sex in Fiction Award, hosted in London last night by the Literary Review, taught us two things. First that our supposedly enlightened western writers are actually quite a prudish lot when it comes to sex, and second that the British public at large still loves to indulge in a spot of socially conservative finger-wagging when it gets the chance.

First, though, to examine the guilty parties: what unified these redundant erotic descriptions, and, beyond that, what characterizes a sexual failure in literature?

From Tom Wolfe’s "big generative jockey … inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding", to Paul Mason’s "ancient steppe language as he ejaculated", to winner Nancy Huston’s "sex swimming in joy like a fish in water", the common factor here is an over-eager recourse to metaphor and a tendency to obscure, rather than reveal, what is being described. This is hardly a new phenomenon.

Before 1960 writers frequently encoded their depictions of sex so as to avoid censorship – a flowery, peripheral description could form a handy and inoffensive surrogate for the unspeakable act actually being referred to.

In 1984, when Winston and Julia fall part from one another “in a sort of pleasant helplessness…among the fallen bluebells” Orwell has told us everything we need to know.

What is puzzling though, is why our uncensored and supposedly progressive western writers, such as some of those on show last night, choose to regulate their sex scenes with self-conscious literariness and tiresome extended metaphors. "The poet should not avert his eyes" said Werner Herzog last year: some of the bad sex nominees should measure his words carefully.

Meanwhile as David Cameron gallops to the defense of a free press, and Leveson naysayers continue to speak up, the publishing world gags itself expertly and without assistance – producing scenes of a sexual nature that would struggle to make a twelve-year-old blush.

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