Last updated: November 26, 2011 12:11 am

Bleak encounters

The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award may provoke sniggers. But its real aim is to help banish poor prose

It’s been a choppy year for literary prizes. The Nobel committee was harangued for elevating to its pantheon a chap who lives around the corner in Sweden; and the Man Booker judges were scorned as lightweights. As one of the judges and organiser of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for Literary Review, I’m well used to the denigration that comes in its wake. In our case, this invariably circles around the amount I sweat (profusely), and the manner in which I laugh (sniggering, always sniggering).

This is all part of the spirit in which the prize is given. Most winners are gracious; some bemused; a couple terrifyingly enthusiastic. It is a comic coda to the literary year and a gentle spoof of a culture in which awards have proliferated at speed. It did not occur to me on joining the magazine that my job would include, every autumn, the corralling of a selection of egregious descriptions of sexual activity. But having done so for three years, I’ve realised that the prize slyly offers astute criticism of the contemporary novel that is as valuable as its more self-important counterparts.

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Auberon Waugh, Literary Review’s former editor, founded the prize with crusading purpose. He was genuinely convinced that publishers were encouraging novelists to include sex scenes solely in order to increase sales. The award’s remit was “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. But it is rather hard to convey the redundancy of a passage to an audience that has not read the entire novel, and so the prize has evolved to acknowledge the absurd, the implausible, the overwritten and the unwittingly comical.

Last year’s winner, Rowan Somerville, managed to tick all the boxes in a single sentence from The Shape of Her: “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” Tom Wolfe was victorious in 2004 for trying to make the word “otorhinolaryngological” intimate, as well as for this bizarre evocation in I Am Charlotte Simmons: “Moan moan moan moan moan went Hoyt as he slithered slithered slithered slithered and caress caress caress caress went the fingers.” In 1998, one of the characters in Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray made love in fear of his life: “This is so wonderful I feel I might disintegrate, I might break into a million fragments.” Faulks didn’t see the funny side of things, so runner-up Alan Titchmarsh received the prize that year instead.

The award excludes erotic literature. And “bad” refers to the quality of the writing rather than the nature of intercourse. Unsuccessful, unpleasurable or abortive sex does not qualify per se; nor does kinky, brutal or unwanted sex, however unpalatable that may be. Despite murmurings to the contrary, the mere presence of a sex scene does not inevitably lead to a pillorying. Every year we rule out many examples sent to us by enthusiastic readers on the grounds of utter competence. For example, Geoff Dyer’s most recent novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, contained crisp, trim and, in the best way, explicit sex, while Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms offered a grim and unsparing, but stylistically flawless encounter.

Compiling a shortlist for such a prize is not straightforward. Publishers are tediously uncooperative. Unlike other prizes, we don’t receive a steady supply of parcels from Random House and Penguin with prospective passages underlined. So every October smoke signals are sent up from our Soho HQ. Reviewers are asked for ghastly half-memories they have been trying to suppress and a dead letter box is opened underneath the John Snow memorial pump on Broadwick Street for trade insiders to leave anonymous tip-offs.

I don’t suppose that any Booker judges slink into Foyles to frisk the books for an undiscovered masterpiece. Last month, I spent two days riffling away in search of elusive candidates. No more than three seconds should be spent on each page (I worried that the staff might think I was a shoplifter with a photographic memory); vigilance should be maintained for telltale words such as “undergrowth” and “member” (though this means you can find yourself hiking cross-country or in the fustier recesses of clubland); any dialogue without exclamation marks can be safely skipped.

It’s gratifying when an instinct proves correct. I had an inkling that, despite silence in the reviews, Sebastian Barry might be prone to sexual degeneration. I got a little thrill on reading the following on page 72 of On Canaan’s Side (at least part of which was relief at not having to fillet the rest of the book): “We turned to each other and gently kissed, then fiercely, like wakening beasts, and before we knew where we were, like a sudden walking storm down the lake that we had witnessed in the deeper weather, we seemed to go into a stormy gear, we clutched at each other, we got rid of our damned clothes, and clung, and he was in me then, and we were happy, happy, young in that room by the water, and the poetry that is available to anyone was available to us at last.”

There is a franticness of comparison here that is found in many of the nominations. Metaphor is a fundamental component of fiction; but it is vulnerable to overuse, and in many contemporary novels it is an instinctive crutch rather than an instructive analogy. This becomes clear in writing about sex because the constant flitting comes across as coy and deliberately distracting, as if the novelist is jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting “they’re not so much going at it as acting like wakening beasts or a sudden walking storm”.

Two other common misdemeanours soon follow: confusion and vagueness. Halfway through reading this passage I momentarily thought that the couple had become so enamoured of their author’s simile that they had decided to put on sou’westers and galoshes themselves. And what exactly does it mean to refer to sex as the “poetry that is available to anyone”? Replace “poetry”, with “sunshine” or “moonlight” or “pretty baa-lamb” and it will sound genial, plausible and still stubbornly uninformative.

Prudishness lies at the heart of poor sex writing. You can sense the urge to shy away from sex, to displace it with simile or hide it all together. It’s striking how frequently the view becomes cloudy or obscured. In previous years Carlos Fuentes got “lost in a leafiness like that of a forest of fleshy ferns”; Amos Oz was “like some piece of sonar equipment ... anticipating and consciously avoiding every sandbank, steering clear of each underwater reef”; John Banville has “a passionate dalliance ... on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out of them”.

Good sex writing, by contrast, is clear, precise and unillusioned in both senses: it refuses to take part in a diversionary pantomime of imagery; and it knows that sex is rooted in the physical. It is generally unobtrusive and undemonstrative. For this reason it makes no sense, as our critics have often argued, to institute a good sex prize, any more than it would to reward the best scene involving a kitchen garden or the most skilful use of semicolons. The awkwardness and evasion with which some writers describe sex, however, frequently point to more widespread stylistic flaws.

Other prizes might give citations along the lines of “this is a profound meditation on the nature of memory, time and belonging”. It is easy to dismiss the Literary Review Bad Sex Award as manifesting a peculiarly English attitude to sex that is both prurient and prudish. Yet this would ignore the subtler ways that the award uses sex writing to show how sentences should be written and paragraphs constructed, what makes them fly and what makes them fail.

Jonathan Beckman is senior editor of Literary Review and a judge of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which takes place on December 6. To comment, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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