If you've ever taken a British literature course, you'll know that the English have reasonable bragging rights when it comes to the printed word. That's probably why they've taken it upon themselves to annually rank and award what they refer to as the most egregious passages of sexual description in a novel.
It's called the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, and it's a dubious honor to be sure. Literary Review released its shortlist for this year's award, and the winner was announced last week. That should be plenty of time for the nominees to find just the right dress ...
Full disclosure: I'm a novelist. I don't write a lot of positive or healthy sex scenes, because writing sex scenes is hard. (No pun intended ... OK, ya got me; pun intended.) Many of the words we use to describe sex sound either clinical or ridiculous to my ears. Other people are welcome to write about "vanilla mounds of ecstasy" or "throbbing love shaft(s)," but it's just not for me. Fortunately, I'm a horror writer, so people don't complain when my books are devoid of sweet, comfy, inner-goddess-style sex.
Here's a bite from last year's winner, "Infrared" by Canadian novelist, Nancy Huston:
…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 color 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…
OK ... that's a lot of undulating. I'll kindly thank writers everywhere not to refer to vaginas as "a fish in water." "Carnal pink palpitation" sounds like something that should be written on a yogurt container.
2013 marks the 21st straight year for this cringe-worthy award. So, what kind of sexual literary shenanigans were in the running this time around? Woody Guthrie's posthumous work, "House of Earth," was published this year, which made him fair game:
So magnified and so keen were her feelings that her inner nerves could even feel the bumps, the ridges, the pimples, the few stray hairs along the shaft of his male rod.
That was so awful, I can't even bring myself to make a pun of Guthrie's first name. Still, the famous folk singer is far from this year's only offender. "The Victoria System" by Eric Reinhardt contains this cringe-worthy sample:
"Look," she was saying, "look at my breasts. I want to show them to you. I hope you like them. They’re for you. I’m giving them to you."
And her chest appeared before my eyes like a slow-motion shot of a natural phenomenon in a television documentary.
Really? I mean … really? Even the most terrible porn actress on her very first day on the job could ad-lib something better than "I'm giving them to you." That's not sexy. It's not even accurate. It's not as if he gets to take the boobs with him to enjoy later in the day. They're not freaking restaurant leftovers! The idea of giving a nice rack the ol' Ken Burns camera shot treatment is intriguing. But what might make for a compelling stag movie doesn't necessarily (or ever) translate into great literature.
That's bad. But it was Manil Suir who took the prize this year for his novel "The City of Devi," especially this passage:
We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.
How ... romantic.
The Bad Sex in Fiction Award was established in 1993 by Auberon Waugh, the son of novelist/journalist Arthur Evelyn Waugh. Literary Review insists that the award is not meant to be mean or catty. Its stated purpose is to bring attention to "crude, badly written, or perfunctory use of passages of sexual description … and to discourage it." That sounds like a very noble cause to me.