‘Open your thighs,’ he urged as he parted the folds of her vulva.
‘You are so moist down there.’ He stroked and probed her with two fingers as she felt her blood waken. He raised himself to his knees and bent to roll his tongue around her weeping orifice. He was bringing her to a pitch of ecstasy when she heard Madame Veuve, on the landing, put down the supper tray. Whiffs of onion soup strayed over them as he engulfed her. ‘Don’t stop,’ she clamoured; she was nearly there, it was in the bag.
“Triptych of a Young Wolf” by Ann Allestree
The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award is possibly the only literary competition in which a first-time novelist like Iain Hollingshead, with his 2006 debut “Twentysomething,” could edge out Thomas Pynchon.
Each year, the British review culls a long list of offensive passages from the year’s published novels. They’re offensive not in the sense of breaking societal norms — though there is some of that — but guilty of being just bad, bad writing. Judges have the arduous task of reading and re-reading the selections to determine the cream of the crop (no pun intended), then choosing a winner. (I imagine it’s similar to the duty of the Cosmopolitan editor who gets to excerpt beach-and-beauty-salon novels for the magazine’s “Red Hot Reads” feature.) Sometimes the honor is awarded posthumously, as with Norman Mailer’s 2007 prize for a particularly uncomfortable passage in his Hitler novel, “The Castle in the Forest.”
The actual sex isn’t always bad; most of these scenes are descriptive of (the author’s idea of) sheer hair-pulling, toe-curling ecstasy. It’s the writing that’s cringe-inducing. Common to most of these literary culprits are extended metaphors, especially animal metaphors (the most recent winner, Rachel Johnson’s “Shire Hell,” included at least three bestial references), and word choice that makes the act seem nothing but … clinical. Fantasies of bursting into millions of tiny particles upon orgasm are popular too.
“Do you think these authors write from experience?” asked a friend who first introduced me to the award series via links to The Guardian’s annual reportage of the awards event. (The quickest way to find these awkwardly naughty bits is to visit guardian.co.uk’s book section or literaryreview.co.uk.)
“Do you think they narrate the act?” I wanted to know, while parsing through past shortlists where lovers moaned and groaned through Mao Tse-tung’s teachings and lobsters experienced inter-special romance. Art imitating life, maybe.
But amount of experience, sexual or authorial, isn’t what determines what will result in an especially flabbergasting read.
While the nominated passages often come from newly or less published authors, past winners include literary lions such as Tom Wolfe and Mailer. The 2005 class of nominees alone included John Updike (who received a lifetime achievement award for four consecutive nominations), Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paul Theroux — not to mention a book co-authored by Marlon Brando.
The Literary Review isn’t rewarding bad writing. Instead, with tongue forcefully in cheek, it encourages bad writers — or good writers who write bad sex scenes — to step up their game.
In an interview with this year’s winner, Johnson (sister of London Mayor Boris Johnson) actually praised the award for discouraging authors from using “awful phrases.”
“The truth is that anyone who writes sex scenes has (the award) at the back of their mind,” she said. “It makes you even more self-conscious when you’re lubricating your book with sex.”
But what separates good sex in fiction from bad, or good from bad metaphor for that matter? Let us compare Johnson’s passage with Phillip Roth’s from his new novel “Indignation” — both involve a cat at a milk bowl. First, Johnson’s:
“Almost screaming after five agonizingly pleasurable minutes, I make a grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside, but he holds both by arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop.”
Dear god. I think I’m blushing just copying and pasting.
But in “Indignation,” Roth (who’s guilty of at least one or two “What was he thinking? He’s fucking what, and how?” moments) manages to make a passage sensual — sexy without being overdone — despite strong potential for it to jump over the fence. In one scene, college boy Marcus marvels at Olivia’s “darting, swabbing, gliding, teeth-licking tongue, the tongue, which is like the body stripped of its skin.”
I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for the “Red Hot Reads” section. I love the premises of the selected novels: The private investigator who falls for the woman he’s supposed to be following; the hot-shot lawyer who seduces her possibly murderous client; the amusement park engineer and vacationing mom who embark on a torrid love affair. Most of the female characters, it seems, are always named Summer or Heather or something like a Stevie Nicks song, and the men, more often than not, Dylan — always described as “strapping.”
But just as so much of the pleasure of reading fiction can be derived from its escapist qualities, one would think sex — even the most embarrassing, uncoordinated episodes — would be more elegantly, eloquently described. Or at the very least, make more sense. (From Irvine Welsh’s “The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs”: “Work it in, Mary urged, as Skinner took his thick green slime and spread it like a chef might glaze some pastry, at the same time slowly breaching and exploring.” Cute.)
But for budding writers with aspirations of badness, it may be encouraging to know that it’s not necessary to script an entire sex scene, or even an entire novel, to win a cash prize. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest was established in 1982, named for the author of the introduction “it was a dark and stormy night,” and gives a $250 award for the best submission of a worst first line. This year’s winner, from a gentleman named Garrison Spik of Washington D.C., however, shows that the power of impassioned, hot, breathy love still has a firm hold on inspiring bad writing.
“Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped ‘Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.’ ”