Ahem. Stiff competition among lit superstars for ‘Bad Sex’ award
I’ve more or less stolen my headline from the Guardian, which illustrates the problem of writing about sex. Only a few ways exist to describe (or pun) what is, after all, a straightforward physical act. Yet literary writers, overconfident, think they can convey the ineffable human sensations that accompany arousal. Very seldom are they right.
That’s why the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, given out by Britain’s Literary Review magazine for the worst sex scene of the year, frequently goes to some heavyweight literary poo-bah or another. Consider poor Philip Roth, an outrageously gifted novelist whose latest, The Humbling, heads this year’s short list.
Just reading a synopsis of The Humbling is enough to get the snickering started: A 65-year-old actor who suddenly loses his talent (if that’s not a metaphor for impotence, I’m a lampshade), seduces a woman 25 years younger. What’s more, she’s also a lesbian. That’s not fiction, that’s fantasy fulfillment.
In the scene that attracted Literary Review attention, the hero and his girlfriend take another woman home and get to know her in the biblical sense: “This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though, in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal.”
A more insulting — to all concerned — bit of (0ver)writing can hardly be imagined. First, we’re summarily informed this is not soft porn. No, it’s something primitive and shamanistic –although acrobatic! — and also animalistic. Whoo-wee! How purple is that? Believe it or not, it gets worse. But you’ll have to read the book to find out how bad, or visit the Guardian here for a longer extract.
”Roth is very anxious about his description of sex,” Literary Review‘s Jonathan Beckman tells the Guardian. ”Why write of a scene that repeatedly features a green dildo ‘this was not soft porn’ unless you’re worried that it might be taken as such?”
Other luminaries making the 2009 shortlist: Paul Theroux, for A Dead Hand (I’m not touching that one!); John Banville, The Infinities; Robert Littel, for The Kindly Ones; Amos Oz, for Rhyming Life or Death. That’s a Whitbread, a Booker, a Goncourt, and Israel’s most famous literary novelist. Throw in Roth’s Pulitzer and two National Book Awards. Tall cotton, indeed.
Lesser knowns round out the list: rock star-turned novelist Nick Cave, for The Death of Bunny Munroe; Robert Milward for Ten Story Love Song; Sanjida O’Connell, for The Naked Name of Love; Anthony Quinn, for The Rescue Man; Simon van Booy, for Love Begins in Winter.
The Bad Sex in Fiction Award was established in 1993 by the late Literary Review editor Auberon Waugh, to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”
Such titans as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Norman Mailer, have been nominees, with Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Sebastian Faulks, and A.A. Gill among the winners. Last year, John Updike received a lifetime achievement award after four consecutive nominations.
This year’s award will be announced Nov. 30 during a party at London’s Naval and Military Club, popularly known as The In and Out Club. (I’m not making this up). According to Iain Hollingshead, writing in the London Telegraph, the party is “a jolly affair,” featuring “actresses reading out the shortlisted passages to loud guffaws in a packed and well-lubricated room.”
He should know — Hollingshead won in 2006 for his first novel, Twenty Something.
“Some novelists tackle sex well – movingly, humorously, erotically,” notes Hollingshead. “The rest of us – the great majority – only succeed in being humorous by accident and moving our readers to tears of derisive laughter. The sex scenes spoil otherwise readable books.”
Hollingshead said he awoke the next day vowing never to put an adjective in front of the word “trousers” again. And, looking on the bright side: “My publishers can still put ‘prize-winning author’ on the jacket of the next book.”