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Ahem. Stiff competition among lit superstars for ‘Bad Sex’ award

November 20, 2009

Philip Roth

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.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    November 20, 2009 3:22 pm

    Okay Chauncey Mabe, this is pretty amusing. Kind of ridiculous and amusing and I’m glad you blogged about it because I didn’t know about this.

    I really think that it is useful and important too. Even the brief passages from Roth’s book that you put here are offensive, insulting, and ridiculous, as you mentioned Mr. Mabe. I admire Auberon Waugh for starting this “award” to, as you quoted above, “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” I approve.

    Nothing a bit of shame won’t cure!

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 20, 2009 3:52 pm

    It seems to have had a bracing effect on Mr. Hollingshead. By the way, in case anyone is wondering, Auberon Waugh is, indeed, the son of Evelyn Waugh, probably Britain’s greatest 20th century comic novelist — which is saying quite a big. Auberon Waugh, who died in 2001 at the not so ripe age of 61 (lifelong heart trouble), was a distinguished journalist and a bit of a humorist. Like his father, he was a snob and a conservative, though in the British sense, which is not exactly the same as the American sense. He opposed capital punishment, for example, and Margaret Thatcher, and favored the European union on the grounds it would blunt American influence in British culture, politics, real estate and finance. All in all, a fascinating creature.

  3. November 21, 2009 1:43 am

    Good lord, I couldn’t quite make it through them all. You politely omitted the most purply Roth in the totem mask reference. It is really hilarious to read a list of excerpts altogether like that. Makes you want to turn to a
    Harlequin Classic. Very entertaining post!

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 21, 2009 2:34 am

    Thank you, ma’am. I aim to please. Er, you know what I mean. I did leave out the totem mask part of the quote. Out of consideration for the Moms and younguns in the audience.

  5. November 22, 2009 5:40 pm

    Well … gulp, I’m guilty of some fairly graphic sex stuff in my novels, especially my second novel. I would hope no one would call it gratuitous or salivating slob stuff. A woman’s club invited me to read to them from that second novel – THE HOLY BOOK OF THE BEARD – they tore me up for a while. But when I explained that the book’s theme had much to do about the nothings we become when we give over to our gonads, they started backing off. We ended the evening tiptoeing to a different beat. The learning process my “hero” goes through brings him out the other side as a caretaker for a 50ish woman named Mary Quick who is slowly dying of heart failure. There is a lot of sex in the book because it needed to be there. None of it is porno, none of it dripping or slick or slimy or icky. (Just my opinion, of course.) Roth and Updike were obsessed with the subject in ways that were occasionally infantile. Other times, such as in Updike’s COUPLES or Roth’s LETTING GO, the sex creates welcome insights into certain characters and makes their lives deeper, more complicated. One small sample from Roth’s LG: “He looked forward to his own pleasure less and less. At last, even that moment toward which they both aimed, that moment in which Libby showed her teeth and whimpered – became for him the most disheartening of all … at any time their life might be swallowed up by disaster and chaos.” Sex as psychological evolution as character enhancement has its place in literature and always will. The thing to do, of course, is avoid coming off as the proverbial whack job getting his kicks like an adolescent who has just discovered the thing. Puns intended.

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 22, 2009 8:24 pm


    I don’t think anyone, not even the eggheads at the Literary Review, are objecting to sex in fiction, only sex in fiction that’s done poorly. Any serious modern literary novel will have to engage sex — it’s too important a part of the human experience, and the liberties allowed writers today mandate that it not be ignored. But too often, even best, most subtle writers, lose their heads when it comes to sex, and commit abominable acts of overwriting they might not ever indulge. Green dildo, indeed.


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