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Jonathan Franzen can’t even win the Bad Sex Award, poor guy.

November 30, 2010

Rowan Somerville

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “coprophagia.” Imagine I’m putting on a sweater and changing my shoes. Can you say coprophagia? Good. Do you know why it’s good? Because it’s what got Jonathan Franzen nominated for this year’s infamous Bad Sex in Fiction Award–which he did not win.

No, the winner is British novelist Rowan Somerville, who apparently took the prize for a single sentence in his novel The Shape of Her, which is not yet out in the United States. The offending sentence, which I will render as close to the original as possible — oh, the heck with it. This is the Internet. Here’s what Somerville wrote:

“[L]ike a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” Whoo-wee! That’s some pretty bad writing. Pornography is not eligible for the award, given each year since 1993 by the British journal Literary Review, but assuming porn is intended to titillate and arouse, then this is what we might call “anti-pornography.”

Somerville was a good sport about the whole thing, although really, what choice did he have? “There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you,” he said, accepting the award in person from Michael Winner,  a film maker and food critic I never heard of, either.

Besdies Franzen’s Freedom, the most talked about novel of the decade, the other nominees were A Life Apart, by Neel Mukherjee; The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon; Heartbreak, by Craig Raine; Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross; The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas; and Maya, by Alastair Campbell.

Campbell, a former top aide to Tony Blair,  baffled Literary Review judges by openly campaigning for the prize. “Given that sex is an important part of a relationship and that most people are involved in some sort of a relationship at some time, it seems a pity not to write about it just because we are a bit squeamish,” he recently told the Guardian.

Ultimately the judges made the imminently sensible ruling that the prize could not go to a writer who so manifestly missed the point. After all, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award was started in 1993 by Auberon Waugh and Rhoda Koenig “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”

Yet Waugh’s original intention was to recognize good writing about sex. But after a thorough search of contemporary serious fiction, no such excellence could be found and — voila! The Bad Sex in Fiction Award was born.

Past winners include some celebrated novelists, including Tom Wolfe, Sebastian Faulks, Norman Mailer and John Updike, awarded a lifetime achievement prize in 2008. It’s enough to make you wonder whether it is even possible to write well about the sex act in explicit detail.

For example, when I heard that Franzen had been nominated, I wondered why. It was only when I learned the offending passage came from a passage of phone sex involving fantasies of coprophagia that I realized the image had so disgusted me I had suppressed all memory of it.

Arifa Akbar explores the question of whether sex is beyond the realm of good writing in exhaustive detail in the Independent, quizzing authorities such as  novelists Howard Jacobson, Philip Kerr, Geoff Dyer, and John Freeman, editor of the literary journal Granta, which devoted an entire issue to sex earlier this year.

“The feeling that sex isn’t fully represented in literature proves to be a false one if you expand just beyond the actual act, to all the things that sex encompasses,” Freeman says. “But once you get down to writing the act, it’s very hard to do it without sounding like bad erotica or embarrassing self-disclosure.”

Still, even the Literary Review recognizes good sex writing from time to time. Apparently they know it when they see it. In 2003, for example, judges sought to disqualify Rod Liddlele’s novel Too Beautiful for You on the grounds “his sex scenes were rather well done.” But Liddle was reinstated after he argued the judges were unqualified, “since nobody on the Literary Review had had sex since 1936, in Abyssinia.”

So I turn to you, my faithful readers. Can you think of any good sex writing, ever, in the history of human kind? In Lawrence, perhaps, or Flaubert, Roth, Mary McCarthy, Anais Nin, Colette, Lawrence Durrell…? Or, maybe, The Song of Solomon? The Satyricon? Christopher Isherwood? Henry Miller? Please help.


12 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 30, 2010 3:55 pm

    I’ll have to think on that, Chauncey Mabe. In the meantime, I can come up with some contenders for bad sex awards. Want to know who they are?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 30, 2010 5:01 pm

      Careful: Remember, this is Bad Sex in Fiction, not Bad Sex in Real Life…..

  2. Bobbi permalink
    November 30, 2010 5:40 pm

    OMG, that was more than Bad Sex in Fiction — that was one of the Worst Sentences Ever about Anything in Fiction.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 1, 2010 12:11 am

      I could not agree more.

  3. November 30, 2010 10:07 pm

    Sex in fiction? One of those subjects where a little bit goes a long way. Leave something for the reader’s imagination & don’t embarrass yourself. But then again, Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer wrote what I would call literary porno. Thing is, he didn’t leave it at that, but had to keep beating it over & over in nearly everything he wrote, making him look like a drooling pervert, especially as the quality of his writing faltered. Updike reached his peak in Couples, but, like Henry, he was obsessed & there was often an ick factor. Still, those two writers did sex about as well as it can be done in fiction.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 1, 2010 12:19 am

      Duff, I agree about Updike, but part with you on Miller, who seems to me a thoroughgoing mediocrity, although he most certainly was a creep.

      Here’s my two rules on sex in fiction: Any explicit sex scene must advance the plot and/or greatly deepen our understanding of one or more characters. Otherwise, it has no reason to exist. The other is: I should never get the impression the author is turning himself on –or herself.

  4. November 30, 2010 10:10 pm

    I should have mentioned Portnoy’s Complaint, I suppose. Roth is equal to Updike, but damn I hated that book! But then again it really put him over the top.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 1, 2010 12:25 am

      I agree regarding Portnoy’s Complaint. Actually, I think Roth is vastly overrated. He’s a terrific stylist, of course, but there’s a thread of misogyny running through his work. Very unfortunate. He also tends to flatter his alter ego characters, especially via sexual relationships with ridiculously young women. And I don’t care how many rave reviews it got, American Pastorale sucked. It didn’t come close to capturing the real mood of the ’60s.

      I could go on.

  5. December 1, 2010 2:48 pm

    I remember reading “The White Hotel” by DM Thomas in college and thinking it was pretty hot stuff. Can’t remember much else about it. Wonder if it, ah, maintains its grip.

  6. December 1, 2010 2:54 pm

    Then, of course, there is Hemingway’s:

    “But did thee feel the earth move?”

    Without which, we would not have had Carole King.

  7. December 2, 2010 1:01 pm

    O M G that’s the greatest post I ever seen….

  8. December 5, 2010 6:19 am

    that’s life …..what goes around comes around…!!!

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