At the Bad Sex Prize ceremony, London's literati get loose

Even an appearance by Princess Diana's "love rat" and a vicious routine about Auberon Waugh's sex life don't ruin the mood.

By Matt Thorne

Published November 30, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The Bad Sex Prize ceremony is widely acknowledged as London's best literary party, and this year's event, held last week, was no exception. The Bad Sex Prize, awarded to "the year's literary novel with the worst, most redundant or embarrassing description of the sexual act," is given by the Literary Review, a London journal, whose subscribers are invited to write in with nominations. Books nominated this year that didn't make the short list included Salman Rushdie's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," Vikram Seth's "An Equal Music," Hanif Kureshi's "Midnight All Day," Marianne Wiggins' "Almost Heaven" and Joyce Carol Oates' "Broke Heart Blues."

Early speculation was that ex-husband-and-wife Rushdie and Wiggins would be put on the short list, simply to see if they'd appear in public together. The judges decided, however, that Rushdie's approach was "too scientific to guarantee the element of disbelief that is so necessary in bad sex."

The ceremony at the Naval and Military Club was presided over, as always, by the editor of the Literary Review, Auberon Waugh, whose extremely dry sense of humor was in evidence throughout the ceremony. The best moment came when he introduced Maj. James Hewitt, who gave out the prize. Hewitt -- who has been branded a "love-rat" by the tabloids for his treatment of Princess Diana in his controversial book about their time together, "Love and War" -- was merely the victim of "mass jealousy," Waugh claimed. This irreverent introduction drew gasps from the crowd, many of whom had been surprised by the choice of Hewitt as presenter.

Waugh also milked humor from his pronunciation of the nominee's names and his short, ironic descriptions of each writer. He referred to Isabel Allende, for example, who was nominated for "Daughter of Fortune," as "the gifted Chilean novelist" in a
tone so arch it was impossible to know exactly what he meant by the comment.

Extracts from each nominated book -- "Winter in Volcano" by Gary Kissick, "Married Alive" by Julie Burchill, "A Star Called Henry" by Roddy Doyle, "Starcrossed" by A.A. Gill, "Scandal" by Amanda Platell and Allende's "Daughter of Fortune" -- were read aloud, to much hilarity. The final reader donned a pair of rubber gloves, claiming it was the only way to protect herself from the filth she was holding in her hands.

The prize went to Gill. Waugh claimed it was because "he was the only
nominee that was likely to show up." Gill had been nominated previously, for his
first book, "Sap Rising," which advertised on its front cover that it had been short-listed for
the Bad Sex Prize and had been sold mainly on the strength of its explicit and distasteful sex scenes. Gill mentions the Literary Review several times in "Starcrossed," which several people saw as a blatant bid for the prize.

Best known for his acerbic restaurant reviews in the Sunday Times, Gill has recently been attempting to establish himself as an all-around media figure. He recently wrote and directed a porn movie titled "Hot House Tales," starring Ron Jeremy, then wrote about the experience for the men's magazine GQ.

Gill's acceptance speech began successfully, but he soon got on the wrong side of the audience, describing the ceremony as an "exercise in public-school humiliation" and ending with a long, vicious routine about Waugh's own sex life. As it is an unwritten rule that the winner of the prize should accept it in good humor, it was unsurprising that he was roundly booed off the stage.

Nonetheless, the mood at the Naval and Military Club was jubilant. The secret to the evening's success, as Secker and Warburg editor David Milner told me just before the ceremony began, is that "no one's trying to sell you anything and the whole evening's about having fun."

Matt Thorne

Matt Thorne lives in London and is the author of "Tourist," "Eight Minutes Idle" and "Dreaming of Strangers." He also co-edited "All Hail the New Puritans."

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