Bad sex or good irony?

Tom Wolfe beats some stiff competition to win a prize from the Brits for the year's worst lovemaking in fiction.

Published December 21, 2004 2:58PM (EST)

It has often been said that Americans have no sense of irony. Now American author Tom Wolfe has turned the tables, saying that the British literary judges who awarded him a prize for the year's worst sex in fiction simply did not understand that his description of a first encounter was meant to be ironic. "There's an old saying -- 'You can lead a whore to culture but you can't make her sing,'" he told Reuters. "In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can't make him get it."

Wolfe, 74, best known for his novel "Bonfire of the Vanities" and for his eccentric dress -- he normally wears a white suit and carries a cane -- was given the Bad Sex Award by the Literary Review last month for his novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons," the story of a naive country girl who attends an Ivy League college. To research the novel, Wolfe, a former journalist, spent a lot of time interviewing students and observing campus life.

The publication, described by Wolfe as a "very small, rather old-fashioned magazine," awards the annual prize "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel." In one acclaimed passage in which the eponymous heroine endures her first significant sexual encounter, Wolfe wrote: "Slither slither slither slither went the tongue. But the hand, that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns -- oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest -- no, the hand was cupping her entire right -- Now!"

While the judges saw only "ghastly and boring" prose, Wolfe insists that his use of the term otorhinolaryngological -- referring to the ears, nose and throat -- clearly indicates his ironic intention. "I purposely chose the most difficult scientific word I could to show this is not an erotic scene," he said. "There's nothing like a nine-syllable word to chase Eros off the premises."

Book critics shared the author's sense of alienation at the scene. The New York Times said the sex in the book "carries as much erotic charge as the anatomy lesson it mostly is." Rejecting criticisms that he was the first recipient of the Bad Sex Award to fail to attend the prize-giving ceremony, Wolfe responded that he had not been invited. "I love coming to London if they would only be so kind as to invite me," he said. "I have not heard a word from them. Ask them how they wrote me. What form? Cleft stick?"

Wolfe beat off stiff competition to win the prize, including entries from such seasoned writers as Will Self, André Brink and Julian Fellowes. Previous winners of the award include A.A. Gill, Sebastian Faulks and Alan Titchmarsh.

By Dan Glaister

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