No sex, please, we're literary!

The annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award is an exercise in prudery and cowardice

Published November 30, 2010 3:01PM (EST)

Every fall, the Literary Review in Britain hands out its Bad Sex in Fiction Award, a sniggering exercise that generates plenty of press, mostly because the nominees are selected from the ranks of highly praised novelists. Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and John Updike have been "winners" since the award was founded in the early 1990s, but more often than not the (non-)honor goes to the least-famous name among a list of the celebrated. (There appears to be some basis for the rumor that the prize is given to whomever is a good enough sport to show up for the ceremony.) This year, Rowan Somerville won it (for his novel "The Shape of Her") but the nominations of Jonathan Franzen and former Tony Blair spokesman Alastair Campbell are what garnered the most attention before the winner was announced last night at ... wait for it ... the In & Out Club in London.

The Literary Review has admitted from the start that getting publicity for its journal is the motivation for the event. The Review's co-founder, the late Auberon Waugh, said that originally he wanted to single out the best sex scene from the year's crop of fiction but his fellow co-founder, Rachel Koenig, deemed this concept "too boring." Koenig also told the Independent that Waugh had become tired of the whole thing shortly before he died in 2001, and herself referred to the award as "a pretty old T-shirt."

So why not give it up? Or better yet, go back to Waugh's original plan. It doesn't take much nerve to stand up in front of a boozy crowd and read sex passages from other people's books in a mocking tone of voice while everybody sneers and groans. No one raises an eyebrow if you talk about what doesn't strike you as erotic. Doing the opposite, however, amounts to admitting that you've found something arousing, and thereby risking the British equivalent of the ninth circle of hell: embarrassment.

"Their attitude is: 'Next time you think of writing about sex, don't,'" said Susie Bright, who was the editor of the Best American Erotica anthology series for 15 years. "I can't think of any other fundamental human experience that writers would be encouraged to keep to themselves." Melissa Katsoulis, a literary reviewer for the Times of London, certainly seemed to conform to Bright's impression when asked to comment on the award by the BBC: "Sex is a subject best avoided altogether," she said. "If I was writing a novel, I wouldn't attempt to write it except in the most Victorian and prim way, because it's awful. It's a cliché, but the moments of genuine frisson in books are when hardly anything happens." Speak for yourself, missy.

Another frequent British complaint about literary sex scenes was voiced by former Man Booker Prize judge Lucasta Miller, who told the Independent, "A trap people fall into is an earnest anatomical description of sex. The difficulty with the anatomical is that it can read like a bit of a textbook." Perhaps the required reading in English schools is a lot more exciting than the stuff we get here, but I can't recall ever reading a sex scene in a novel (good or bad) that even remotely resembled a textbook. I suspect (but who can tell?) that what Miller is lamenting here is the use of such latinate terms as "penis" and "vagina"; in which case, why not embrace the old reliable Anglo-Saxon terminology? You are English, after all.

Perhaps terminology lies at the heart of the problem. The presenters of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award gleefully seize upon their targets' most outlandish metaphors; Somerville compared a nipple to the "nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing in the night." Yet perfectly serviceable, if disreputable, four-letter words risk turning a scene, in the words of one commentator, into something "perilously close to erotica, with its cheapening effect of sexual arousal." And we can't have that, can we?

Well, why can't we? Is there any reason why the literature that makes us laugh, cry and rage shouldn't also, occasionally, turn us on? Bright's anthologies -- which included excerpts from literary works by such luminaries as Mary Gaitskill, Nathan Englander and Aimee Bender as well as purpose-built erotica of superior quality -- repeatedly demonstrated that the distinction is blurry, if not outright irrelevant. Nevertheless, this year's Booker chair, Andrew Motion, complained that there wasn't much sex in the current crop of novels, and blamed (at least in part) ridicule from such vehicles as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for inhibiting the Commonwealth's authors.

The Bad Sex Award poses as a knowing blow against literary pretension while embodying the most retrograde prudery. How much more refreshing it is to hear novelist Lionel Shriver calmly announce in a recent NPR segment that she finds Maria McCann's historical novel "As Meat Loves Salt" "one of the most erotic I have ever read." Yes, the segment was part of a series called "My Guilty Pleasure," but it's hard to believe Shriver feels guilty about much of anything, let alone pleasure. Her own response certainly hasn't "cheapened" her respect for McCann's book.

This is the only antidote to the smirking crypto-priggishness of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award and its ilk: forthright praise for the literary sex writing that does work. I, for one, think Jane Smiley deserves more credit than she gets for this, with extra points for depicting wholesome, vanilla lovemaking that's genuinely hot. (I recommend "Horse Heaven" and "Good Faith.") Alan Hollinghurst's descriptions of gay sex in "The Line of Beauty" are (to this reader) more exotic, but equally intoxicating. Readers, here's your chance to strike a blow for literary libertinage: What are your favorites?

Referenced in this article

The Bad Sex in Fiction Award, 2010

Susie Bright's Best America Erotica collections

Lionel Shriver on Maria McCann's "As Meat Loves Salt"

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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