Each year, the Literary Review examines a sampling of recently published literary fiction and nominates a clutch of writers for consideration to win the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the most egregious passage of sexual description in a work of fiction. This year’s shortlist is as follows:
- The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
- The Hormone Factory by Saskia Goldschmidt
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
- The Age of Magic by Ben Okri
- The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd
- Desert God by Wilbur Smith
- Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan
- The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh
- The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark
As per their own site, “The purpose of the prize is to draw attention to poorly written,
perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern
fiction, and to discourage them. The prize is not intended to cover
pornographic or expressly erotic literature” (Literary). Which should prompt many erotica and erotic romance writers to breathe a sigh of relief, because I’ve read equally poorly written representations of sex from writers who, supposedly, are more expert at it. Before you start smirking, erotica writers, ask yourselves if you’ve committed similar literary atrocities.
The shame in wining this award is legendary. It’s actually hurt a few people’s feelings. There is the implication that, if you can’t write sex with any flair, you’re probably bad at it in real life. Not fair, but it explains why so many literary writers avoid it like the plague.
This year, with the possible exception of Murakami, the nominated passages are well deserved. And they read like a how not to write sex guide for a number of reasons. However, there are some recurring sins. Either the author tries to turn sex into a cubist hallucination, a completely disembodied experience, or he/she feels compelled to add unaccountably eccentric details just so it doesn’t read quite like porn. Problem is, it reads like porn with unaccountably eccentric details.
There’s Kirsty Wark’s abstracted, over-idealized something that could be sex or could be canibalism:
I had never imagined that I was capable of wanton behaviour, but it was as if a dam within me had burst and we made love that day and night like two people starved, slowly suffused with more and more pleasure, exploring and devouring every inch of each other, so as not to miss one single possibility of passion. (The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle)
Either write a sex scene, or don’t. But studiously avoiding a single detail of realism reeks of purple prose.
Wilbur Smith’s Desert God offers ‘ruby nipples’ and a cringeworthy description of a wet pussy:
Her pudenda were also entirely devoid of hair. The tips of her inner lips protruded shyly from the vertical cleft. The sweet dew of feminine arousal glistened upon them. (Desert God)
Pudenda? Really? The ‘vertical clef’? Is there a horizontal one? Leaking ‘sweet dew’? Really? Only a person who is terrified of cunt could feel the need to turn it into a cross between an anatomy lesson and the Chelsea Flower Show.
Flanagan’s offering is not quite as egregious but it’s not good either:
Whatever had held them apart, whatever had restrained their bodies before, was now gone. If the earth spun it faltered, if the wind blew it waited. Hands found flesh; flesh, flesh. He felt the improbable weight of her eyelash with his own; he kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world. As they lost themselves in the circumnavigation of each other, there came from nearby shrill shrieks that ended in a deeper howl.
Dorrigo looked up. A large dog stood at the top of the dune. Above blood-jagged drool, its slobbery mouth clutched a twitching fairy penguin. (The Narrow Road to the Deep North)
You can see the problem here. Let’s pretend we’re NOT REALLY describing people having sex but insert a quirky detail (the skin indent from her knicker elastic) to avoid being accused of abstraction. PLUS, let’s juxtapose it with animal predation in all its glorious realism.
May-Lan Tan might have taken the time to wonder what human mouths have to do with volcanos:
I lie back and her hair tickles my stomach, her mouth wrapping over me. I’d forgotten this about her: she has the smallest, hottest mouth, as if she’s storing lava in her cheeks.
When I’m about to come, I flip her onto her back and take off her
underwear. I roll her nipple on my tongue and rub her clit with my thumb
until her lips get slippery. I glide my middle finger in and out, then
fold her legs up and push in. God. It’s like sticking your cock into the
sun. (Things to Make and Break)
Besides this theme of things too hot to consider while thinking about sex, the second paragraph reads either like a reject from Penthouse forum pile or someone working at IHOP.
This might, to my mind, be the worst offender of all. It does serve to remind you that if male writers often don’t have a clue as to how sex works for women, the opposite is often also true. Here’s Saskia Goldschmidt’s offering:
She was moaning softly now, her breath coming faster. She tasted of apples. Her soft warm flesh was driving me crazy – that dish of delight my tongue was now lapping at frenziedly. Her suppressed cries were coming faster and faster. I unbuttoned my pants, pushing them down past my hips, and my beast, finally released from its cage, sprang up wildly. I started inching my way back up, continuing to stimulate her manually, until the beast found its way in. She opened her eyes and said softly, ‘I’m still a virgin, please be careful.’
I kept myself quiet for a moment, kissed her and said, “I’ll be very gentle, all right?”
Running her tongue over her lips she nodded; she was as hot as boiling water in a distillation flask, and it wasn’t long before I was able to really get going. We both came at the same time. I stayed inside her for a few seconds, gazed at her, and smiled. (The Hormone Factory)
This is bad for so many reasons, it’s hard to enumerate them all. But the juxtaposition of the purpled ‘ beast, finally released from its cage, sprang up wildly’ and ‘continuing to stimulate her manually’ to the inappropriate simile of ‘as hot as boiling water in a distillation flask’ this probably takes the prize for the world’s most schizophrenic writing style ever. It’s not just bad sex writing. It’s bad writing. I have a feeling Ms. Goldschmidt is not a bad writer, but I suspect she doesn’t like men enough to get to know any.
I’m not going to bother going through Murakami’s snippet, because it doesn’t rate as egregious. It’s just a sex scene not written to arouse, but otherwise, there’s not too much wrong with it baring a few inappropriate nature similes.
The extract from The Lemon Grove, by Helen Walsh, offers us another example of how while visceral detail can be good, the overly visceral becomes ridiculous:
She closes her eyes. Shakes her head.
“We can’t,” she begins. His mouth is on hers; his tongue is jabbing around her gums, the wrinkled roof of her mouth. He pulls away a second time.
“Look at me,” he says.
She looks him in the eye. She reaches out and cups his balls and squeezes gently. Nathan closes his eyes, bites his lip. Then he steps into her, furious. And when it hits her, it slams her hard and fast, as life once had. (The Lemon Grove)
Now, apart from the ‘wrinkled roof of her mouth,’ this may be one of those occasions where a fragment has been taken out of context. The protagonist goes from reluctant to grabbing his balls, and it reads very badly here, but who knows what the character’s like? However, ‘he steps into her, furious’ might be one of the most sublimated metaphors for penetration I’ve ever come across.
This is not the first time Ben Okri has been nominated for this award. I’m pretty sure he shrugged the last one off instead of taking it to heart. It shows:
When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain.
She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour. Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail. She was a little overwhelmed with being the adored focus of such power, as he rose and fell. She felt certain now that there was a heaven and that it was here, in her body. The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. (The Age of Magic)
I’m guessing he got stuck on the theme of the mechanical. This woman appears to be a piece of electrical equipment. But it goes on to, again, a total avoidance of what sex is actually about in such a studied way, you’d think the human race had discovered a way to fuck without using their bodies at all.
Amy Grace Lloyd suffers from the illness of a writer who can’t decide on a term for vagina, which makes the whole thing read a little like a very old Harlequin Romance:
Her throat as open as her body, wet everywhere from tears and the
coming, and I did hear it, a long high twisting cry and a twisting in my
arms as my fingers dove up and up into the full expressive wetness of
her. (The Affairs of Others)
The rest of the passage also studiously avoids much relation of the sex to the body, but it’s not as bad as some of the others.
At least Michael Cunningham can call a dick a dick and, to be fair, this was written with the view to being about rather bad sex for the woman involved, which is realistic and, you know, literary:
They both know they have to do this quickly. He slides his dick into
her. She sighs more loudly, but it’s still a sigh, not a sex moan,
though this time there’s a soft gasp at the end. Tyler is inside her,
here’s the heat, the powerful wet hold, and fuck, he’s about to come
already. He holds off, lets his cock rest in her, lies on top, his face
pressed to her cheek (he can’t seem to look directly at her), until she
says, ‘Don’t wait.’
“Are you sure?”
thrusts once, cautiously. He thrusts again, and he’s gone, he’s off into
the careening nowhere. He lives for seconds in that soaring agonizing
perfection. It’s this, only this, he’s lost to himself, he’s no one,
he’s obliterated, there’s no Tyler at all, there’s only… He hears
himself gasp in wonder. He falls into an ecstatic burning harmedness,
losing, lost, unmade.
And is finished. (The Snow Queen)
I’m finished eviscerating these poor writers, too.
There’s really only two reasons to write sex in a novel: because it is the writer’s intent to arouse the reader or because it is necessary to move the plot or character forward. As erotica writers, we write to arouse and, when we’re at our best, also move the story ahead.
Literary writers really need to decide why they are putting the sex scene in. It doesn’t have to be pretty or arousing, but they do have to be honest with themselves about what their aim is. This selection of literary luminaries show that few of them are.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot to learn for any writer on how not to write sex here:
- Whether you are writing to arouse or not, sex is embodied and only poor writers avoid the reality of that with flights into metaphysics.
- Overused and cliche imagery disconnects the reader from the moment and reminds them of the remediation of sex instead of actual sex. But, although fresh metaphors and similes can bring the reader to new ways of seeing the act, it’s a dangerous line to walk. If you’re going to risk the strange metaphor, make sure it doesn’t simply turn your whole attempt ridiculous.
- If under-writing is bad, over-writing is worse and shows you’re uncomfortable with writing sex. No one needs to be told that the vulva has a vertical slit, unless you’re worried your reader is going to mistake this for eye-intercourse.
- Context is always good, but the juxtaposition of sex with the likes of slathering, penguin-murdering dogs doesn’t situate the sex. It just makes the reader think that the sex was so bad it was impossible not to notice the dog.
My guess is that many literary writers fear writing about sex. They either avoid it or disembody it, or try too hard to reframe it as something no one has ever heard of before. It’s always good to begin by remembering that your reader is probably a human who has had sex and knows what it’s like.