"Why don't you put it somewhere hot?"
I always look forward to late November - not because I’m particularly excited about the coming festive season, but because this is the time of year when The Literary Review announces their shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Each year since 1993, this award has honoured an author who has produced “an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel”.
As usual, The Guardian was quick to publish some excerpts from this year’s nominees. This year it's an all-male list (I have to say I imagine that their editors must be male too), which should surprise no one. Only a handful of female writers have made it onto the shortlist throughout the years. Male writers really do excel at writing terrible sex scenes - even celebrated authors like Normal Mailer, Michael Cunningham and Richard Flanagan.
I have a theory as to why women don't tend to get nominated half as often as men: Firstly, I think this is because we don't tend to compose as many wildly inaccurate (and metaphor-heavy) descriptions of the male anatomy as men do of the female anatomy. Secondly, we rarely describe men getting raging orgasms from touching a woman’s clit. Men, on the other hand, tend to describe female pleasure as something that revolves solely around the man and his enjoyment. Male writers are often quite fond of describing women giving exuberant blowjobs (whilst thinking about lollipops) and being wildly enthusiastic by hard, fast porn style penetration and EXPLOSIVE (male) ejaculations.
Here’s how James Frey, one of this year’s nominees, imagines really hot sex:
I’m hard and deep inside her fucking her on the bathroom sink her tight little black dress still on her thong on the floor my pants at my knees our eyes locked, our hearts and souls and bodies locked.
Cum inside me.
Cum inside me.
Cum inside me.
And here is Luke Tredget, who has realised how much women love to clean things:
She shuffles her head closer to his cock, close enough to smell her own residue, and then takes it in her mouth, with the vague idea of cleaning it. Geoff mirrors this gesture by burying his head between her legs, and gradually she can feel his cock pumping up with blood, one pulse at a time, until it is long and hard and filling her wide-open mouth. They stay in this position for a long time, Anna sucking and slurping with the same lazy persistence you’d use on a gobstopper or a stick of rock.
Haruki Murakami (who almost always gets nominated) deserves a mention too, although the following quote from this year’s Killing Commendatore may very well be a part of some strange, occult scene where the woman in question may not even be human:
My ejaculation was violent, and repeated. Again and again, semen poured from me, overflowing her vagina, turning the sheets sticky. There was nothing I could do to make it stop. If it continued, I worried, I would be completely emptied out. Yuzu slept deeply through it all without making a sound, her breathing even. Her sex, though, had contracted around mine, and would not let go. As if it had an unshakeable will of its own and was determined to wring every last drop from my body.
Sex is almost never a mundane happening in a Murakami book - there’s always something weird going on, perhaps in a dream or a parallell universe. I think this is worth being aware of before we judge him too harshly. However, I think his books could stand to have significantly fewer sex scenes (supernatural or not), especially since he tends to repeat himself! This thing about “wringing every last drop” was definitely mentioned in IQ84 too…
Back to the shortlist: The contribution that most people enjoy quoting this year comes from Scoundrels: The Hunt for Handclap by Major Victor Cornwall and Major Arthur St John Trevelyan (pseudonyms):
“Empty my tanks,” I’d begged breathlessly, as once more she began drawing me deep inside her pleasure cave. Her vaginal ratchet moved in concertina-like waves, slowly chugging my organ as a boa constrictor swallows its prey. Soon I was locked in, balls deep, ready to be ground down by the enamelled pepper mill within her.”
A weird description, no doubt, but I’m actually quite surprised that this book is nominated. It’s a comedy book, and the writers have even admitted that they were hoping for a nomination! Nominating a book that is deliberately ridiculous seems to be an erosion of the noble Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Erotic novels like Fifty Shades of Grey are excluded - this should be the case for comedy too. After all, it’s a lot more fun when the prize goes to a Very Serious Writer! Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Littell, Ben Okri and Erri De Luca all declined to collect the award. When Morrissey won in 2015, he got so angry (surprise!) that he called the prize a “repulsive horror”. That’s the kind of winner you want - not the kind that’s actually dying to receive the prize!
I have to say that I’m not that impressed by the 2018 selection. Last year was way better - just look at this excerpt from Christopher Bollen’s Destroyer:
On the stone porch, in the hot mountain air, we grapple with our clothing, which, in the darkness, becomes as complicated as mountaineering gear. Her black shirt around her neck, mine unbuttoned, our shorts and underwear slid to our ankles, we seem to be moving at avalanche speed and also, unfortunately, with avalanche precision.
Bollen won last year’s prize, and judging by this excerpt he seems to have been a very deserving winner (scroll down for an even more outrageous example!), but if I had been in the jury, I would have considered this one as well:
‘I’m going to have you now,’ Leon said. He led her back up the beach to where the sand was dry. Then he took off his coat, placed it on the ground and she lay down upon it.
‘Christ!’ he muttered, placing himself on top of her. ‘It’s bloody cold. I might get frostbite on my cock.’
She gave a low purring laugh. ‘Silly man. Why don’t you put it somewhere hot?’
(War Cry by Wilbur Smith (with David Churchill))
Or this one:
He puts his hands on Bianca’s shoulders and slips off her low-cut top. Suddenly inspired, he whispers into her ear, as if to himself: ‘I desire the landscape that is enveloped in this woman, a landscape I do not know but that I can feel, and until I have unfolded that landscape, I will not be happy …’
Bianca shivers with pleasure. Simon whispers to her with an authority that he has never felt before: ‘Let’s construct an assemblage.’
(The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet)
Every year I post about the Bad Sex Award on Facebook, and it always leads to fun discussions. Of course, I have a lot of fellow writers among my FB friends, and this year some of them were quick to say that there is a reason why they never write sex scenes! One of them said that putting such things into writing will always be awkward, and “most adults know the score already”.
I responded that I agree to a certain point, if it means describing the technicalities, and only that. The "most adults know the score" point could be used about a whole range of other activities too. I mean - descriptions of everyday activities occur in almost every book! The key is to do MORE than just describing the technicalities, whether it's a description of cooking, beating someone up, riding a bike, walking a dog or having sex! I can think of many excellent reasons to describe sex. There's loads to explore. But it's super hard (or ... flaccid...) to write well about sex. I like the challenge! I think I've included sex scenes in every book I've written, and there are sex scenes in the one I'm writing currently.
In the FB discussion I also added that I rarely write sex scenes for erotic purposes - which is true, but now I realise that this statement may have read like “one should never write erotic scenes in a serious book”. Which is unfortunate - because this is not my view. It’s not like eroticism is something base, and of course it’s possible to describe a sexual encounter (or a solo act!) in a purely sensuous way, without the book being any less literary.
I don’t think I’ve ever written graphic sex scenes that were also meant to be hot - it’s the awkward sex that I tend to be explicit about! There are several scenes like that in Release Restrain, and I had great fun writing them, especially one that includes a nod to the hilarious mirror scene in American Psycho. Writing the deliberately erotic scenes was A LOT more challenging, and I spent ages rewriting them.
There’s also one scene the book that’s not just awkward, but also uncomfortable and perhaps difficult to read. I struggled a lot to get that one right, because I wanted it to be ambiguous. Some readers have viewed this scene as a clear description of assault, while others have put it in the “awkward sex” category. And of course, some can’t decide. Personally, I don’t have a firm view of what actually happens in this scene. I decided to be undecided while writing it, and I still am.
As I was reading through the excerpts from this year’s Bad Sex nominees, it struck me that some of them describe merely clumsy sex. I’m not so sure those should have been included. Here’s an example:
He’s almost weightless. When he enters me it hurts and my pain belongs to the subterranean world, primitive as the clay. His body is slacker than I expected, a small paunch begins at his waist and settles in a downward parabola to his groin. His pubic hair is red. His erect penis is a surprise although I had imagined what they would feel like, read about them, seen them represented on toilet walls and magazines. I didn’t see it before he entered me, but afterwards it is small and sticky and amusing. I want to touch it but I don’t dare. I don’t know the etiquette. He is twenty or more years older than me. This is sex.
(Grace’s Day by Willam Wall)
The writing may be a little awkward, but I think it’s reflective of the awkward scene! William Wall is certainly not of the same calibre as someone like the twice-nominated Wilbur Smith (“The tips of her inner lips protruded shyly from the vertical cleft. The sweet dew of feminine arousal glistened upon them.”) However, maybe the jury - like me! - is sick of the tired old cliché about the painful first intercourse. Writers (and anyone else, for that matter) would do well to learn once and for all that THE HYMEN DOES NOT EXIST. There are so many literary descriptions of the obligatory pain, and then - of course - "the pleasure waiting beyond the pain" ...
One of my FB friends commented that she was a strong advocate for everyone learning the word VULVA. I wholeheartedly agree. If Christopher Bollen, for instance, had studied the female anatomy more closely (no pun intended), he would hopefully have avoided writing excruciating passages like the following:
She covers her breasts with her swimsuit. The rest of her remains so delectably exposed. The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.
Maybe he should study the male anatomy more closely too. As the Literary Review said:
“The judges felt that there are parts in the book where Bollen goes overboard in his attempts to describe the familiar in new terms, leading occasionally to confusion. In the line quoted … they were left unsure as to how many testicles the character in question has.”
I can’t resist one final bad sex quote, this time from the 2015 shortlist:
Then he slid up her body and his cock was inside her, and he was kissing her, the same whetted tongue now inside her mouth. Far in the back of whatever was left of his mind, the light of reason was struggling against being finally extinguished and he was aware that wearing a condom would’ve been a good idea, but there was no way that he was getting out of her, because she took him in and he was with her in every move, in every gasp, kiss, and lick – she let him in so deep he didn’t have to think about her, and therefore he didn’t have to think about himself, but of course he was thinking about not thinking about himself …
(The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon)
A ridiculous description for sure, but I suppose this one is quite true to life. I’m sure a lot of women would agree that a man who refuses to wear a condom is mostly thinking about himself, even when he’s thinking about not thinking about himself.