Bad Sex at the In and Out
By TOBY LICHTIG
In a publishing year somewhat dominated by Fifty Shades of Grey, it was refreshing to spend a smutty evening putting the literary back into bad sex. The Literary Review's annual Bad Sex Award was set up to "to draw attention to the crude and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel". With the focus on otherwise decent writing that has been only momentarily besmirched by aberrant filth, there was no room on the list for E. L. James. The illustrious crowd of past-winners includes Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, and this year's competition was stiff to say the least.
There were eight contenders on the shortlist at last week's event and several of the offending gobbets of erotic digression were read out with great aplomb by the actors Lucy Beresford and Arthur House to a sniggering crowd at the aptly named In and Out (Naval and Military) Club in Pall Mall. At certain points, the guffaws reached such a crescendo that it almost seemed as if the audience had something to hide.
As the Literary Review's Jonathan Beckman explained in a recent article on the subject, the award is really for bad writing, and euphemistic cliché was a particularly noticeable crime. Ben Masters (Noughties) was probably the worst culprit of this ("she led me to her elfin grot"), closely followed by Paul Mason (Rare Earth), whose sexually charged hero begins "thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum, but missing", while Nicola Barker (The Yips) imagined her character as a "hungry finch" who "has visited the orchard . . . has gorged on the fruit and rejected the pips". Tom Wolfe, meanwhile, in Back to Blood, plumped for an equestrian analogy: "his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle".
Not for the first time in this competition, Craig Raine (The Divine Comedy) made his mark by describing a schoolboy feat of virile bravado (“His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm"), while Sam Wills (The Quiddity of Will Self) came out on top for surreality with this vision of life between the sheets with Will Self, its prose a homage to the novelist himself: "oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, Will, oh, yes, oh, semen-bedizened blood-pusillanimous bed onanistic quiddity fulcrating pelvic thrusts . . ."). Also on the list was Nicholas Coleridge (The Adventuress: The irresistible rise of Miss Cath Fox), perhaps unfairly nominated for this po-faced scene describing le vice anglais among the aristocracy: "‘Give me no quarter,’ he commanded. ‘Lay it on with all your might.’ Cath did as she was told, swishing the twigs hard onto the royal bottom.”
But the winner of the prize was Nancy Huston (Infrared), for the following carnival of mixed metaphor, fussy digression, erotic cataloguing and freestyle breathlessness:
“He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, myself freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space . . . . “
The novel itself (which will be reviewed in a future edition of the TLS) tells the story of a photographer who takes infrared photographs of her lovers during sex. Huston, who is only the third woman to win in the award's twenty-year history, was magnanimous in victory. Although she was not present to receive the prize, she sent the following message via her agent: "I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers' bodies in all states of array and disarray."