With the advent of this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award, the time-honoured question of just what merits consideration by the judging panel has once more arisen. Is Monique Roffey’s The Tryst eligible for the award, for instance? It features a petite succubus and is brimful of such lines as ‘There I was, luminescent, naked, and he still hadn’t lost himself’, which exemplify many of the hallmarks of ‘bad sex’ (luminescence and loss of self have featured over the years with troubling regularity). But as Roffey notes in The Tryst’s acknowledgements, she has written a sort of ‘literary erotica’ – and erotica does not fall within the award’s purview.
The purpose of the Bad Sex Award, now in its twenty-fifth year, is not to root out sex in fiction wholesale but to draw attention to poorly written or redundant passages of sexual description in otherwise decent novels. The qualities sought by the judges remain the same: floridly descriptive prose, a reliance on hyperbole, anatomical confusion and euphemism.
The French writer Laurent Binet was heavily nominated for The Seventh Function of Language. It features a detective on the trail of Roland Barthes’s murderer whose investigation draws him into the rivalries of Parisian intellectual life. He meets an acolyte of Gilles Deleuze, Simon, who finds a new use for Deleuzean concepts – seduction:
Bianca shivers with pleasure. Simon whispers to her with an authority that he has never felt before: ‘Let’s construct an assemblage.’
She gives him her mouth.
He tips her back and lays her on the dissecting table. She takes off her skirt, spreads her legs and tells him: ‘Fuck me like a machine.’ And while her breasts spill out, Simon begins to flow into her assemblage …
Bianca grabs Simon’s dick, which is hot and hard as if it’s just come out of a steel forge, and connects it to her mouth-machine.
It’s clear that Binet is having fun with all this, and comic sex is not the same thing as bad sex. The question is whether or not he pulls it off.
The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek, a highly stylised bildungsroman set in 1980s New York, falls into another common trap, that of attempting to avoid plain description by applying layer upon layer of irony:
We made love and we had sex and we had sex and we made love. But reader, again, I implore you. Mistake me not. I am not your Pollyanna, I am not your sweet princess. We fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked. We fucked in the effluvia of our bodies, we fucked in the scent of it, in the sheer stench of it, in the garden of our human flowering. Stained sheets, stained clothes, stained souls, stained towels … Our fucking was a pulsing wave, a holy burst of scared geometry, a congress of wonder.
A congress of wonder? Why not a seminar of excitement or a convention of awe? All, one suspects, are equally meaningless.
Venetia Welby takes matters a step further in Mother of Darkness, aiming for sex between her characters to appear transcendent: when Matty touches Tera, she ‘moans in colours’ and her ‘eyes expand and reflect, crystal orbs of time and space’. When coitus begins in earnest, ‘smells, strange and brooding, speak into ears’ and ‘the world shuffles on its axis’. There’s a whiff of H P Lovecraft here.
In Christopher Bollen’s thrilling The Destroyers, Ian and his friends bask on Patmos, avoiding responsibilities and mounting debt.
The sex has left its marks. I’m used to this condition – my skin like a drop cloth recording each spill and grapple. It is the curse or boon of being so fair that the imprint of Louise’s mouth lingers on my collarbone, her bony knees are embossed on my thighs, and her palm prints are etched on my rib cage as if I were a window she was frantically trying to open. Each follicle of chest hair is blushing.
Anthropomorphism is a regular pitfall for contenders for the Bad Sex Award; what’s more worrying is the striking image of Louise reaching into Ian’s ribcage. There’s also a surfeit of verbal creativity: Bollen sometimes goes overboard in his attempts to describe the familiar in new, energised terms. At one point Ian glances down at ‘the billiard rack of my penis and testicles’.
The judges came upon a rather knowing wink in Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe. ‘The details of what happened in that bed, while engrossing, have no business in this report,’ Wroe writes. But he then gives details, earning him a mention in this report:
Nor is it certain that, put into words, they would survive the imprisonment. But it is worth noting that when people shed their clothes they lose certain trappings and conventions. A clothed body is always human or human-like, a naked body always animal or animal-like. Only at close quarters is the full extent of a body’s wildness revealed, like when a bird gets trapped inside a house. One is moved to not entirely human thinking then. One goes towards its animalness.
Neil Griffiths’s hefty epic As a God Might Be has been praised both in these pages (on page 77, in fact) and elsewhere. He merits a mention here for a lengthy scene of flirtation and dirty talk. It’s wrapped up in layers of sophistication and germane particulars, but begins to buckle under its own pretentions, as when the lovers finally touch: ‘The kiss was an order and a disguise. She pushed her hand into his jeans and felt for his cock. She was experienced enough to prepare for disappointment. Her tongue sought out his tongue and whipped around it, teasing it out. There was the taste of whisky, the fresh basil from the salad. Both knew that from where they were standing, getting to the bed would be awkward; he still had his boots on.’