This magazine’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award has never shied away from speaking truth to power as well as literary celebrity. Alastair Campbell is a two-time nominee and Tony Blair was touted for an account in his memoirs of feral sex with Cherie. This year’s most newsworthy erotic piece of writing concerned animals more domestic: the claim by David Cameron’s drive-by biographers Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott that, while at Oxford, the future prime minister had sexually violated a dead pig. Lost in the hashtag furore, though not, I’m sure, lost on the erudite readers of Literary Review, was the sophisticated web of intertextual allusions that reveal this apparently boorish student dare to have been a statement of political intent. Napoleon and Snowball in Animal Farm, the Beast in Lord of the Flies, P G Wodehouse’s Empress of Blandings – these are the most prominent pigs in the canon of English fiction. Cameron undoubtedly sought to affirm his own right-wing credentials by symbolically desecrating the communism of Orwell’s swine and the savage recidivism incited by Golding’s totem. And how better to mitigate your own toffiness in the name of a modern, inclusive conservatism than by ritually abusing a proxy for Wodehouse’s oinker of aristocratic pedigree.
The purpose of the award is to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in literary novels. Non-fiction is generally ineligible for this prize, though Ashcroft and Oakeshott’s anecdote was so thinly sourced that it was, more likely than not, a work of the imagination. The judges, however, ruled that the act itself was treated too cursorily to merit inclusion. Those that made the cut positively luxuriated in the moment.
Against Nature by the Norwegian novelist Tomas Espedal is a profound meditation on alienation, love, the craft of writing and snake sex: ‘She sticks her tongue into his mouth, and he penetrates her gently; an unbreakable ring, as when snake bites tail of snake and has its tail bitten in return, as when he lies on the floor and she sits over him; she bends down and puts his member in her mouth while he sticks out his tongue and licks hers.’ ‘Unbreakable ring’ is an unfortunate infelicity. And while ignorance of serpent foreplay is a failure of research, ignorance of the genital differences between men and women is a more serious cause for concern. I’m writing this report shortly after Guy Fawkes Night and Espedal’s translator would do well to hearken to the seasonal mnemonic: ‘Remember, Remember, never use the word “member”.’
George Pelecanos is best known as a screenwriter for The Wire. He’s an acclaimed crime writer as well, though The Martini Shot is his first collection of short stories. It seems he’s also an ingénue when it comes to writing sex:
She lay back on the couch and arched her back, and I peeled off her pants and thong. Now she was nude. I stripped down to my boxer briefs and crouched over her. I let her pull me free because I knew she liked to. She stroked my pole and took off my briefs, and I got between her and spread her muscular thighs with my knees and rubbed myself against her until she was wet as a waterslide, and then I split her.
One could start with the porny clichés – ‘stroked my pole’; ‘I split her’ – or the ineffective comparison: ‘wet as a waterslide’ means, when you boil it down, ‘wet as water’, or, more efficiently, just ‘wet’. I was most taken, though, by the rapt revelation that, once our narrator has removed her trousers and underpants, his paramour is nude. What was he expecting to find beneath?
Richard Bausch is the kind of writer, frequently found in this round-up, who wants to describe sex but seems too coy to admit that there are names for the reproductive parts of the human anatomy. The scenes, such as this one from Before, During, After, become muddy with abashed pronouns:
When she took him, still a little flaccid, into her mouth, he moaned, ‘Oh, lover.’ She felt him harden, and she tightened her lips and pulled, and then ran her tongue slow along the shaft, and then straightened and straddled him, guiding him into her, sinking and rising on him, head back, hands gripping his shoulders. It went on. It was very good.
I doubt anyone who didn’t know they were appearing in a novel has ever uttered the words ‘Oh, lover’.
Geriatric sex is a preoccupation of Fear of Dying, Erica Jong’s belated sequel to Fear of Flying. Forget the zipless fuck; now we’ve moved on to the zimmerless one, the sensation of which, to avid followers of this prize, is evoked in all too familiar terms:
I am swept away with waves of anticipation that blank out my mind and let me focus only on pleasure, releasing the painful past, releasing the desire to return there and be young and beautiful again. Fuck young and beautiful – this is worth everything – and I come with fierce contractions that seem to go on and on endlessly. Asher holds me.
‘I felt a bolt of lightning go down my spine when you came,’ Asher mumbles. ‘Incredible. Never felt anything like it before.’
‘You raised the kundalini,’ I say.
‘What the fuck is that?’
The reader, like Asher, may be equally at a loss. Apparently, it’s ‘life force, energy, fire, sexual power’ and it manifests itself as an ‘electric snake’ – which, honestly, sounds like the last thing I’d like to jump into bed with.
Morrissey insisted that his 2013 autobiography was published in the black mantle of Penguin Classics. His first novel, List of the Lost, has now appeared clad in the orange livery of Penguin novels of yore. You might get the sense he thinks rather highly of himself. Certainly, his publishers stand in such reverence of his every word that they failed to apply even the lightest smudge of the editorial pencil to the following passage:
Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.
There are some nominees for this competition that need no further comment, but, for future reference, the best way to reach the otherwise central zone is almost certainly by getting off the Victoria Line at Oxford Circus.