Among the first entries this year for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award were Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (possibly the first passage of sexual description told from the point of view of a foetus) and Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. Both were dismissed for being too well written to qualify. Another entry, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, tested the critical faculties of the panel slightly more. His sustained descriptions of youthful onanism trod the line between abjectly comical and comically abject:
He jerked off with the determination of someone within sight of Everest’s summit, having lost all his friends and Sherpas, having run out of supplemental oxygen, but preferring death to failure.
The effect, however, was judged to be deliberate and he too failed to make the shortlist.
The purpose of the award, now in its twenty-fourth year, is not to discourage writing about what goes on in the bedroom (or elsewhere) but to draw attention to redundant or poorly written passages of sexual description. The hallmarks of ‘bad sex’ are, broadly speaking, euphemism, confusion about what’s actually going on, the clumsy use of language and metaphor, and hyperbole. It’s the last of these that trips up Robert Seethaler, a successful Austrian novelist and actor. In The Tobacconist, his fifth book, a boy from the countryside now living in Vienna meets a Bohemian girl with a ‘puckered upper lip’ and finds himself with an erection ‘swelled to monstrous proportions’. He continues: ‘As his trousers slipped down his legs all the burdens of his life to date seemed to fall away from him.’ Seethaler wants the sex to mean everything, to allow his protagonist to comprehend ‘the things of this world in all their immeasurable beauty’, but it’s overblown and adds nothing to the reader’s understanding of the characters.
Gayle Forman, a New York Times bestselling author, also reaches for hyperbole – not to mention dodgy metaphor – to do justice to the magnitude of the act in Leave Me. ‘When they’d kissed,’ she writes, ‘it was as if someone had flipped the breaker in an abandoned house, only to discover that the circuits weren’t just still live, but had grown all the more powerful from disuse.’ Jason has a ‘penchant for kissing nonkissable places, the crooks of elbows, the soles of feet’.
Far less dramatic is this, from Tom Connolly’s Men Like Air:
‘You’re beautiful,’ she told him, going down on to her haunches and unzipping him. He watched her passport rise gradually out of the back pocket of her jeans in time with the rhythmic bobbing of her buttocks as she sucked him. He arched over her back and took hold of the passport before it landed on the pimpled floor. Despite the immediate circumstances, human nature obliged him to take a look at her passport photo.
Just how long are this man’s arms? More importantly, the act of looking at her passport was construed as a rather blatant bit of plot advancement in the wider structure of the book.
Meanwhile, the perennial lure of the ill-timed bestial simile once again proved too strong for some to resist. A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin charts the rise of budding academic Milo Andret, who finds himself sought after by local housewives. Here he is in flagrante:
she would quiet, moving suddenly on top of him like a lion over its prey. Her eyes stayed wide. Andret liked to keep his own closed; but whenever he opened them, there she would be, staring down at him, her black pupils gyroscopically inert. Again: leonine … the act itself was fervent. Like a brisk tennis game or a summer track meet … She liked to do it more than once, and he was usually able to comply. Bourbon was his gasoline. Between sessions, he poured it at the counter while she lay panting on the sheets. Sweat burnished her body. The lean neck. The surprisingly full breasts.
Former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis turned to flora and fauna as well. The Butcher’s Hook is full of bucolic nods:
When his hand goes to my breasts, my feet are envious. I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below. His finger is inside me, his thumb circling, and I spill like grain from a bucket. He is panting, still running his race. I laugh at the incongruous size of him, sticking to his stomach and escaping from the springing hair below … I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.’ He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.
At this point we move from the damp to the soaking. In The Day Before Happiness, Italian prize-winning author Erri De Luca describes copulation between a girl with supernatural powers and an orphan boy, in a passage that does away with such trivialities as anatomical accuracy:
She pushed on my hips, an order that thrust me in. I entered her. Not only my prick, but the whole of me entered her, into her guts, into her darkness, eyes wide open, seeing nothing. My whole body had gone inside her. I went in with her thrusts and stayed still. While I got used to the quiet and the pulsing of my blood in my ears and nose, she pushed me out a little, then in again. She did it again and again, holding me with force and moving me to the rhythm of the surf. She wiggled her breasts beneath my hands and intensified the pushing. I went in up to my groin and came out almost entirely. My body was her gearstick.
On it continues until the whole thing grinds to a conclusion.
One judge suggested the idea of a Brief Sex in Fiction Award, encapsulating the virtue of brevity for passages of sexual description. Sebastian Barry would surely take the trophy for Days Without End: ‘And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.’ That’s one way to avoid winning the prize.