The Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award – just some of the accolades won by this year’s Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award nominees, arguably the most distinguished shortlist ever assembled. The prize is intended to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction, and to discourage them.
At the head of the pack romps Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of this year’s Booker Prize. Those judges evidently felt the book’s other merits outweighed a pair of highly wrought sex scenes. We selected one between Amy and Dorrigo: ‘Hands found flesh; flesh, flesh. He felt the improbable weight of her eyelash with his own; he kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world.’ Mention of the equator, as one of our judges pointed out, leaves the reader with the impression that Amy is obese on a planetary scale. At this point, a slobbering dog appears, bearing in his mouth a ‘twitching fairy penguin’, leading to a rapid diminishing of desire on Dorrigo’s part. Penguins might be all the rage this Christmas, but Flanagan’s seems too leadenly symbolic.
Wilbur Smith is a hardy perennial of these awards and his new novel, Desert God, does not fail to deliver. He offers grammatical and anatomical pedantry – ‘Her body was hairless. Her pudenda were also entirely devoid of hair’ – and a gloriously orotund definition of sex: ‘the brief conjoining of the flesh that ends too soon in a puny muscular spasm, sparse reward for the man who renders up his seed, or for the woman who accepts it into her womb’.
May-Lan Tan, author of Things to Make and Break, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, is desperately keen to let us know how hot her female protagonist is. Literally hot: ‘she has the smallest, hottest mouth, as if she’s storing lava in her cheeks. I shut my eyes, holding her hair by the roots. My bones start to liquefy.’ And it’s not just her mouth: ‘God. It’s like sticking your cock into the sun. I fuck her deep and slow, watching her mouth and feeling her move. When I get too close, I pull out and let my dick cool.’
Heat is also much on the mind of the hero of Saskia Goldschmidt’s The Hormone Factory: ‘she was as hot as boiling water in a distillation flask, and it wasn’t long before I was able to really get going,’ he declares with scientific briskness, evidently unconcerned by the threat of scalding. Earlier, our narrator had to dig his way through a ‘roadblock of bunched-up clothing’; we are left to pick our way around a pile-up of unwarranted metaphors.
A similar comparative restlessness is present in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami:
Kuro’s breasts were full and soft. Shiro’s were small, but her nipples were as hard as tiny round pebbles. Their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest. Their breath mingled with his, becoming one, like currents from far away, secretly overlapping at the dark bottom of the sea.
The currents aren’t far away or deep-flowing enough, because this oddly stilted and passionless sex dream climaxes in a way that will seem over-familiar to aficionados of this prize: ‘like a huge wave crashing over him’, the urge ‘engulfed him without warning’.
Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark also fails to avoid onrushing water in her debut novel, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle:
I had never imagined that I was capable of wanton behaviour, but it was as if a dam within me had burst and we made love that day and night like two people starved, slowly suffused with more and more pleasure, exploring and devouring every inch of each other, so as not to miss one single possibility of passion. It was as if I were drinking in life itself.
Is she drowning in pleasure or downing it, glass by glass? Either way, it sounds exhausting.
In The Age of Magic, Ben Okri presents us with a Character Who Mistakes His Lover for a Lamp: ‘When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain.’ There’s nothing indirect about a startling off-stage explosion that coincides with the apogee of their lovemaking (‘Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off’), which is wrapped in a cliched evocation of sexual rapture as expansion and annihilation:
She felt certain now that there was a heaven and that it was here, in her body. The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her … In an ecstasy greater than his anguish, he raced towards her, and disappeared into her universe, and afterwards into a long dreamless slumber.
In 2011, Michael Cunningham narrowly avoided nomination for a scene that featured small breasts with large nipples ‘the size of the tip of his little finger, and the color of pencil erasers’. These reappear, with a little tweak – ‘her nipple (biggish for her tiny breasts, raspberry-colored)’ – as he finally makes the grade with The Snow Queen, which culminates in a juddering disintegration of meaning:
He thrusts again, and he’s gone, he’s off into the careening nowhere. He lives for seconds in that soaring, agonizing perfection. It’s this, only this, he’s lost to himself, he’s no one, he’s obliterated, there’s no Tyler at all, there’s only… He hears himself gasp in wonder. He falls into an ecstatic burning harmedness, losing, lost, unmade.
And is finished.
Other nominees include Helen Walsh for The Lemon Grove (‘Her whole body lifted; cut adrift and yet anchored firmly to his mouth. A tenuous, tingling thread. And her legs give way so she becomes the thread’), and Amy Grace Loyd for The Affairs of Others: ‘I was a tourniquet, however poor, against the woundedness dissolving her into a liquid that kept flowing into me.’
I, on the other hand, need a cold compress.