November 14, 2013

It’s that time of year again for sweating profusely and sniggering: the Bad Sex Award is back


The Bad Sex Award: no river, dale, flower or sunrise is safe.

‘So are we going to do it, Lawrence?’

‘Yes,’ he whispers. ‘Yes.’

That’s a quote from Motherland by William Nicholson, which is one of the novels that have been shortlisted for this year’s Bad Sex Award, run annually by Literary Review. The award is given by the magazine to the most “embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel” and its aim is to “draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” The prize does not consider erotic or pornographic novels, but focuses instead on literary novels. These novels may be well-written overall but the sex bits have to be horrific.

Here, for example, is an extract from Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth, which is remarkable for having only recently been discovered. It is also remarkable for its bad sex scene:

Back and forth, side to side, they moved on their bed on the hay. Back and forth, side to side, they moved their hips, their feet, their legs, their whole bodies. Their arms tied into knots like vines climbing trees, and the trees moved and swayed, and there was a time and a rhythm to the blend of the movement. And inside the door of her womb she felt her inner organs and tissues, all her muscles and glands, felt them roll, squeeze, squeeze, and roll, and felt that every inch of her whole being stretched, reached, felt out, felt in, felt all around the shape of his penis.

Exaggeration seems to be a theme in many of the entries, and no one takes hyperbole to such great heights as Manil Suri in The City of Devi:

Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.

I think I prefer the straight-talking of Eric Reinhardt’s The Victoria System, which doesn’t bother with metaphor or flowery descriptions, instead getting right down to the brass tax: ‘Look,’ she was saying, ‘look at my breasts. I want to show them to you.’

Finding candidates for the award is not as easy as you might imagine. As senior editor of Literary Review Jonathan Beckman explained in the FT back in 2011, “Publishers are tediously uncooperative.” He went onto explain the submissions process:

Reviewers are asked for ghastly half-memories they have been trying to suppress and a dead letter box is opened underneath the John Snow memorial pump on Broadwick Street for trade insiders to leave anonymous tip-offs.

And when it comes to the writers themselves? “Most winners are gracious; some bemused; a couple terrifyingly enthusiastic.”

The winner will be announced on 3rd December, meanwhile follow Literary Review on Twitter (@lit_review) where they will be tweeting snippets, with the hashtag #BadSex.



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.