What makes a intercourse scene badly written? No doubt all of us have our views on the precise offences that make us shudder. A look at previous offenders shortlisted for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award jogs my memory of some sins that I discover personally unforgivable.
These embrace all too vivid or clumsy euphemisms (I’m nonetheless haunted by Morrissey’s “bulbous salutation”, but a special mention is merited for my colleague Paul Mason’s description of his male character “moving in the general direction of her chrysanthemum”); crass or facile metaphor or simile (Ben Okri’s infamous rocket, Haruki Murakami’s mention of pubic hair “as wet as a rain forest”, Nancy Huston’s “sex swimming in joy like a fish in water”); overzealous presumptions of male prowess; and the word “cum”.
But this is all subjective, and there are no doubt readers out there who have, ahem, enjoyed the sex scenes that are shortlisted each year. The award was established in 1993 by Auberon Waugh to draw attention to the “crude, tasteless, and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels, and to discourage it”. This year the judges remarked that the quality has not only been higher than usual, but the entries were actually “quite good” – after all, the award is limited to contemporary fiction that is otherwise reputable, and no one is saying that these writers do not have talent.
Even this year’s winner, by Christopher Bollen (“Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles”), is – while terrible – arguably not as cringeworthy as in previous years.
So if we’re approaching a point where literary sex scenes are getting better, is it then reasonable to ask whether the attempt to discourage bad sex writing is working. And is that really a good thing?
You might argue that shaming authors who embark upon the tricky business of writing about sex is mean and unfair, and will discourage aspiring novelists from going near the subject, despite it being a significant part of experience. Furthermore, is it not snobbish and prudish and, well, awfully English? You can’t imagine the French getting worked up over some writer overusing the word “moist”.
This is the issue the Irish writer Paraic O’Donnell raises in what he describes as his “annual rant” in regards to the unhealthy intercourse awards. “Literary description is stylised. It tries to show you familiar things in unfamiliar ways. You’re supposed to notice it,” he wrote on Twitter. “It may appear mannered or excessive. It may exhibit certain tics. These effects are often deliberate, and always subject to taste.”
In different phrases, unhealthy sexual description isn’t goal – 1 lady’s chrysanthemum will all the time be one other lady’s cunt. O’Donnell additionally believes that the mission assertion – now tweaked – betrays “vaulting entitlement and the nasty policing instinct”. Certainly it may’t be good, as a author, to be on the receiving finish of it. The writer William Nicholson, shortlisted in 2013, discovered the expertise “genuinely wounding”. Last 12 months’s nominee Janet Ellis was extra gung ho, however 1 detects a certain quantity of bruising between the strains.
When writing my very own novel, out subsequent June, it needs to be stated that the unhealthy intercourse award hovered like a spectre over my shoulder. There are a couple of intercourse scenes in it, and so they may very nicely be egregious for all I do know, however what I’ll say is that the award actually impressed me to consider what makes an excellent intercourse scene, and to work at writing one thing that I felt to be actual, and true, and as unhackneyed as attainable. And that may be no unhealthy factor, can it?
“One thing that’s striking about this perception of the judges as prudes is what feels like a misplaced sense of the influence they wield, as though the judges are some sort of literary establishment condemning vast swaths of literary fiction,” the Literary Review’s Frank Brinkley tells me. “Most people don’t really bat an eyelid … the award is a spoof and a publicity vehicle and most people treat it as such. And that’s all to the good. We’re well aware that if the award achieves its stated aim – to discourage the poor writing of sex scenes in literary fiction – we’d have nothing to judge.”
Brinkley additionally factors out that the award emerged at a time when writers have been, so far as I can inform, being actively inspired to intercourse up their novels. “The trend in literary fiction, for a portion of writers, was a sex scene, somewhere, that might be newsworthy. If we’re discouraging writers from feeling that they have to do something or include something, that’s great.”
Perhaps that’s the reason a lot intercourse writing was so poor, however now appears of a better normal: the writers are selecting to put in writing these scenes, and their hearts are sincerely in it.
I additionally suppose that gender is an element on this. The unhealthy intercourse award, to my thoughts, typically represent a light however a lot wanted puncturing of the male ego. Many girls are aware of what unhealthy intercourse appears like as a result of, I’m depressed to say, a lot of us have skilled it first hand, and studying scenes the place a feminine character is in raptures the minute the tip of a penis makes contact will all the time result in raised eyebrows. If intercourse writing is getting higher, may or not it’s that male authors are paying extra consideration to the feminine expertise? We can however dwell in hope.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett from theguardian.com