This year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award finalists…

… feature the object of UD‘s sister’s affection, Morrissey. He is the front-runner.

Yet having looked at all the contenders, UD will put her money on Joshua Cohen. And she will tell you why Cohen should win.

Cohen probably won’t win, because the Bad Sex Award people will get far more attention if they give the award to Morrissey.


Here is Cohen’s passage, from his novel Book of Numbers.

Her mouth was intensely ovoid, an almond mouth, of citrus crescents. And under that sling, her breasts were like young fawns, sheep frolicking in hyssop – Psalms were about to pour out of me.

In UD‘s opinion, the best bad sex writing is pretentious (intensely ovoid), self-consciously literary (Psalms), richly figurative (like young fawns), alliterative (citrus crescents, fawns frolicking), and gamely but unsuccessfully comical (Psalms were about to pour out of me).

The problem with some of this year’s other contenders is that they’re rather simple. They lack the biblical, metaphorical, simile-tudinous, and would-be humorous, elements of this passage. I’ll show you what I mean.

She reached up and brought him to her, then rolled over on top of him and began softly to move down. When she took him, still a little flaccid, into her mouth, he moaned, ‘Oh, lover.

This isn’t bad sex writing. It’s just blah workmanlike oral sex description. Oh lover is amusing but a bit too plausible as something a person might indeed say under these circumstances. (The statement Pray at my portal in a recent Paul Theroux novel is a much better instance of bad sex dialogue.)

Glorious, he was made to do this. There was cracking all around and a blistering sunlike heat, and Gwennie was shuddering beneath him, and one-two-three, he burst within her.

Again, while this ain’t great writing, UD doesn’t see what makes it award-winning bad sex writing. The first sentence is very simple, and the second moves rather nicely from all those ing words (denoting immediate action) to the sudden bang of an ending. In no way is this notably bad.

She presses him to the ground, pins his hands to the floor. She kisses his face and licks it. She bites his lip. She bites his cheek. She pants in his ear, shouts his name in his ear, she whips his face with her hair […] she rides above him the way she’d imagined that one day she’d ride a boy, a man, a beast; she grasps his long hair with both her hands and rides him as if he were a horse…

First of all, this one’s a translation. I think this alone disqualifies it. But as writing, it simply adopts the dull as dishwater relentless present-tense of writers from Joyce Carol Oates on down, and it doesn’t even do it all that badly. Of course one doesn’t like it; but this is indeed how it’s done.

I pulled her to me. I took her band off, and her hair fell free about her shoulders. I cupped my hand around the back of her neck, and we made out standing beside my bed. It felt good to both of us, pressed together, her body lush, soft, and hot against mine. She was a good kisser; our mouths fit.

Same as above, only in past tense. Could have been written by Mickey Spillane. Neither here nor there, and certainly not a winner of anything.

Far in the back of whatever was left of his mind, the light of reason was struggling against being finally extinguished and he was aware that wearing a condom would’ve been a good idea, but there was no way that he was getting out of her, because she took him in and he was with her in every move, in every gasp, kiss, and lick.

Gasp kiss and lick sucks; but “there was no way that he was getting out of her” is rather good. And again the whole passage is very straightforward, lacking the baroque Fine Dining madness of Cohen’s.

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.

This (Erica Jong) is just utterly shitty prose. The sexual content disappears behind the subliteracy. This is not a subliteracy contest.

And Morrissey? Here tis.

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.

A lot of writers take this approach to writing about sex. Sex is a silly frenzy, so you produce a long funny wild and crazy rollercoaster of a sentence. People are making special fun of bulbous salutation, but at least Morrissey has looked at the object of his descriptive efforts with care and given it a new and amusing spin.

We can, in short, discern three approaches to writing about sex in the novel.

1. The approach reflects the author’s dread at having to write these passages. He or she grapples painfully with how to do the thing and ultimately, sensibly, decides to toss off a bland neutral efficient acceptable descriptive passage.

2. The Let’s Go There! approach takes sex on its own terms and chases it down on its merry zany way.

3. The This is ART, Damn You approach is, in UD‘s humble opinion, always the winner among the annual Bad Sex Award finalists. Cohen’s got that going, as did John Banville, also a recent finalist:

They conduct there, on that white bed, under the rubied iron cross, a fair imitation of a passionate dalliance, a repeated toing and froing on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light, peremptory and intense.

Scathing Online Schoolmarm has…

… um… a bone to pick with this year’s finalists for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Most of the entries are bad, it’s true, and bad in the amusing way bad writing descriptive of sex can be — leering, embarrassing, absurdly literary and pretentious…

In fact, before I make my complaint, let’s ogle an example or two and try to be precise about why they’re bad.

The worst bad sex writer – the person who should win this year’s contest – is John Banville, a writer UD has always found, carnal or non-carnal, pretentious:

Alba has stepped out of her dress in one flowing, stylised movement, like a torero, the object of all eyes, trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull; underneath, she is naked. [Before the baffled bull — heavy-handed alliteration here for no reason at all other than to insist Not Cheap Porn. Here You Get Assonance With Your Ass.] She looks to the side, downwards; her eyelids are so shinily pale and fine that Adam can see clearly all the tiny veins in them, blue as lapis. [Shinily, clearly, he holds you back from the hard stuff because this is literature, man. Delicate Yeatsian simile, lapis… We’re not in just any motel. We’re in High Art Motel.] He takes a floating step forward until his chest is barely touching the tips of her nipples, behind which he senses all the gravid tremulousness of her breasts. [Wanna get me some of that gravid tremulousness.] She puts her hands flat against his chest and leans into him in a simulacrum of a swoon, [L’Artiste makes a fuck a simulacrum.] making a mewling sound. [Pregnant bullfighter goes all kitty on us.] Her hips are goosefleshed and he can feel all the tiny hairs erect on her forearms. When he kisses her hot, soft mouth, which is bruised a little at one corner, he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently – faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of fish-slime and sawdust – for he has no doubt that this is the mouth of a busy working girl. He does not mind. [Sawdust?]

They conduct there, on that white bed, under the rubied iron cross, [I hope you’re picking up here, with the fish and the sawdust and the oracular They conduct there, on that white bed, T.S. Eliot’s
“Prufrock;” and, in “The Waste Land”:

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;…

a fair imitation of a passionate dalliance, a repeated toing and froing on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light, peremptory and intense. His heart rattles in its cage, a vein beats at his temple like a slow tom-tom. When they are spent at last, and that beacon in the jungle has been turned low again, they lie together contentedly in a tangle of arms and legs and talk of this and that, in their own languages, each understanding hardly a word of what the other says.

The Paul Theroux extract is more conventionally bad.

‘Baby.’ She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. ‘Yoni puja – pray, pray at my portal.’

“She was holding my head, murmuring ‘Pray,’ and I did so, beseeching her with my mouth and tongue, my licking a primitive form of language in a simple prayer. It had always worked before, a language she had taught me herself, the warm muffled tongue.

Pray at my portal is just funny. Just funny gets you shortlisted, but lacks the philosophy in the boudoir haughtiness of Banville.

But here’s my complaint. This excerpt is not bad:

Let’s have sex, they think simultaneously, couples having strange mind-reading powers after months and months of trying to figure each other out. Panting, Georgie starts rubbing her hands round Bobby’s biological erogenous zones, turning his trousers into a tent with lots of rude organs camping underneath. Bobby sucks all the freckles and moles off her chest, pulling the GD bib wheeeeeeeeeee over her head and flicking Georgie’s turquoise bra off her shoulders then kissing her tits, and he’s got so much energy – plus he’s very impatient – Bobby tugs off his sweaty sweater himself and gives Georgie a helping hand with his zip. Then comes the enormous anticipation of someone putting their mitts on your cock and balls. Georgie smiles to herself and keeps him hanging on for a bit, which in a way is even better though it makes the Artist want to explode and after one or two tugs he moans ‘whoah’ then screams ‘whoah!’ and Georgie lets go giggling, then suddenly her face is all serious and Bobby pulls her polished pine legs apart and slithers a hand up her skirt where her fanny’s got a bit of five o’clock shadow like a pin cushion but her lips are nice and slippy, and he slides some lubricunt round and round, mixing clockwise with anticlockwise with figure 8 until Georgie’s shagging the air with pleasure bashing her feet about. Then, Bobby starts scrabbling frantically across the carpet for Mr Condom, sending five or six multicolour Durexes flying through the air, and he struggles getting the packet open and Georgie has to roll Mr Condom down Mr Penis for him and she has to help insert him into Mrs Vagina.

This frenzied amusing description conveys through their form of sex and their thoughts the world in which the characters live, the kind of people they are. Indirect discourse takes us back and forth between their heads and creates a silly, human, sweetness.

And for once, instead of ships entering harbors and storms quelling and flowers bursting into petals, we get fresh images — that camping thing; the five o’clock shadow fanny like a pin cushion…

This isn’t whatever 700-level literary seminar Banville and Theroux think they’re in. It’s the real world. Round these parts, when a man sees a woman’s breasts, he doesn’t say gravid tremulousness.

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