… 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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2 Responses to “Scathing Online Schoolmarm has…”

  1. AYY Says:

    Another problem is that they’re written in the present tense. Fiction isn’t meant to be written in the present tense. You can do a scene or two in the Flashman series in the present tense, but that’s about it.

    Also in the passages you quoted, there’s no tension or anticipation that’s being transmitted through all the details. They’re just going at it, or trying to.

    And isn’t the thing he slides round and round “lubricant,” or have I missed something?

  2. University Diaries » This year’s Bad Sex Award finalists… Says:

    […] 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 […]

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