… 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 Craftsman.com 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.

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3 Responses to “This year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award finalists…”

  1. Profane Says:

    The guts of Cohen’s passage is a paraphrase of Song of Songs 4:5.

  2. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    There’s the Song of Songs, and there’s Sappho, and it’s been all downhill since.

  3. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    On further reflection, I feel I must add the opening paragraphs of Tristram Shandy. They seem to fall under Category 2 above: Let’s Go There! It’s the only sex scene I can recall that made me laugh in the way the author intended.

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