This week, The Literary Review will award its annual Bad Sex Award to the novelist responsible for publishing the year’s worst depiction of sexual intercourse. What makes for terrible fictionalized sex? In some cases, it’s the deployment of delusional metaphor, as in 2013 nominee Manil Suri’s The City of Devi:
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.
Other times, crass accessories are to blame, as in Jonathan Grimood’s The Last Banquet: “I found the Brie and broke off a fragment, sucking her nipple through it.” (Another reason to never bring Brie to a dinner party). And sometimes—as in Woody Guthrie’s long-lost 1947 novel House of Earth, which was just published this year—the honor goes to a particularly horrifying interpretation of basic human anatomy. Guthrie writes: “[I]nside 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.” (If the womb does have a door, it just slammed shut).
There are a lot of ways to write sex wrong. As Susan Choi, nominated this year for her novel My Education, told the Washington Post, “I don’t really know what this [award] means. Is the award for bad sex writing? For good writing about bad sex? For making good people feel bad about sex? I can’t help but think it might widen my audience.” Sometimes, nominated novelists are simply attempting to convey the depths of their characters’ revolting sexual attitudes and behaviors. But other bad sex scenes create the impression that the author is actively trying to diddle the reader through the book, and that he’s doing it very, very poorly. (As the Post notes, the Bad Sex Award winner is typically male.) That’s why I think the most deserving recipient of the Bad Sex Award was Norman Mailer, who was posthumously awarded the prize for his novel The Castle in the Forest: “His mouth lathered with her sap, he turned around and embraced her face with all the passion of his own lips and face, ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety,” Mailer wrote. The description is objectively horrifying, but it’s positively disquieting coming from the guy who once stabbed his wife twice at a party and told the other guests: “Let the bitch die.” If Mailer himself called his penis the Hound, it would surprise no one.
Men have always made art in the pursuit of ass. But as women gain more control over the realms of both sex and writing, the pursuit looks increasingly desperate. As Choire Sicha noted in 2008, the contemporary novel itself has become a form of compensation for the writer’s own limp sexual prowess. “The American desire for fucking has become, locally, the Brooklyn-based or -bound desire for a book deal and a brownstone,” Sicha wrote. “Men, finding that they cannot really get status or security from the ownership of women very often, find their very selves disparaged. Like most of us, they get their status first from consumption, and the way out is to become a maker of consumables; a high-class published author.” As if on cue, Jonathan Franzen disclosed this year that he credits the birth of his writing career to a missed sexual opportunity. “I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before,” he wrote. “The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part.”
As writing grows less and less lucrative, using the book to compensate for male sexual power starts to look even more pathetic (and obvious). Tim Kreider, in a New York Times op-ed about the low wages facing contemporary writers, admitted plainly that he once agreed to deliver a lecture to a class for free because the graduate student who asked him “was very pretty”; he has accepted low-paying writing gigs, he says, because “being published in The New York Times helped get me an agent, who got me a book deal, which got me some dates.” This fall, the actor Russell Brand wrote that he agreed to guest edit an issue of the New Statesman “because it was a beautiful woman asking me.” Author and comedian Rob Delaney recently tweeted that a huge incentive to “work hard in school” is that “all the women who work at @randomhouse are staggeringly beautiful.”
Tortured sex writing is bad. Authors who are obviously writing to get laid are annoying. The combination is insufferable. Perhaps that’s why dude writers in the Mailer tradition have typically cinched the Bad Sex Award prize since its inception in 1993. In recent years, though, female authors are starting to give the boys a run for their money. Last year, Nancy Huston won the prize for her description of “flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements.” And this year, Choi is in the running for this piece of work: “it was then that Martha finally flung herself onto my shore, and through violent sobs kissed me, as if drenched in my juices as she had become, eyes glued shut, stringy-haired, fever-cheeked, parched and gasping for water and air, she’d been born out of me in those hours, bodied forth by titanic orgasm, and now she was helplessly, utterly mine for the rest of all time.” Male writers can’t even successfully dominate bad sex writing anymore? Can’t wait to see how that insecurity plays out.