LET’S WRITE ABOUT SEX

FEVER­ISH TONGUES, PUL­SAT­ING MEM­BERS, ARCH­ING BOD­IES AND ANALO­GIES ABOUT THINGS THAT EX­PLODE — WHY IS WRIT­ING ABOUT SEX SO HARD, ER, DIF­FI­CULT?

Central Telegraph - - READ - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

There may be some pun-like ma­te­rial in this story but don’t al­low cheap tit­il­la­tion to de­tract from the se­ri­ous is­sue at hand.

How, in the 21st cen­tury, can it be that some of the most cel­e­brated writ­ers in the English lan­guage have also won the an­nual Bad Sex in Fic­tion Award?

The gong, be­stowed by Bri­tain’s highly re­spected Lit­er­ary Re­view, is not for writ­ers of erot­ica or run-of-the-mill bad sex but for the supremely ta­lented who meet the cri­te­ria of pro­duc­ing “an out­stand­ingly bad scene of sex­ual de­scrip­tion in an oth­er­wise good novel”.

The award was in­sti­tuted in 1993 when lit­er­ary critic Rhoda Koenig and late Re­view ed­i­tor Auberon Waugh couldn’t help but no­tice the grow­ing ranks of lit­er­ary nov­els be­ing ru­ined by bad sex scenes.

“Per­func­to­rily in­tro­duced and charm­lessly de­scribed” is how Waugh char­ac­terised the of­fend­ing scenes back in the day.

“It was as if ev­ery novelist felt obliged to in­clude a sex scene, pos­si­bly un­der pres­sure from the pub­lisher – un­der the il­lu­sion that some sex at least was nec­es­sary to sell any­thing.”

Among the lit­er­ary crafts­men who’ve taken out the award dur­ing its 25-year his­tory are Man Booker and Pulitzer Prize win­ners.

No­table re­cip­i­ents in­clude British writ­ers Se­bas­tian Faulks and AA Gill and iconic Amer­i­can nov­el­ists Nor­man Mailer and Tom Wolfe. The man re­garded as the great­est Amer­i­can writer of the mod­ern era John Updike won a life­time achieve­ment award for his four con­sec­u­tive nom­i­na­tions.

And po­etic abil­ity of­fers no pro­tec­tion it seems. The man hailed as the finest lyri­cist in British his­tory, whose word wiz­ardry is the sub­ject of aca­demic study, mu­si­cian/song­writer Mor­risey took out the award in 2015 with his de­but novel, List of the Lost.

In it, he had his pro­tag­o­nist’s “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”.

Last year’s hands down win­ner was Christo­pher Bollen, who con­trib­uted this to the canon: “Her face and her vagina are com­pet­ing for my at­ten­tion, so I glance down at the bil­liard rack of my pe­nis and tes­ti­cles.”

De­spite the ob­vi­ous anatom­i­cal ques­tions, the point, er, pur­pose, of these pas­sages, er, ex­cerpts, is to il­lus­trate that writ­ing about sex does not come eas­ily (…) even in this age of hy­per­sex­u­al­ity and easy ac­cess pornog­ra­phy.

Aus­tralian sex­ol­o­gist Nikki Gold­stein says a big part of the prob­lem is that sex is still a taboo topic in po­lite so­ci­ety.

“That’s what we’re taught. Even though you can be a re­ally good writer, our at­ti­tude to sex acts as a fil­ter.

“There’s shame and stigma and peo­ple are fear­ful of the per­son next to them find­ing out what’s go­ing on in their head or in their search his­to­ries.

“We need to nor­malise talk­ing about sex across all forms of the me­dia.”

Lit­er­ary fic­tion is hardly the pin-up medium here, with its of­ten bizarre at­tempts to re­place the phys­i­cal act with metaphor. Take English writer Ni­cola Barker’s anal­o­gous ef­fort in her novel The Yips that earned her a place on the 2012 short­list:

“She smells of al­monds, like a plump Bakewell pud­ding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the help­less dol­lop of warm cus­tard. She steams. He ap­plauds, his tongue hang­ing out (like a blood­hound es­py­ing a raw chop in a car­toon). She is topped with melted apri­cot jam. It makes her shine. Be­neath that: the spongy gold, the give, the soft­ness. Then still fur­ther down, the firmer but­ter­i­ness of a thin-baked layer of crum­bling short­crust.”

Then there are the mem­o­rable one lin­ers: “My body was her gear­stick.” (2016 win­ner Erri De Luca, The Day Be­fore Hap­pi­ness)

“I am pinned like wet wash­ing with his peg.” (Janet El­lis, The Butcher’s Hook, 2016 short­list)

“Her breasts are plac­ards for the en­do­mor­phi­cally en­dowed …” (2003 win­ner Anirud­dha Ba­hal, Bunker 13)

But there are also plenty of lit­er­ary au­thors who es­chew the sym­bol­ism and wade right in with the more di­rect ap­proach.

Here is not the fo­rum to pub­lish the more ro­bust of them, but Amer­i­can au­thor Adam Ross may well have had a quick check of his old bi­ol­ogy text in writ­ing his sex scenes. Here is one of his more tem­per­ate sen­tences:

“He felt as if his heart had liq­ue­fied and then been shot out of him up through her vagina and uterus and her ovaries and up over her di­aphragm and some­how down the vena cav­ity to her heart, his own now coat­ing hers.” (Adam Ross, Mr Peanut, 2010)

Ross was most dis­ap­pointed to miss out on the 2010 award, which went to Ir­ish writer Rowan Sum­merville for his scene in which a nip­ple is com­pared to the up­turned “nose of the loveli­est noc­tur­nal an­i­mal, sniff­ing in the night”. (The Shape of Her, 2010)

In ac­cept­ing his prize that year in the Bad Sex in Fic­tion Award’s spir­i­tual home, Lon­don’s In and Out Club, Somerville was grace­ful in vic­tory.

“There is noth­ing more English than bad sex, so on be­half of the en­tire na­tion I would like to thank you,” he said.

In the award’s quar­ter cen­tury, the re­sponse to re­ceiv­ing it has been mixed. Many win­ners have boy­cotted the prize cer­e­mony, re­fus­ing to ac­knowl­edge the hon­our or col­lect their tro­phy, which started out as a plas­ter foot and has evolved into a less es­o­teric stat­uette of a naked woman draped over a book.

2015 win­ner Mor­risey de­cried his vic­tory as a “re­pul­sive hor­ror” while In­dian writer Anirud­dha Ba­hal flew from New Delhi to col­lect his prize in 2003.

The 2005 win­ner food critic Giles Coren, who de­picted male gen­i­talia as “leap­ing around like a shower dropped in an empty bath”, said he wished he’d writ­ten all the short-listed pas­sages that year.

In 2008, English novelist Rachel John­son, the sis­ter of MP Boris John­son, said she was “ab­so­lutely hon­oured” to take it out.

Although no Aus­tralian au­thors have ever won the award, some of our top-shelf writ­ers have been short-listed over the years, in­clud­ing Man Booker win­ner Richard Flana­gan, au­thor Chris­tos Tsi­olkas for The Slap and mu­si­cian Nick Cave.

When Cave was nom­i­nated for his novel The Death of Bunny Munro in 2009, his pub­lisher said, “Frankly we would have been of­fended if he wasn’t short-listed.”

In re­cent years there have been sug­ges­tions the award is be­com­ing more dif­fi­cult to be­stow, that sex writ­ing is ac­tu­ally get­ting bet­ter.

No doubt the Bad Sex in Fic­tion Award has played its part in that. Writ­ers’ web­sites of­fer much free ad­vice on how to avoid nom­i­na­tion and through­out the lit­er­ary world, scribes of all per­sua­sions can at­tend work­shops to im­prove their sex­ual de­pic­tions across all gen­res.

In Aus­tralia, Bris­bane au­thor Krissy Kneen is the go-to girl for writ­ing good sex. She re­gards the Bad Sex in Fic­tion Awards with some scep­ti­cism.

“The thing with the award is that some­times it can be writ­ing about bad sex rather than bad sex writ­ing,” she says.

“Some of it, if it’s taken in iso­la­tion, can be com­i­cal and silly out of con­text.”

Yes, but surely that’s half the fun and pos­si­bly dif­fi­cult to avoid given many of the judges no doubt emerge from the English board­ing school tra­di­tion where tit­ter­ing about body parts and sex­ual en­ten­dres is fun­da­men­tal to the British sense of hu­mour.

Af­ter last year’s timely bil­liard anal­ogy, judges moved to as­sure the lit­er­ary world there was still much ma­te­rial ripe for re­ward.

Nom­i­na­tions are now be­ing taken for the 2018 award, with the short­list due to be re­leased in Novem­ber. Some English bet­ting agency is no doubt run­ning a book on it some­where.

It seems as long as sex sells, bad sex will also pre­vail, in­vok­ing steam­ing Bakewell puds, snooker sce­nar­ios or any num­ber of noc­tur­nal crea­tures, with no need of sup­ple­men­tal oxy­gen.

... THEY WERE FACE TO FACE IN THE GLOOM, STAR­ING INTO WHAT LIT­TLE THEY COULD SEE OF EACH OTHER’S EYES, AND NOW IT WAS THE IM­PER­SONAL THAT DROPPED AWAY.

PHOTO: CRAIG GREEN­HILL

Sex­ol­o­gist Dr Nikki Gold­stein.

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

Krissy Kneen.

Atone­ment:

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