Bad sex: why do only famous white men get to write about it? Sian Cain,
In competition with a book that likens a vagina to an “enamelled pepper mill”, perhaps one doesn’t expect to win the Bad Sex in Fiction award – yet this is where James Frey finds himself, having won on Monday night for his novel Katerina. Given the critical response to Katerina, it might be the only prize the book will win. The Washington Post, rather kindly, declared it “the worst novel of the year”. It may actually be the worst novel of the decade. Frey gained literary infamy in the early 2000s when details in his addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces were found to be embellished. But even a squirming appearance with an angry Oprah Winfrey, who had picked it for her book club, did not end Frey’s career. He’d arrived at the perfect time: when authenticity was more about the truth behind feelings than facts, and when our ideas of subjectivity were being shaken by “reality” television. To this day A Million Little Pieces is marketed as memoir, with an insouciant caveat from Frey that not all of it is true, and he continues to write novels – including Katerina, which he describes as a “fictional retelling” of a real love affair.
One of the many drug-fuelled sex scenes in the book, all with beautiful women with unending appetites for exhibitionism and drunk narcissists, is described thus: “we fuck on the floor do more fuck in the bed do more fuck in the shower do more take a bath and play with each other do more go for a walk through the ground of the hotel into a vineyard find a ridge and sit and watch the sun rise we walk back to the hotel and fuck again in the bed we fuck again.” But the narrator, Jay, is a thinker too. “When I sit down to read, I take it seriously … it’s sex and love and the smell of cum,” he states – and he thinks a lot about all three of those as he drinks, bonks and vomits his way around Paris.
This is not another review of a rubbish book, but rather a dissection of why Katerina exists at all. How did Frey come to plonk Katerina in front of publishers. And who decided it should be read by the world? This is why it is so hard to believe publishers when they say they are committed to improving diversity. For all the uplifting public statements about searching for “new voices”, they still publish books that only white, famous men such as Frey can write – while Nikesh Shukla had to crowdfund the bestselling essay collection The Good Immigrant, and a Matt Cain novel was turned down for being “too gay”.
This year I interviewed Hank Green, a YouTuber who has written his first book in the wake of the very successful writing career of his older brother, John Green. Hank said, with refreshing honesty: “I knew even if it was a bad book, someone would publish it.” He was right – there was no way publishers would pass on another Green. But that doesn’t make any of it right.
Meanwhile, both publishers and Frey continue to be convinced he has a decent book in him. Let’s hope someone can find it some day.