Bad sex: why do only fa­mous white men get to write about it? Sian Cain,

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - 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.

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