Limp Pens

On December 6th, David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars (1994), was awarded the 2011 Bad Sex in Literature Award for his version of Oedipus, Ed King, beating Stephan King and Haruki Murakami among others. The award was begun by The Literary Review in 1993, and is given to ‘draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.’ (One might excuse the modern novel by pointing to the Canterbury Tales; Chaucer’s ‘Merchant’s Tale’ features a young bride copulating with her lover in a tree (vividly realised with the phrase ‘and in he throng’). Past recipients of the Bad Sex past award include familiar names like Melvin Bragg, AA Gill, and John Updike (who, along with Philip Roth, has merited a lifetime achievement award).

Like the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, awarded annually for the worst prose, the Bad Sex Award is an anti-prize. Unlike the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, the Bad Sex Award nominees are not entered by tongue-in-cheek submissions. It takes the mickey out of writers we are accustomed to seeing as literary figures. Guterson’s sins, according to the Guardian’s reporting, includes using ‘quaint, prudish terms’ like ‘front parlour’ and ‘back door’, euphemisms like ‘the family jewels’, and having ‘the beautiful and perfect Ed King…ejaculate for the fifth time in twelve hours, while looking like Roman public-bath statuary.’

Perhaps it would be better in the committee’s opinion if writers emulated the close-lipped insinuations of Evelyn Waugh. In Vile Bodies sex occurs – presumably – in the gap between Nina’s saying ‘Oh Adam’ and ‘I don’t think that this is at all divine…It’s given me a pain’…’

Can sex be written well? It often balances between the extremes of banality and pornography. As a physical process – like the feeling of running, or childbirth – we are grappling with words which are clearly inadequate. Bedroom chat sounds painfully flat when repeated or written down.  

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Whatever the struggles of writing sex, it is a relief in a world of literary prizes – and the literary establishment can easily take itself too seriously – to mock it all. The winners of the Bad Sex Award must like it or lump it, knowing full well that those who are sour or prickly look like wet blankets. To his credit, Guterson seems to have accepted the prize with relative good humour. He knows he will be read anyway.