Is there any writing as bad as bad writing about sex? To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the clichés are laughable, the positions are untenable, and the pleasure--if any--is strictly schadenfreude. Yet year after year, the bad sex scenes continue to pulse, throb, and heave across the pages of so-called literary novels. Luckily for readers, for the last 15 years the Literary Review magazine has seen fit to recognize (point at with alarm? snicker at with thinly disguised contempt?) the best of the worst with its Bad Sex in Fiction Award, said to be the most dreaded literary prize in Britain.
The 2007 winner, announced last night, will suffer no embarrassment: he is Norman Mailer, and he died last month. His winning words came from a passage in The Castle in the Forest in which Adolf Hitler's parents, Alois and Klara, engage in an act of conception:
The Hound began to come to life. Right in her mouth. It surprised her. Alois had been so limp. But now he was a man again! 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.
Elsewhere in the passage, Mailer compares the Hound to "a coil of excrement."
"It was the excrement that tipped the balance," admitted Philip Womack, assistant editor of the Literary Review, whose editorial staff judge the annual prize. "That, and the line about Alois [the male character] being 'ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety'. That was pretty awful."
Mailer bested, or worsted, seven other shortlisted authors. A few fragrant passages:
Anne Hathaway's cow-milking fingers, cradling my balls in her almond palm, now took pity on the poor anguished erection, and in the infinite agony of her desire, guided it to the quick of the wound. At the same time I searched wildly with the fingers of my left hand, groping blind as Cyclops, found the pulpy furred wetness, parted the old lips of time and slipped my middle finger into the sancta sanctorum. It welcomed me with soft sucking sounds, syllables older than language, solace lovelier than words. --Christopher Rush, Will, a novel about William Shakespeare et ux.
Her vagina was all that, as they say in the urban media - a powerful ethnic muscle scented by bitter melon, the breezes of the local sea, and the sweaty needs of a tiny nation trying to breed itself into a future. ... I find it clichéd when couples insist that they have "the perfect fit," but between the busted-up, zigzag, Broadway boogie-woogie of my maligned purple khui and the all-encompassing nature of her Caspian pizda, we reached a third way, as it were. -- Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan.
We were blades, were a knife that could cut through myth, were two knives thrown by a magician, were arrows fired by a god, we hit heart, we hit home, we were the tail of a fish were the reek of a cat were the beak of a bird were the feather that mastered gravity were high above every landscape then down deep in the purple haze of the heather were roamin in a gloamin in a brash unending Scottish piece of perfect jigging reeling reel can we really keep this up? -- Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy.
You can read all the nominated passages here.
The ceremony was held at London's In & Out Club. But of course.
(Hat tip to Linda Grant, author of the excellent blog The Thoughtful Dresser.)