Every year in November, the lovers of literature hold their breath as they await news of the winner of one of the most notorious ‘booby’ prizes in the world: the Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
Founded in 1993 by the Literary Review, the award causes titular delight among its hordes of fans, and has developed from a cult-prize into a world famous event – this year’s shortlist and award ceremony was covered by major newspapers and mainstream TV news channels across the globe.
Italian novelist Erri De Luca scooped the 2016 award, which recognises those authors who have produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel. A general consensus seemed to form relatively quickly that this year’s shortlist (which can be read here) didn’t quite live up to 2015’s, which was won by Morrissey. But perhaps this has less to do with the featured writing in both year’s shortlists, and more to do with the way Morrissey reacted to the news his book, The List of the Lost, was first shortlisted – and then announced as the winner.
Indeed, describing the prize as “a repulsive horror”, Morrissey told Uruguayan newspaper El Observador that he had “many enemies, and their biggest motivation, as you know, is to try to use all your achievements against you.”
So perhaps it was the added drama of Morrissey’s reactions that made the 2015 awards seem that bit spicier compared to Erri De Luca – who reacted by ignoring the whole thing.
With that in mind, how have previous winners of the notorious prize responded to the news? We’ve brought together a few choice reactions from these famous authors below.
“Honoured” – Rachel Johnson
Rachel Johnson’s novel Shire Hill was singled out for her book’s slew of animal metaphors, including comparing her male protagonist’s “light fingers” to “a moth caught inside a lampshade”, and his tongue to “a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop”. Literary Review deputy editor Tom Fleming was also disturbed by the heroine’s “grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside”.
Johnson said it was an “absolute honour” to win, taking her place alongside former winners including Norman Mailer, Sebastian Faulks and Tom Wolfe. “I’m not feeling remotely grumpy about it. I know that men with literary reputations to polish might find it insulting,” she said, “but if you’ve had a book published in the year any attention is welcome, even if it’s slightly dubious attention of this sort.”
Read Johnson’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.
“Not the least bit surprised” – David Guterson
David Guterson snaffled the bad sex prize for his fifth novel, Ed King, a modern reimagining of the Oedipus myth. Judges were swayed by a scene introduced as “the part where a mother has sex with her son”, and including the passages: “these sorts of gyrations and five-sense choreographies, with variations on Ed’s main themes, played out episodically between 10 pm and 10 am, when Diane said, ‘Let’s shower'”; and “she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her ‘front parlour’ and ‘back door’ (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood)”.
“He says in brackets that these are quaint, prudish terms but I don’t think that is sufficient justification for using them,” said Jonathan Beckman, the Literary Review’s assistant editor.
The American author took his triumph in good spirits, saying in response that “Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I’m not in the least bit surprised”.
Read Guterson’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.
“You can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it.” – Tom Wolfe
American author Tom Wolfe, 74, best-known for his novel Bonfire of the Vanities and for his eccentric dress – he normally wears a white suit and carries a cane – was awarded the Bad Sex award for his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. Judges were swayed by a number of passages of “ghastly and boring prose”, with the following extract drawing particular ire:
“Slither slither slither slither went the tongue. But the hand, that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns – oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest – no, the hand was cupping her entire right – Now!”
Wolfe did not react well to news his novel had won the infamous prize. He described The Literary Review as “a very small, rather old-fashioned magazine”, and went onto say that the British literary judges who awarded him a prize for the year’s worst sex in fiction simply did not understand that his description of a first encounter was meant to be ironic.
“There’s an old saying – ‘You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her sing’,” he said. “In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it.”
“I purposely chose the most difficult scientific word I could to show this is not an erotic scene,” he added. “There’s nothing like a nine-syllable word to chase Eros off the premises.”
Read Wolfe’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.
“I blush to read my offending prose” – Iain Hollingshead
British journalist and novelist Iain Hollingshead received the 2006 award for his book Twenty Something, specifically because of his description of sex on page 46 of his novel, in which he writes:
“I can feel her breasts against her chest. I cup my hands round her face and start to kiss her properly. She slides one of her slender legs in between mine.
Oh Jack, she was moaning now, her curves pushed up against me, her crotch taut against my bulging trousers, her hands gripping fistfuls of my hair.
She reaches for my belt. I groan too, in expectation. And then I’m inside her, and everything is pure white as we’re lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles.”
Judges were particularly keen to highlight the use of the phrase “bulging trousers”, and upon receiving the award, Holligshead wrote an entire article in the Daily Telegraph about the experience.
He said when he first discovered his book had been shortlisted, he “wasn’t too ashamed” because he was “sure I wouldn’t win”.
Yet, when he was announced as the winner, he wrote “I blush to read my offending prose now […] apparently the judges wriggled with mirth at [some of the phrasing] and I don’t blame them. Shamefully, it could have been even worse.”
“There’s something very British, of course, about celebrating failure. Some writers deserve to be taken down a peg or two, but most nominees take the awards with the good humour with which they’re intended. […] But there’s also something very British about the whole approach to sex. We’re good at smut, less good at genuine erotica. It is difficult to imagine the French or the Italians running a similar award.
It was once said that the English have hot-water bottles rather than sex lives. I think it’s more that we’re still not sufficiently grown-up to read and write about it properly.
No matter. It’s all harmless fun. Until now, friends’ concerns about my budding literary career have revolved around the possibility that I might, unfairly, be confused with the rather more successful Alan Hollinghurst, author of The Line of Beauty.
Since this surprise victory, I feel we’re on a level playing field. And he can keep his Booker Prize.”
Read Hollingshead’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.
“I deserve a Blue Peter badge for my description of sex” – Janet Ellis
Not an eventual winner of the award, and so placed at the end of this short list, but Janet Ellis nonetheless makes an appearance after her novel The Butcher’s Hook was nominated for the 2016 award, and she wrote a lengthy article in The Guardian in defence of her own book.
The panel of five judges at the Literary Review singled it out for a surprisingly agricultural passage in which Ellis’s heroine Anne consummates her passion for butcher’s apprentice Fub.
“‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.’ He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.”
In her article, Ellis claims that she should be praised, rather than singled out negatively, for being willing to write about sex, because “I didn’t set out to titillate or shock, but to have skirted around the issue would have been cowardly. I didn’t let imaginary hecklers get in the way of what I wanted to write, or worry someone who’d watched me when they were a child would suffer the trauma of finding out I was a grown woman after all.”
“Writing about writing about sex is also difficult, of course. If you’re not describing what happens (when you can use all the available words any which way you choose, in an attempt to make a very old act seem new) you’re a hostage to fortune. Every phrase risks alerting the double entendre police, who are eager to nudge each other in the ribs if anything naughty arises (see?).
The paragraphs they’ve pulled out (sorry) for the shortlist are scarcely erotic, and weren’t designed to be, but the cumulative effect must have caused some flushing at least. I take some comfort from the fact that if, after such an avalanche, my writing stood out like a ski pole, I must be doing something right.”
So, dear readers, what do you think? How should writers react to winning prizes of the ilk of the Bad Sex Awards? With good humour and grace? Or are they right to feel aggrieved and challenge the ethos behind the award? Should they react at all? Sebastian Faulks, a previous winner in 1998, ignored the award at the time; but then paid homage to his ‘achievement’ with a couple of references to the experience in his 2015 novel Where my heart used to beat.
There’s no easy answer, of course; but let us know your thoughts in the comments below.