The “winner” of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award was announced on Tuesday. The recipient of this mean-spirited slap in the face was David Guterson for scenes in his novel Ed King. I haven’t read the book, but I did read an “offending” passage on the Guardian online and I have to say, it seemed to me to be a perfectly reasonable bit of writing:
“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)”.
In particular, the Literary Review’s senior editor Jonathan Beckman seemed to object to the terms ‘front parlour’ and ‘back door’. He is quoted thus: “He says in brackets that these are quaint, prudish terms but I don’t think that is sufficient justification for using them.”
Is it just me, or does Mr Beckman sound like a self-important prig? Leaving that aside, as the senior editor of The Literary Review, he ought to have heard of something called voice. It’s how a writer conveys character through such things as choice of vocabulary and sentence structure. I would say that what is going on here is a perfectly valid example of voice.
Come to think of it, perhaps Mr Beckman should pay a little more attention to this question of voice. It was, after all, voice that prompted my rather harsh judgement of him. I was able to form an impression of his priggishness from just one sentence.
Everyone knows that writing sex scenes is difficult. No doubt it can produce some clunky writing now and then. But then there are plenty of example of clunky writing about all sorts of things, so why single out clunky writing on sex?
I think the answer has something to do with the British attitude to sex. Remember the old farce, No Sex Please, We’re British? As far as I can see, the Bad Sex Award is a snooty version of the same attitude. I think the Literary Review would do better to establish an award that celebrates good writing, rather than sniggering behind its hand at people who at least had the balls to attempt the impossible. Because, yes, writing sex is impossible. Writing anything is impossible. It’s making the attempt that counts.
So I’m on the side of the nominees. And on their behalf I say to the Literary Review – and everyone else who takes delight in this tired, pointless ceremony – grow up.
Now I know people say it is just a bit of fun. Or that it’s meant to bring writers who have got too big for their boots down a peg or two. No one is exempt from it. Even the darling of the literati, Haruki Murakami, was short-listed this year. Forgive me if I’m wrong about this, but isn’t Murakami supposed to be a surrealist writer, celebrated for his startling images and insights? So why, as Alison Flood does in her Guardian article, sarcastically draw attention to the following as an “immortal line”?: “A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought”. Yes, okay, it may not be literally true, but Murakami is not a writer of the literal, so within his universe, I would think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to write.
Any passage taken out of context can be made to seem risible. When a writer attempts to write anything, they are exposing themselves to ridicule, misunderstanding, rejection, abuse. Multiply this a thousand times for writing sex.
As a writer, the Bad Sex Award upsets me. It makes me angry. I feel attacked by it. I think it’s anti-writing, and, yes, anti-sex. Apparently, the winners usually accept the award in a good spirit, as Guterson did this year. All I can say is that they are better people than me. If I ever did win I would tell the Literary Review where they can stick their plaster foot trophy. Then, perhaps, they really will understand what bad sex is.