Bad Sex in Fiction and Many Kinds of Love

Manil Suri's The City of Devi
Manil Suri’s The City of Devi

Let’s take a minute to talk about bad sex. On Dec. 3, a group of literary men and women gathered at the In & Out Club in the district of St. James, central London, united with this single-minded purpose. They were gathered to announce the winner of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

“It is about treating literature as fun and slightly ridiculous,” said senior Literary Review editor, Jonathan Beckman. The unconventional prize has been annually awarded since 1993, and singles out the most egregious descriptions of sex within novels published that year. The award often highlights a lack of clear writing, as authors frequently get lost in metaphor or overwrite such scenes. It excludes erotic or pornographic works from assessment.

“I think it is quite a good selection,” said Beckman of the shortlist. “A lot of them have a lot of stamina; they go on for quite a long time.” Ultimately, however, it was novelist Manil Suri who emerged the winner for his novel The City of Devi. Suri garnered the prize for his sex scene involving three central characters. He writes:

“Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.”

Cosmic lust was only one of many different interpretations of sexual intercourse highlighted by the Literary Review this year. There are, it seems, many ways to write poorly about sex. You could use Brie as an instrument of seduction like nominee Jonathan Grimwood did in The Last Banquet, or compare drops of sweat to crystal ladybirds like nominee Eric Reinhardt in The Victoria System, or simply use the phrase “the few stray hairs along the shaft of his male rod” as Woody Guthrie did in House of Earth.

And a win, or a nomination, is by no means a declaration of bad writing outside of the offending passages; many a talented author has fallen short in this task. Previous recipients of the prize include a posthumously nominated Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, while John Updike received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. Suri, meanwhile, has previously been shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Assessing bad writing amid the good can be challenging. Beckman, who is also a judge of the prize, believes the award does present some particular hurdles. “It is not a typical prize in that publishers are happy to submit their books for review,” said Beckman, “so we do have to go out and look probably more than other prizes. I’m sure we miss things every year, but what prize doesn’t?” Between some clandestine snooping in bookshops and helpful recommendations from a network of readers, however, the Review compiles a list of nominees each year that is unrestricted by geography. Suri grew up in India and now resides in America, while last year’s prize recipient, Nancy Huston, was born in Canada and now lives in France.  

Despite an increasing diversity of nationalities among prize winners, however, there remains a noticeable gender disparity. Huston is one of only three women to be awarded the prize. Beckman believes there may be several factors for this gap. Men probably publish more literary fiction than their female counterparts, for various wider economic reasons, and men may be more prone to sexual bravado. “Men, when they write about sex, they tend to get a kind of rather forced swagger about the whole thing,” said Beckman. “I suspect a lot of them feel that their own sexual prowess will be judged on the sexual prowess of whoever they are writing about, and that tends to lead to some of the more ridiculous language.”

Regardless of the judgments pronounced on their language, the award’s cheeky and lighthearted nature, according to Beckman, tends to provoke a gracious, if sometimes slightly bemused, response by recipients. In accepting the award on behalf of Suri, his publisher Bloomsbury chose to quote Tolstoy: “There are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” Perhaps there had been enough mention of sex for one night.