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Vile Bodies, or Bad Sex Virgins

December 14, 2011 | by

Hendrick Goltzius, The Fall of Man, 1616, oil on canvas. Courtesy The National Gallery of Art.

We have to get our stories straight, she and I, but first we have to get John Updike’s stories straight. I have just bought the Everyman edition of The Maples Stories, and I am trying to describe to my date the arc of the Maples’ marriage and why I think these stories are successfully erotic, how they bring the best out of Updike.

I am actually talking about myself, about all the stuff I’ve read, but that’s okay. As last of the male narcissists, Updike would understand. She understands. We are both rehearsing our lines for the evening over a curry somewhere in North London. It is exceptionally, reproachfully cold, and neither of us feels particularly well-equipped to withstand the inclement weather. My shirt makes me look like a Bond villain and feels like a rumpled parachute. The curry is the wrong kind of hot. She asks the most difficult question of all.

“How are you going to pass me off?”

I struggle to reply. She is both my date and not my date. She is the girlfriend of an old friend, and I have been instructed to show her a good time, in return for temporary London accommodation. I am being conspicuously trusted. We are getting to know each other, having only met twice before tonight, but I must be very transparent because she quickly settles on an apt description of our relationship.

“I know,” she says, patting me gently on the arm, “we’ll say I’m your chaperone.”

She makes me sound like a debutante and, in a sense, this is accurate. This is the first time I have attended the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, but the same is true for her. She at least knows London. I have only ever been a visitor here. Without her, I would be lost. Or rather, without her, I would get lost.

Another old friend of mine has advised us to arrive early, so as not to miss out on the gin. Having vowed to restrict myself to a couple of drinks, I fear a Tartarus of complimentary booze and maddening lines at the bar, of genteel, shuffling stampedes. We enter the In and Out Naval and Military Club on St. James’s Square right behind Sir V. S. and Lady Naipaul, and, as we head upstairs, I notice Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, and Nancy Dell’Olio, an Italian lawyer whose celebrity on this island is impossible to succinctly describe. We talk to a very enthusiastic media professional who delightedly describes us as Bad Sex virgins. Abstinence may not be the sustainable option.

The Bad Sex in Fiction Awards were founded in 1993 by Auberon Waugh, then editor of the Literary Review, and they have since very successfully cultivated a reputation for polite notoriety. Waugh’s intention was to discourage the gratuitous inclusion of scenes of a sexual nature by writers seemingly desperate for attention. This plan, as his son Alexander concedes tonight, has backfired. Writers respect and fear this award, but they also court it. Alexander Waugh explains that publishers will now encourage their authors to lace their sex scenes with added “spunk” and recounts how former political spin doctor Alastair Campbell was deservingly cheated out of last year’s award simply for wanting it too much. He then introduces Arthur House and Lucy Beresford, who are tasked with animating dead prose, or, rather, with reading the six especially awful stretches of writing from the twelve finalists.

This they do very well. People around me are laughing. My chaperone is laughing. But I am wincing.

Perhaps the most upsetting example comes from Christos Tsiolkas, author of Dead Europe and The Slap, for an extremely visceral, extremely long description of cunnilingus. Having likened his lover's genitals to “a cellar filled with a heady store of wines and spirits, all emitting wafts of gaseous bouquets that recalled all the possible eruptions of the body,” the narrator goes on to describe an act of erotic exsanguination from which the following is a mere extract: “and as I licked at her cunt and arse I opened my mouth wide and bit into her thigh and I did not hear her squeal for all I was aware of was the clean neat puncture and the blood that began to flow from it which fell onto my tongue and into my mouth and my gut, and her blood pumped through me and calmed the agonies in my belly and head and I knew I was alive.” I pass on the charcuterie.

Barbara Windsor, a debatably representative icon of British public sexuality, whose status might be most eloquently explained by recourse to YouTube, ascends the podium and announces the winner. It is David Guterson, for an intriguingly intimate encounter from Ed King, his version of the Oedipus myth, which he beautifully renders with the sorts of euphemisms (“front parlor,” “back porch,” “skin flute”) one might normally associate with Dr. Tobias Fünke. The passage ends in a shower scene (“Ed stood with his hands at the back of his head, like someone just arrested, while she abused him with a bar of soap”) that has most of the room shrieking like Janet Leigh. Next to Tsiolkas, this is merely hilarious. A statement is read from the absent Guterson, consisting of a single, dignified, and perfectly balanced sentence. “Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I am not in the least bit surprised.”

After the announcement, spare copies of the novels lie about the stage. We consider purloining Stephen King’s 11/22/63 as an ironic Christmas present for her boyfriend, my friend.

As if on cue, I receive a text from him.

“Hope you’re having fun! Behave yourself, x.”

I put the book back where it belongs.

But a serious critical point is being made. This award, generously international in scope, is surely the only such recognition accorded to literary style. Jonathan Beckman, an editor at the Literary Review and one of the judges, recently defended the award from its detractors, observing that “the mere presence of a sex scene does not inevitably lead to a pillorying.” Discussing a passage from Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, full of strained lyricism and gasping similes, Beckman noticed “a franticness of comparison,” and argued that metaphor “is vulnerable to overuse” in purportedly erotic writing.

Another problem is the way it sounds. Many of the nominated passages lapse into an unseductive frenzy, forgetting that the rhythms of intimacy are just as often halting, or measured, or even just smoothly regular. Tsiolkas’s long and bloody aria is unusually difficult to finish, but there is a more general problem with long sentences that surge toward an inevitably diffuse climax, as if they were written in time to the syncopation of Ravel’s Bolero. Here, for instance, is Dori Ostermiller: “Tracking my fingertips over his olive skin, I'm struck by the potency and fragility of blood and breath and bone—these intricate, insubstantial casings that separate us, keep us alive.” Differently bad are the many short, virtuosically imprecise, single-clause sentences of Lee Child’s The Affair. Here, there’s lots of pushing and “panting,” lots of “breathing hard,” lots of things going “faster, harder,” again and again, or sometimes “deep and easy.” It could be sex. It could also be cross-country skiing.

I haven’t read the shortlisted novels, but I wonder how much importance is placed on these episodes. What are they meant to convey? The danger is in stylistically isolating the description of sex, emphasizing its illusory apartness from life, or, in the invented world of a fictional narrative, from character and situation. Updike was sometimes guilty of this, which must be one reason why he was posthumously honored for his lifetime achievement in writing bad sex. But mostly, he, like Mary Gaitskill and Alan Hollinghurst and Angela Carter and Alasdair Gray, understood the different registers of experience between which desire and its consequences thrive.

Later, at an after-party, I ask Beckman for an example of good-sex writing. He tells me that he was convinced by some of the passages from Sarah Hall’s recent collection The Beautiful Indifference. I mention that I admired Colm Tóibín’s story “The Pearl Fishers” from The Empty Family. There’s a long sentence here, too, but it is retrospectively delivered and reveals something of the narrator’s anxiety, his retrospective sense of the fragility of this encounter.

I wondered if he would avoid me, if he would pretend that nothing had happened between us, if he would pretend that he had not left marks on my back with his fingernails and made muffled sounds that went on and on as he came all over my chest and stomach, if he would try to make me forget that I had fed his sweet, thick, pungent, lemony sperm into my mouth with my fingers as if it were jam, desperately trying to make sure that none was wasted.

I produce my notebook and smugly read it to my friend, the one with the gin. He eyes me suspiciously. “When was the last time you ate jam with your fingers?”

By now, my pledge to behave myself has expired. I am awkwardly wedged between two comfortable chairs and negotiating between bottles of wine. A woman sweeps her hair into a candle and momentarily ignites. I start speaking bad sentences to her and to her friend dressed in a radically prim black dress, which she knowingly describes as “a bit Protestant,” and an old friend of an old friend. I am speaking about myself and about all the stuff I have read. I have been a terrible date. I look across the room to my chaperone. She indicates it is time for us to leave.

Jonathan Gharraie is the British correspondent for The Daily.

4 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. GZ | December 19, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I wonder how readers of the Paris Review blog would define ‘good-sex writing’. As for myself, context is everything.

  2. Joe | December 19, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Jerzy Kosinski’s grotesque sexual descriptions perfectly suit his perverse tendency but certainly don’t strike me as realistic or pleasurable.

  3. Anna | December 21, 2011 at 7:31 am

    I’d say that Tsiolkas’ description was the most grotesque. In any case, it’s really weird to read a heterosexual sex scene written by a gay man (ie Tsiolkas). It never reads true. Then there are scenes that are written by authors with questionable sexual experience. I still can’t forget the most absurd sex scene that I read was in Michel Houellbecq’s Platform. The description of a woman rolling back the man’s foreskin with only her tongue boggled my mind.

  4. GZ | December 26, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Houellebecq is a good one to bring up. I’ve only read his first two, but that foreskin thing sounds like burlesque, as opposed to realism. This seems to be the direction his work had taken.

    Anna has established the criteria of physical plausibility. The language itself may be mimetic and the metaphors appropriate, but if the acts themselves don’t ring true, the reader will turn away.

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