When, in 1993, the editor in chief of Literary Review, Auberon Waugh, together with the critic Rhoda Koenig established the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, their declared goal was to expose what they saw as the deplorable ubiquity of “crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” Extracts by the shortlisted and winning novelists in the many years since might well leave a reader thinking there really is nothing harder to write about than fucking. (Without a doubt they will leave the reader rolling on the floor.) Back in the days before most MFA students had become too fearful of being called out for politically “problematic” content to include sex scenes in the fiction they submit to workshop, a teacher knew what three pitfalls to expect: either the description would be too clinical or it would be too coy or it would be too smutty. Bad sex writing happens even to seriously good writers (John Updike, famed for his bravura powers of description and the meticulous elegance of his style, was also the winner of a Bad Sex in Fiction Lifetime Achievement Award), giving strength to the idea that describing this particular human behavior, however important a part of life it may be, is so fraught, so likely to break the spell every novelist strives to cast and maintain over the course of a book, that the best thing might indeed be just to avoid it.
Jonathan Franzen, in an essay on books about sex, described the unpleasant feeling he experiences as a reader at the signs of a looming sex scene:
Often the sentences begin to lengthen Joyceanly. My own anxiety rises sympathetically with the author’s, and soon enough the fragile bubble of the imaginative world is pricked by the hard exigencies of naming body parts and movements—the sameness of it all.
The sameness of it all: one of the hallmarks of pornography. “When the sex is persuasively rendered,” his complaint went on, “it tends to read autobiographically.” True, and, if not off-putting to everyone, this surely risks making many other readers besides Franzen cringe. But the greatest challenge, the one that even the most gifted writers almost never transcend, remains the limits of our erotic vocabulary, now and forever “hopelessly contaminated through its previous use by writers whose aim is simply to turn the reader on.” Having thus hit the nail on the head, Franzen himself went on to be shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, for a passage in his fourth novel, Freedom.
So what happens when someone sets out to write fiction that is “100 percent pornographic and 100 percent high art”? According to Garth Greenwell, that was one…
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