Bad Sex Award: 'Subatomic bisexual orgy' takes prize

Manil Suri wins Literary Review's dubious honour, but is one man's 'geologic disaster' another's great sex?

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:45 ON Wed 4 Dec 2013

AFTER reading the description of sex served up by Manil Suri in his novel The City of Devi, one could be forgiven for thinking: "I'll have what she's having". The passage, desciribed by one astonished critic as a "subatomic bisexual orgy", involves exploding supernovas, quarks and atomic nuclei. The lovers "streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems". The result is a suitably hyperbolic, suitably cryptic winner of this year's Literary Review's Bad Sex Award.

Sadly, Suri - an Indian-American mathematician and author - wasn't able to collect his dubious award at a ceremony held in London last night. But his publisher did the honours, making Sunil the 21st recipient of an award few authors aspire to win. Indeed the annual award upsets a surprising number of people considering its purpose is simple enough - it is meant to “draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.

Pornographic and erotic books aren’t eligible, so none of three volumes of Fifty Shades of Grey has ever been a contender. If one was to categorise the typical Bad Sex nominee, it would be a serious author whose serious book has unwittingly dished up a description of sex that is awkward, risible or pretentious. If the naughty bits tick all three of those boxes, so much the better. 

Many people are not amused, however. Indeed Jonathan Beckman, assistant editor of the Literary Review, felt moved to write a piece for The Independent this year defending the event.

Acknowledging that the award has been mocked for being both “puerile and prudish” - an odd combination - and damned as the invention of sweaty-palmed former public schoolboys with a view of sex warped by fumbling encounters in the dormitory, he insists the knockers don’t get it.

Prizes are “just a form of criticism, arguably the most influential we have,” says Beckman. “And books rightly expose themselves to criticism - a healthy culture relies on incisive and robust critics - from the moment they are released into the world.”

They do indeed. And one of the apparent contradictions of the Bad Sex Award is that many of the books shortlisted for this year’s prize - and previous prizes - have been acclaimed by critics. Suri's The City of Devi, for example, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

My Education by Susan Choi, was a front-runner for this year’s award. The Washington Post’s Ron Charles says the tale of a graduate student who has an affair with her tutor’s wife contains some of the year’s “smartest writing”. But Charles acknowledges that the line “Often my flesh went so dry we would squeak like a rubber shoe-sole on linoleum tile” was likely to end up on the Bad Sex shortlist.

It’s also hard to argue that the description of coitus in Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement isn’t worthy of some kind of award. “He flayed against me, until our bodies were slapping, and he took me into the typhoon and geologic disaster,” writes Tan, in possibly the first attempt to make the word ‘geologic’ sound saucy.

But wait a minute. The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny makes a good point when she writes that many of the passages of ‘bad sex’ selected for public mockery are, in fact, “rather well-written descriptions of sex that happen to be fumbly and awkward”. Isn’t Choi’s description of desiccated humping just a horribly accurate description of messy real-life sex?

The line is funny - deliberately so, one imagines - and vividly depicts an act that is seldom the soft-focus, heavily choreographed congress portrayed in Hollywood movies. And Choi’s prose is concise, witty and evocative.

Laurie writes that the Bad Sex Award assumes that there is “an objective scale by which the goodness or badness of sex may be judged, and a standard script from which one ought not to deviate”. The reality, she argues, is that “one person’s mediocre, embarrassing shag is another person’s idea of bliss on a stick”. In other words, Choi’s squeaky encounter on the kitchen floor may resonate fully with one reader while outraging another.

It would be wrong to take all this too seriously. The Bad Sex Award is undeniably entertaining and winning it has become something of a rite of passage for writers already embraced by readers and the literary world. Sunil's publishers took it in their stride, using his win to issue an invitation to readers to make up their own mind about his erotic prose.

Jonathan Beckman says the Literary Review doesn’t want to stop serious authors writing about sex. Indeed one of the surest ways to make it onto the shortlist is to be coy about the act, or succumb to a “near-hysterical grasping after metaphor”. But where’s the line in the sand? Authors who turn an unblinking, forensic spotlight on sex are just as likely to find themselves nominated.

The Bad Sex Award is “not a bear pit of contempt”, argues Beckman. It’s a prize that cares deeply about writing, that shows how it’s done badly so it may be done better in future. That may be so. But at times it feels smug - like the literary critic who decries an author’s prose, but whose own novel sits unpublished on a shelf in his study.

What’s the solution? How about a Good Sex Award, an idea proposed by Salon earlier this year? It could be handed out as a counterpoint to the Bad Sex Award or at a separate, glittering ceremony. If nothing else, it would certainly help sell a few books. ·