Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Chapter and verse on bad sex is just a clever stunt

So Alastair Campbell is worse at sex than Tony Blair - worse at writing about it, that is. The Literary Review has published this year's shortlist for the Bad Sex Award and Blair hasn't made it to the final eight.

His description of devouring "the love Cherie gave" in his recent A Journey has been deemed "ostensibly" non-fiction by the award's judges and does not, strictly speaking, qualify for the prize.

Campbell, on the other hand, seems well on course to win with passages from his novel Maya, which features a protagonist who admits to thinking "the walls were going to fall down as we stroked and screamed our way through hours of pleasure".

Blair is probably relieved, although it has to be said that Campbell finds himself in very august company.

Jonathan Franzen, Christos Tsiolkas (who wrote this year's water-cooler novel, The Slap) and Neel Mukherjee are among those shortlisted. Tsiolkas has been nominated partly for the laziness of sentences like "they f***ed for ages" and partly for the sheer quantity of sex in his book. As for Franzen, he has been nominated for a passage in his new bestseller Freedom that talks of body parts and bodily functions in a passage about two young people who get fantastically imaginative during an enforced separation. In the book as a whole, the passage is note-perfect.

The Bad Sex Award was invented in 1993 by Auberon Waugh, the then editor of the Literary Review. Apparently, his initial idea was that there should be an annual award for great writing about sex - but in the end this was turned on its head and the rather more newsworthy idea of the Bad Sex Award was born.

It caught on partly because there's a thorny and interesting truth in the idea that sex is hard to write about and partly because there are those in our culture who like a good shaming - especially when those to be shamed are artists, especially when sex is at issue.

It is said that in later years Waugh regretted his Bad Sex Award and worried that it put people off writing about sex.

Luckily, I don't think a great novelist would care much about this jokey award and its public schoolboy mentality, but the fact remains that the scrutiny the award puts on fictive sex - and comments like Martin Amis's when he said that sex was "impossible" to write about - certainly flag up the dangers. The key, we are told, is not to use metaphors but to tell it like it is.

Still, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some writers chose to draw the proverbial veil as a result of all this.

I don't think prizes for bad anything are a good idea. I hate "Golden Turkey" awards - or whatever they are called. It's hard enough for creatives to brave the blank page without the added threat of a public shaming hanging over their heads. The Bad Sex Award just about escapes being unutterably cruel and mean because there's a big dose of humour involved - and because we're all prurient.

But imagine if it was a "bad descriptions of weather award", or a "bad descriptions of landscape award" or even just a bad writing award.

Would passages be read out at the Literary Review's annual party to guffaws from the glitterati as they smugly quaffed champagne?

I don't think so.

That would just be childish. After all, almost any piece of writing can be made to sound bad if you read it aloud in a silly voice. Despite all this, the Bad Sex Award will go on - and that's because in one respect it is a thing of genius - a genius publicity stunt.

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