What is it about authors writing about sex in literary fiction that makes the literary establishment so aggravated? Every year, around this time, the British Bad Sex in Fiction award sails into view, with a plethora of nominations for otherwise highly esteemed authors who have apparently been guilty of writing about sex in a crude and gratuitous fashion. The aim of the award, established 14 years ago by the Literary Review, is to make these authors cease and desist – refrain from sullying the mind of the high-brow reader with their shameless, tasteless sex chatterings.
Reading what the organisers have to say, you’d imagine these literary desperados are a shocking, smutty bunch, the fiction equivalent of a man in a plastic raincoat standing at the traffic lights, ready and waiting to make himself famous for an hour. But no matter what the organisers will tell you, the truth of the matter is this: forget ‘gratuitous sex’, the real story is that even finding a literary novelist who writes at length about sex at all is a tough task.While there are a few novelists who will write candidly about sex – Anne Enright, Ronan Bennett and Sarah Waters spring to mind – they are massively outflanked by the novelists who would rather write endlessly and gratuitously about the following subjects: 1. cups of tea; 2. Their character’s midlife crisis; and 3. Their character’s attempt to write a novel. When it comes to sex, novelists are forever gratefully fading to black rather than daring to even subtly document sexual trysts in their fiction.
This, you have to figure, is at least partially because writing about sex is so damn awkward. As Anne Enright told this reporter recently, “It’s like writing about swimming – how do you write about swimming? It’s very hard to write about physical realities.” But it’s also partially because writing about sex is so actively discouraged. High-brow French films are released all the time featuring characters with existentialist crises and a need for constant sexual gratification. Yet if a British literary novelist so much as jots down a few lines about a character who might, from time to time, enjoy a spot of nookie with his wife, we’re out of our chairs instantly, waving red cards like the literary sex police.
Having read far too much stuffy literary fiction of late, I feel firstly that this is a shame and secondly that we would do well to encourage exactly the opposite tendency in our novelists. Why are we so content to leave writing about sex to Mills & Boon-type novelists and commercial writers like Danielle Steele? Isn’t sex part of the human experience and something that, as such, deserves to be documented by literary novelists? In fact, while we’re on the subject, why are we not giving out awards for the Best Sex in Literary Fiction – the descriptions of sex in a novel that convinced you as being true and accurate and brilliantly rendered?
The thing is, I have a feeling that – as often happens with the Hollywood Best and Worst Dressed Lists – you would wind up with the same nominees on both lists. In each case, you’ll find a bunch of people who consistently dare to be different and rebel against prevailing trends. To my mind, it’s no accident that the writers who have won and been nominated for this award include some of our most revered and esteemed novelists, such as Tom Wolfe and John Updike.
This year, the nominees for the Bad Sex in Fiction award included David Thewlis, Jeanette Winterson, the late Norman Mailer (who took the prize last Tuesday), Richard Milward, Ali Smith, Gary Shteyngart, Christopher Rush and Clare Clark.
Congratulations, folks – at least you’ve got guts.