Mancunian singer, vegetarian and now writer, Morrissey this year became the most recent recipient of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for his debut novel, List of the Lost — a tale about a cursed teenage track relay team in 1970s suburban Boston whose embarrassingly bad sex scenes attracted attention beyond just the Literary Review. Pretty much universally panned, List of the Lost’s critics made much of its bizarre dialogue and nonsensical plot, but what really swayed the Literary Review judges was a scene involving two of its characters, Eliza and Ezra, as they get to know each other a little better — a scene in which Morrissey added the phrase ‘bulbous salutation’ to the already long list of erection metaphors.
Perhaps one of the most self-knowing recipients of the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards was Tom Wolfe’s 2004 winning novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, which follows the naïve, working class titular character through her time at the fictional Ivy League Dupont University where she encounters rich kids, sexual temptation and depression. In an interview with The Guardian, Wolfe stated ‘I have tried to make the sex un-erotic. I will have failed if anyone gets the least bit excited’ and with such bland descriptions as ‘Slither slither slither slither went the tongue’ and ‘moan moan moan moan moan went Hoyt’, the Literary Review certainly agreed, recognizing him with its 12th annual award.
Indian-American writer and mathematician Manil Suri’s third novel, The City of Devi, was published in 2013 completing his trilogy — the first of which was 2001’s The Death of Vishnu, on the Hindu Trinity. While reviewers from the likes of Wall Street Journal and The Times Literary Supplement praised Suri’s depictions of sex, the Literary Review disagreed, citing The City of Devi’s climactic three-way sex scene between physicist Karun, his wife and young, gay Muslim Jaz as their deciding factor in bestowing the 2013 Bad Sex in Fiction Award — in particular, Suri’s hyperbolic orgasm that sees the trio ‘streak like superheroes past suns and solar system’ and ‘dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei’.
Proving even the most acclaimed authors aren’t immune to the odd terrible sex scene, in 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Norman Mailer was posthumously bestowed the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for his final novel The Castle in the Forest. Though well received by many a critic, the book’s subject matter – Adolf Hitler’s incestuous family tree – was bound to cause some controversy and it was a sex scene involving Hitler’s parents Klara and Alois (also blood relatives) including the line ‘ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety’ that scooped Mailer the not-so-coveted prize.
Not to say that male authors are more prone to writing awful sex scenes than female writers are, but considering the Bad Sex in Fiction Award’s recipient gender breakdown, there may be a trend developing. But there are some female recipients (three of them, in fact) out there, one of which was Rachel Johnson — sister of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London — and her 2008 novel, Shire Hell. The follow-up to her 2006 book Notting Hell about self-important, wealthy Londoners, Shire Hell’s description of a character’s orgasm as a ‘mounting, Wagnerian crescendo’ helped secure Johnson the award.
The same year that Rachel Johnson scooped the award proper, the Literary Review decided it was high time to recognise one writer’s lifelong contribution to terrible fictitious sex, and the winner of the first ever Bad Sex in Fiction Lifetime Achievement Award was American writer John Updike. Alongside his 2008 shortlisted novel The Widows of Eastwick, which included a particularly gratuitous oral sex scene, Updike had been previously nominated for the award several times for works including Villages (which included such gems as ‘pure seminal yearning’) and Seek My Face — making him a more than worthy recipient for the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.
A year before Morrissey ever even dreamed of getting the Bad Sex in Fiction Award in his grasp, celebrated Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri’s The Age of Magic — about a group of filmmakers travelling from Paris to Switzerland as they make a documentary on the notion of Arcadia — was the target of the Literary Review. Okri’s status as a Man Booker Prize winner apparently couldn’t help him, with the Bad Sex in Fiction judges taking issue with his comparing of a woman with a lamp (‘When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight’) and a subsequent climactic point that conveniently coincides with an oh-so clichéd metaphor — ‘Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off’.
In 2011, Snow Falling on Cedars author David Guterson battled it out against such heavyweights as Japanese surrealist Haruki Murakami and Hungarian postmodernist Péter Nádas to win the least coveted prize in literature. A modern take on the Oedipus myth, Ed King tells the story of its titular character — a man born of an illicit affair between a married actuary and his 15-year-old au pair, given up for adoption as an infant and who has become an internet tycoon. Being an Oedipal tale, it doesn’t take a genius to guess where Ed’s life is heading, and it was a mother-son tryst employing such terms as ‘back door’ and ‘front parlor’ that scooped Guterson the award, though he accepted it with good grace and humor stating, “Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I’m not in the least bit surprised.”
Joining Rachel Johnson as one of the few female recipients of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is Nancy Huston and her exploration of female sexuality, Infrared. It’s perhaps surprising considering that around this time the Fifty Shades trilogy was also released, but it’s important to remember that the award doesn’t recognize works geared purely towards erotica, badly interpreted or otherwise. Regardless, when Infrared’s protagonist Rena Greenblatt reveals taking infrared pics of her lovers mid-coitus, Literary Review knew they were in for a deliciously awful time, highlighting Huston’s use of such creative lines as “my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water” and “the carnal pink palpitation” as a driving force behind bestowing her the award.
From the most recent winner to the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards’ inaugural recipient way back in 1993 — British writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg earned the first award with his 1990 novel A Time to Dance, a romantic drama set in the Lake District telling of the illicit love affair between its nameless protagonist, a retired banker, and a young Irish woman. The late Auberon Waugh, former Literary Review editor and co-founder of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, claimed he had to threaten the writer with a ‘Melvyn hate rally’ before he would agree to accept the award in person, though with such clichéd descriptions of the female body as ‘a relief map of mysteries’, what did Bragg really expect?