Illustration by Vivian Shih

Putting Penis to Paper: When Sex Writing Goes Terribly Wrong

The spokesperson for this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award explains why literary copulation is so often terrible.

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Nov 29 2016, 5:18pm

Illustration by Vivian Shih

While most people can pretty deftly articulate the elements of bad sex—premature ejaculation, vaginal dryness, crying—the elements of bad sex writing can be harder to pin down, even if you know it when you see it.

The following sex scene from Morrissey's List of the Lost, which won the UK Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award last year, is an appropriate place to begin:

At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza's breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra's howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza's body except for the otherwise central zone. Both fell awkwardly off the bed, each tending to their own anguish yet still laughing an impaired discomfort of giggles whilst curving into a hunched disadvantage.

Why is this so bad? A reader, in an attempt to follow what is actually transpiring—sex—might find herself swept away by such absurd abstractions as "clamorous rollercoaster coil" or "hunched disadvantage" and then unable to find her way back. Yes, sex can be frenzied and wacky, even to the point where it feels like breasts are "barrel-rolling" across "howling mouths," but there is a rootlessness, a breathlessness to the language that floats above, and obscures, the reality of the scene. The lived, physical reality—the reality that allows a reader to picture or understand—becomes secondary.

According to Frank Brinkley, assistant editor at Literary Review and spokesperson for this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which will be awarded tomorrow, the most recurring crime in terms of bad sex writing is hyperbole—as exemplified in Morrissey's "giggling snowball of full-figured copulation" and "bulbous salutation." Other nominees from this year use similarly ridiculous florid language: Ethan Canin (A Doubter's Almanac) compares sex to a "a brisk tennis game or a summer track meet." Janet Ellis (The Butcher's Hook) refers to a man's erection as an "audacious swell," and when a woman orgasms, Ellis writes, "I spill like grain from a bucket."

Eliza's breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra's howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation.

When describing sex, Brinkley says, authors feel moved to put a strain on language they wouldn't ordinarily. "Writers try to make their sex scenes the most wonderful, the most orgasmic, the most fulfilling that they can be," he says. "Or you'll find an overreliance on language, so authors will use mixed metaphor or very odd similes to try to make the scene seem inventive and new."

Unlike bad sex, which is often obviously recognizable, bad sex writing can be hard to define; Literary Review describes its selections somewhat nebulously as "poorly written, perfunctory, or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction."

In many cases, Brinkley says, sex becomes a blind spot for novelists who can masterfully describe scenes of street fairs or sunsets or even shitting. "You end up with this really overblown imagery to try and make light of the act or find a new interesting way of describing it, when actually sticking to the mechanics of it can be much more successful," he explains. "One of the hallmarks of bad sex is that the passage really stands out in the texture of the book as a whole, and sometimes that's because the writer is approaching it with a slightly different attitude."

Last year's illustrious winner, Morrissey. Photo via Flickr.

Novelist and writing professor Elizabeth Mosier says that writing about sex should be grounded and embodied in the sense, not relying on over-intellectualization or the stylized vocabulary of pornography. "Excellent writing of any kind should be embodied. It's not abstract. Some of those winners intellectualize sex. You wonder, Where is it happening? You're almost confused," she says. "People are unpredictable and complex, and sexual behavior is just one of the many manifestations that writers can use. You don't want to take behavior that shows humanity and do it a disservice by taking a sharp right turn away from what you know to be true to write from a preconceived narrative, which is what bad writing is: abstract and also based on concepts that you don't actually believe are true."

What makes writing strong, Mosier maintains, is not the "titillating" vocabulary of pornography—throbbing cocks, etc.—but rather colloquial language that conveys something about a character's mentality or the setting of the work.

Bad sex writing, then, is so exciting and funny to readers (and critics) because of all the unexpected ways it can be bad. This year, a passage from Tom Connolly's Men Like Air earned a nomination for an unusual reason. In one scene, a woman goes down on a man in an airport bathroom, and the man reaches to grab her passport from her back pocket so he can see if her last name is actually what she says it is. Upon first read, the encounter might seem like your standard bit of blow-job-related plot engineering, which is not great but also not horrific.

The walkway to the terminal was all carpet, no oxygen. Dilly bundled Finn into the first restroom on offer, locked the cubicle door and pulled at his leather belt. "You're beautiful," she told him, going down on to her haunches and unzipping him. He watched her passport rise gradually out of the back pocket of her jeans in time with the rhythmic bobbing of her buttocks as she sucked him. He arched over her back and took hold of the passport before it landed on the pimpled floor. Despite the immediate circumstances, human nature obliged him to take a look at her passport photo.

Then, at some point, you realize the anatomical impossibility of what's going on. "You can be carried away with the excitement of that, but then think, Actually, how long are this guy's arms?" Brinkley says. "How can he reach that far?"

In scene from Gayle Foreman's Leave Me, another 2016 nominee, you find a level of breathlessness, another common offense: In the offending passage, Forman describes a female character standing, "her dress a puddle on the floor... her knees knocking together, like she was a virgin, like this was the first time." She feels her lover's chest rapturously to find his heart "pounding wildly, in tandem with hers." As Brinkley wryly puts it it, this "seems to get a little too carried away with itself."

The Review has been holding the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards since 1993. It was created by Rhoda Koenig, a literary critic, and Auberon Waugh, at that time editor of Literary Review, who felt that sex scenes were becoming increasingly gratuitous in literary fiction. "It was almost as if authors were being asked to add sex scenes by their editors because then there'd be a news story saying, 'Have you read so-and-so's new novel? It's got a racy sex scene in it,'" says Brinkley. "They wanted to set up an award where they could make fun of awards and poke fun at that worrying trend in literary fiction."

Even Mr. Hughes's penis had a seductive pin-striped foreskin.

The first author to claim the prestigious prize was Melvyn Bragg, whose selection included the following description: "Eyes closed, fingers inside you, reaching into the melting fluid rubbered silk—a relief map of mysteries—the eager clitoris, reeking of you, our tongues imitating the fingers, your hands gripping and stroking me but also careful not to excite too much." Since then, the list of writers considered for the award has encompassed a wide swath of genres and levels of critical acclaim: Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Manil Suri have won the award, as have lesser known authors, like Wendy Perriam, whose passage from Speak Softly won her the 2002 prize by virtue of its fixation on the eroticism of pin-stripes: "Weirdly, he was clad in pin-stripes at the same time as being naked. Pin-stripes were erotic, the uniform of fathers, two-dimensional fathers. Even Mr. Hughes's penis had a seductive pin-striped foreskin."

Then there's the yearly backlash, from authors and critics of the mind that highlighting bad writing is bad and mean. This year, Irish author Rob Doyle wrote a piece for the Irish Times, "In praise of dirty books: let's write and read about sex," in which he accuses the award of participating in the "Shame Police."

"Every year the English, that sniggering, belligerent, self-hating race, make sport by mocking a novel they deem to include poorly written and gratuitous sex scenes," he wrote. "I find this Bad Sex Award fairly silly, and hence have always imagined it would be a great honor to receive it. (If I ever do win one, I intend to tour the streets of London in a cavalcade while wearing a cape, like Mussolini.)"

Of all the authors who've actually won the award, Morrissey was the least good-humored about it—he told the Uruguayan paper El Observador that "there are too many good things in life to let these repulsive horrors pull you down"—but writers usually take it in stride. "Morrissey was not a good sport. Most I would say are, and you normally get a comment from nominated people that might be quite funny. They know that it's not a serious award, and they might sell a few more books off the back of it," Brinkley says.

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This year The Erotic Review, another U.K. literary review magazine, said they would start a good sex award, an initiative that various reviews and critics propose every few years. "We have laughed enough," Lisa Moylett, the publisher of The Erotic Review, told The Times in October. "We are throwing down the gauntlet. No more 'bad sex' writing. That is not something we should be celebrating."

But Brinkley doesn't see the appeal of awarding good sex writing. "My feeling about a good sex award is that it would be a little bit like a 'good description of sunsets' award, a 'good opening chapter' award," he says. "You hope any novel published has that, and actually pointing it out seems a bit strange. There are so many books where passages of sex are good. It's not that the sex described is wonderful or athletic or satisfying to everyone involved; it's because the writing is good. The bad sex award is bad writing rather than bad copulation."