Talk about performance anxiety!
The Literary Review, a monthly magazine published in London, has announced the finalists for what it calls “Britain’s Most Dreaded Literary Prize”: The Bad Sex Award.
Now in its 21st year, the prize 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 are excluded from consideration, so the thousands of imitators spawned by E L James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” are all tied up in knots for nothing.
One of the finalists — Woody Guthrie — missed witnessing this mark of dubious distinction by almost 50 years. His novel “House of Earth” was published this year, but he died in 1967, in the early days of bad sex.
Hearing the news of his own nomination, Manil Suri, the mathematician and novelist who lives in Silver Spring, Md., told me, “I must, in all modesty, declare that I can’t possibly hope to win, given the breathtakingly high standards set by my fellow nominees.”
Susan Choi is a finalist for “My Education,” about a graduate student who has an affair with her adviser’s wife. I think it’s a fantastic novel, displaying some of the smartest writing of the year — but back in June, I speculated that she might be looking at a Bad Sex Award nomination for this sentence: “Often my flesh went so dry we would squeak like a rubber shoe-sole on linoleum tile.”
Choi hadn’t heard she was a nominee until I asked for her reaction, and then she wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about this “unexpected honor.” She said via e-mail, “I don’t really know what this means. Is the award for bad sex writing? For good writing about bad sex? For making good people feel bad about sex? I can’t help but think it might widen my audience.” She notes that the main difficulty of writing about sex “is the way people react to the fact that you’ve done so!”
The other finalists this year are:
“The Last Banquet,” by Jonathan Grimwood.
“Motherland,” by William Nicholson.
“The Victoria System,” by Eric Reinhardt.
“The World Was All Before Them,” by Matthew Reynolds.
“Secrecy,” by Rupert Thomson.
On Twitter, the judges @Lit_Review released some particularly hilarious (and NSFW) passages using the hashtag #BadSex.
My own nomination this year would have been Amy Tan’s “The Valley of Amazement,” which includes this startling paroxysm of passion: “He flayed against me, until our bodies were slapping, and he took me into the typhoon and geologic disaster.”
The winner — usually male — will be announced on Dec. 3. Most years, the (un)lucky writer is a good sport about accepting the (dis)honor. In any case, the finalists are in esteemed company. Previous nominees and winners include some of the most famous writers in America, including Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and John Updike.