This year’s shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is a whole new level of cringe
Rejoice! Your long wait is over! This year’s nominees for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award are here, and once again they will make you wonder whether literary fiction authors are secretly aliens attempting to describe human sexual behavior for the inhabitants of their home planets.
The award was created in 1993 by the Literary Review to honor “an author who has produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel.” The 2016 shortlist features six nominees, mostly male (is anyone surprised?) and all plagued by a fundamental misunderstanding of sex. To convey just how awful the nominees were, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, a novel wherein a woman tries to masturbate with a doorknob using only warm water as lube, and which describes male masturbation as an epic quest — “He jerked off with the determination of someone within sight of Everest’s summit, having lost all his friends and Sherpas, having run out of supplemental oxygen, but preferring death to failure” — didn’t make the final cut.
If you think this sounds like a very in-depth emotional connection with dick plus a total incomprehension of what a vagina even is, you’re getting into the spirit of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Each entry on the shortlist is a harrowing tale of how trying to be profound can go horribly wrong.
For instance, A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin compares a man undressing his lover to “a child pulling candles from the rim of a birthday cake,” while sex is like “a brisk tennis game or a summer track meet, something performed in daylight between competitors.” My dude, I think you’re doing it wrong. Then there’s this gem, from the same book: “She liked to do it more than once, and he was usually able to comply. Bourbon was his gasoline.” Are you 19?! This sounds like something a middle-class college kid writes for his Intro to Fiction workshop to show off his worldly street cred.
Then there’s Erri De Luca’s The Day Before Happiness, a story about how nothing is more erotic than guys who want women to do all the work during sex. “My whole body had gone inside her. I went in with her thrusts and stayed still. While I got used to the quiet and the pulsing of my blood in my ears and nose, she pushed me out a little, then in again.” Forget the day before happiness; I want to go back to the day before I read this.
The worst offender, though, is The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis, which…oh, dear God. “‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.’” NOOOOOOOO. Do you mean the sound of vaginas clanging shut? Because that’s what I’m getting out of this.
Maybe part of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award should be a free intervention. They could sit the winner down in a room full of sex therapists and actual human women to explain how vaginas work and what people absolutely do not want to hear when you are inside them. And then they could take away the winner’s publishing privileges for a while, not just for their own good but for the good of humanity, so we never have to read their bad sex words again. At least not until next year’s nominations come along.