In Defense of Bad Sex (Awards) and Sexy Literary Fiction

The Erotic Review, an English website “committed to giving sex a good name,” recently announced its intent to introduce an award for good sex in fiction, called the Good Sex in Fiction Award, to combat The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Awards.

erotic-reviewAt a festival hosted by The Times of London, Erotic Review publisher Lisa Moylett, along with UK journalist Mariella Frostrup, presented a quixotic argument against the Bad Sex Awards: Although English people don’t talk openly about sex, they said, the internet is filled with “horrible” pornography; meanwhile, erotica—a medium that, they say, sparks the imagination—has been endangered by the Bad Sex Awards, which has the potential to intimidate writers who might otherwise include erotic scenes in their books.

The awards, Moylett hopes, will “bridge the gap between the horrible world of porn” and the national conversation. “We have laughed enough,” she said.

English newspaper The Independent and the American website Bustle both picked up the story. The Independent, in typical aggregator fashion, added bits absent from the original article. “The problem is partly down to the compartmentalisation of sex in mainstream literature,” reads the post. “While sex is part and parcel of life in film and TV, in novels it is often refined to ‘erotic fiction’ when it comes to books—at least in public perception—which tends to value titilation above art.” (Pretty sure “refined to erotic fiction” means the same thing in England as it does here, which is nothing, because it’s a typo.)

Bustle went a step father by including this strange and largely untrue bit of editorialization (emphasis mine):

[Even] if you aren’t singled out as the height of bad sex writing, writing about sex in literature is often looked down upon. Sex scenes are seen as the domain of erotica (and, to a lesser extent, romance), two genres that are often looked down upon by the literary establishment.

When sex scenes appear in more literary works, on the other hand, authors often seem to want the sex to in someway take on a metaphorical or symbolic quality. Which both lends itself to “bad sex” nominations, and doesn’t really do anything to explore sex as its own subject. In fact, given that sex is a fairly important part of the human experience, it’s received surprisingly little exploration in literature.

While it’s hard to argue that romance and erotica get the respect they’re due, little else quoted above is in any way accurate. Literature hasn’t explored sex much? Tell that to Mary Gaitskill, Susan Minot, Nell Zink, Eimar McBride, or any of the other critically revered, contemporary novelists who write explicitly feminist novels with equally explicit sex scenes. Or tell Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer or any of the other big-deal male American literary novelists whose graphic sex scenes walking, talking straw man Katie Roiphe famously valorized in the New York Times.

Roiphe’s essay, published in 2009, claimed that the transgressive sex scenes of Updike et al. went out of fashion for all the wrong reasons: namely, that short-sighted feminists brainwashed the American public, particularly writers, into finding raunch in fiction sexist and distasteful. The essay managed to insult both women and big-deal, then-contemporary male literary novelists like David Foster Wallace, while overstating the continued relevance of Norman Mailer. The aggregators’ weird interpretation of the Good Sex in Fiction Award attests to the inexplicable staying power of Roiphe’s flawed argument, which seemed to me just as unnecessary then as it does now.

Is the Good Sex in Fiction Award equally misguided? I don’t know if I, an American, am fully qualified to answer. I will say, however, that blanket statements like “porn is horrible” and “all English people dislike talking openly about sex” feel a bit, ahem, overblown. And the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards—as well as bad sex scenes in movies—are typically very, very funny. I mean, just check out Morrissey’s winning entry from last year. But we’ve laughed enough, I guess.

lesser-bohemians-eimar-mcbrideI do feel qualified to say that contemporary U.S. fiction is in no imminent danger of marginalizing sex, and that there’s no shortage of American writers who write explicit sex scenes and are taken seriously by readers and critics. I close with this list of excellent, well-received, graphically sexy books that took me and a coworker approximately ten seconds to come up with:

Anything by Mary Gaitskill except The Mare

Big World, by Mary Miller

 The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimar McBride

Nicotine, by Nell Zink

Rapture, by Susan Minot

Tampa, by Alyssa Nutting

 

 

 

 

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About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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