It may not be the Nobel Prize, but the competition for this year’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award is just as stiff (cringe — pun intended). Philip Roth is on the Literary Review’s shortlist, and he’s in good company — current nominees include Amos Oz, Nick Cave, and John Banville, while past candidates include such literary giants as Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, and Tom Wolfe. Now in its 17th year, fiction’s most notorious honor was dreamed up by Auberon Waugh (Evelyn’s son) “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels.”
Has the award had its intended effect? Not for Richard Milward, two-time nominee (and author of this year’s candidate Ten Storey Love Song), who says “Part of the fun, for me, is writing sex scenes that are as silly and salacious as possible!” But Simon van Booy, first-time nominee for Love Begins in Winter, may be taking it to heart. He told us: “All I can say is that I promise to try harder in the future.”
The Guardian has excerpts from this year’s nominees here — read and judge for yourself. Feeling inspired, we revisited our own top ten “bad sex” favorites of all-time, guaranteed to make even the raunchiest reader blush.
1. Brazil — John Updike
“Standing with her [Isabel] in the warming waterfall, soaping her skin so its yielding silk was overlaid with a white grease, and then letting her soap him [Tristão] in turn, he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam, bursting with weight.”
Updike, otherwise known as the Susan Lucci of bad sex, was nominated four times without a win until he finally bagged the Lifetime Achievement award last year. His lengthy history of frank and graphic sex in works such as the Rabbit series, The Witches of Eastwick, and Couples (which the Atlantic Monthly dubbed the most sexually explicit novel in memory) has earned him a permanent place in the bad-sex stratosphere. He has said, “Writing my sex scenes physically excites me, as it should,” but this overwrought food analogy just left us giggling.
2. Sophie’s Choice — William Styron
“My lust was incredible — something prehensile, a groping snout of desire, slithering down the begrimed walls of the wretched old building, uncoiling itself across a fence, moving with haste serpentine and indecent to a point just short of her upturned rump, where in silent metamorphosis it blazingly flowered into the embodiment of myself, priapic, ravenous, yet under hair-trigger control. Gently my arms surrounded [her], and I cupped my hands under her full, free-floating, honeydew breasts. ‘Is that you?’ she whispered. ‘No, it’s I,’ said I, her lover, in response, ‘let me take you doggie fashion.’”
Styron once said, “I don’t think I’ve ever placed sex and sexuality in a work where I didn’t feel that these passages weren’t aesthetically necessary or required.” One of the most notable books of the 20th century, Sophie’s Choice won the National Book Award in 1980, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, and contains our favorite proposition in bad-sex classics.
3. Choke — Chuck Palahniuk
“In the women’s room, the padded fist of her pubic bone punching me in the nose, Nico wipes and smears herself up and down my face. For two hours, Nico laces her fingers together across the back of my head and pulls my face into her until I’m choking down pubic hair. Tonguing inside her labia minora, I’m tonguing the folds of Dr. Marshall’s ear. Breathing through my nose, I’m stretching my tongue toward salvation.”
In fairness, Palahniuk’s protagonist is a raging sex addict, which does make an understandable pretext for the innumerable and highly detailed sex scenes in the book. But the sheer gross-out factor of the words “pubic bone punching me in the nose” landed it a spot on our list.
4. The Fountainhead — Ayn Rand
“He had thrown her down on the bed and she felt the blood beating in her throat, in her eyes, the hatred, the helpless terror in her blood. She felt the hatred and his hands; his hands moving over her body, the hands that broke up granite. She fought in a last convulsion. Then the sudden pain shot up, through her body, to her throat, and she screamed. Then she lay still. It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt, as a symbol of humiliation and conquest. It could be the act of a lover or the act of a soldier violating an enemy woman. He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him — and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted.”
This dolled-up harlequin romance (masquerading as philosophy) may not be the most explicit in the bunch, but Rand’s thinly veiled sadism gives it a serious “ick” factor.
5. Triptych of a Young Wolf — Ann Allestree
“‘You are so moist down there.’ He stroked and probed her with two fingers as she felt her blood waken. He raised himself to his knees and bent to roll his tongue around her weeping orifice. He was bringing her to a pitch of ecstasy when she heard Madame Veuve, on the landing, put down the supper tray. Whiffs of onion soup strayed over them as he engulfed her. ‘Don’t stop,’ she clamoured; she was nearly there, it was in the bag.”
Allestree’s debut novel, featuring plenty of inter-species sex between the wolf hero and his girlfriend, landed it on the Bad Sex shortlist in 2008. But it‘s not the “hybrid sex” that has us wincing — it‘s the unnecessary inclusion of soup. Please, Ann, don’t ruin our favorite wintertime food!
6. Cryptonomicon — Neal Stephenson
“Randy’s toe knuckles pop audibly. He lifts himself and Amy into the air, experiences some kind of synaesthetic hallucination very much like the famous ‘jump into hyperspace’ scene from Star Wars. Or perhaps the air bag has accidentally detonated? Then he pumps something like an Imperial pint of semen — it’s a seemingly open ended stream of ejaculations, each coupled to the next by nothing more than a leap of faith that another one is coming — and in the end, like all schemes built on faith and hope, it lapses, and then Randy sits utterly still until his body realizes it has not drawn breath in quite a while.”
This sci-fi favorite clocks in at nearly 1,000 pages, but it’s worth it to get to this gem — possibly the geekiest sex analogy ever written.
7. Ash Wednesday — Ethan Hawke
“She moved her hips again and continued to fuck my lights out. I thought of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, the story goes, knew the instant he heard the name Adolf Hitler that he had brushed up against the reason he was born. He had been living his whole life with this nagging sensation that he was waiting for something, and the moment he heard that name, the feeling subsided into nothingness. He had arrived. Now it’s different, and to me it was shockingly humble, but there with my girl in my arms and our child in her belly I knew I had reached the moment my life had been waiting for. I was going to be a father and a husband. I spanked her bottom and cranked up the tunes.”
Hawke surprised fans and critics everywhere when he made the leap from the big screen to the printed page, but his second book, Ash Wednesday, garnered quite a few good reviews… except, that is, for this part.
8. Absurdistan — Gary Shteyngart
“‘You wanna pop me?’ she said. This must have been some new-fangled youth term. The verb ‘to pop.’ ‘I wanna bust a nut inside you, shorty,’ I said. ‘I wanna make you sweat, boo. Let’s do this thing.’ I’d like to say that she stepped out of her jeans, but in truth it took a while to maneuver two large dimpled buttocks and the accompanying vaginal wedge out of the hard shell of her Miss Sixty denims. We huffed and sweated; I had her hanging off the edge of the bed while I gripped the cuffs of her jeans; I nearly pulled a groin muscle getting her naked; but through it all I stayed hard, a testament to how much I wanted her. She kept her T-shirt on throughout the initial popping, which is just how I like my sex, infused with a little mystery.”
Absurdistan won heaps of critical praise for its exuberant, over-the-top style — and earned a nod on the 2007 Bad Sex shortlist for passages like this one.
9. The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs — Irvine Welsh
“We were kissing on my couch, but in an attacking, nasty manner, and she got me, kind of ordered me, to strip off. Then she started sucking my cock, but raking at it with her teeth, biting it, and it was fucking painful and she knew it was. I grabbed a handful of her hair: to pull her away from, rather than towards, my groin area. Her eyes were narrow and cruel and I tore her blouse off, snapping two buttons in the process. I reasoned that she wanted it rough so I started mangling her tits. She gasped and grimaced and bit my lower lip until we both got that metallic taste of blood in our mouths. I got her jeans and pants down and rammed my fingers roughly into her cunt. She grabbed my cock crudely, the sharp fingernails digging into it as she yanked the foreskin up and down with such power I could feel the strand tearing and stinging.”
Welsh is Milward’s absolute idol of dirty writing. “He has this wonderful unashamed way of describing sex in all its grisly gory,” says the 2009 nominee. We’d have to agree — this is grisly stuff.
10. The Death of Bunny Munro — Nick Cave
“He puts his hands under her knees and manoeuvres her carefully so that her bottom rests on the edge of the settee. He slips his fingers underneath the worn elastic of her panties that are strung across the points of her hips, slips them to her ankles and softly draws apart her knees and feels again a watery ardour in his eyes as he negotiates a button and a zipper. It is exactly as he imagined it — the hair, the lips, the hole — and he slips his hands under her wasted buttocks and enters her like a fucking pile driver.”
Our favorite to win this year’s bad sex award; there’s really no excuse for a construction-equipment simile — in our book, that’s a “bad-sex” red flag. But Cave wasn’t at all surprised by his nomination. “Frankly, we would have been offended if he wasn’t shortlisted,” his publisher told the Guardian.
The winner will be announced November 30 at the In & Out Club (naturally).