Saturday, November 23, 2013

It's time for a Good sex award

It's not because I'm a nominee that I think the Bad sex prize should be matched with one for its opposite. Please make nominations here

Troilus and Cressida ChaucerDetail of an illustration taken from Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida, published in 1896. Photograph: British Library/Robana via Getty

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to find myself featuring in the Bad Sex awards. I write about sex a great deal, often graphically. Now, held up for public mockery, is an extract from my recent novel Motherland. My hero, a Catholic virgin in 1946, is too shy to have sex. The woman seducing him is using his religious scruples as a way to intensify his sexual desire. Not exactly a simple set up, and one that depends on following the emotional arc of the characters to this point in order to make sense of the lines of dialogue offered as an example of "bad sex": "If you fuck me, will God punish you, Lawrence?" – "God won't punish you if you love me" – and so forth.
    My first reaction on learning that my name was on the list was shame and anger. It's important to admit this, because one's reactions evolve quite quickly. A defensive impulse takes over, which involves saying: it's just a joke, be a good sport. But there it is – I was ashamed of being named as a writer of bad sex. The Literary Review, which presents the Bad Sex in Fiction award, aims "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it". Crude, tasteless, perfunctory, redundant: the charges are genuinely wounding. If you publish novels you expose yourself to criticism, and you have to be able to take it; but there's something uniquely dismaying about this particular criticism. 
    As well as questioning my talent as a writer, it questions my understanding of sex itself. To write bad sex, I must be either cynical, as a pornographer is cynical, or naive.

    So yes, it hurts. And yes, the unspoken assumption is that we nominees will be good sports. It's all a bit of a laugh, and the word is that the Bad Sex awards party is among the best bashes of the literary year. Why spoil the fun by taking it all too seriously? This for me has echoes of the bullied child, who when finally reduced to tears hears his tormentors say: "What's the matter? Can't you take a joke?"

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