When it comes to truly deplorable writing, not even death, it seems, lets you off the hook. This year’s Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award has gone to the late Norman Mailer for a description of oral sex in his final novel, The Castle in the Forest, in which a male member is likened to a “coil of excrement”.
“It was the excrement that tipped the balance,” admitted Philip Womack, assistant editor of the London-based Literary Review, whose editorial staff judge the annual prize.
“That, and the line about Alois [the male character] being ‘ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety’.
That was pretty awful.”
This is the first time in its 15-year history that the award — established in 1993 by Auberon Waugh, then editor of the Literary Review, to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it” — has been bestowed posthumously.
The judges took the opportunity to pay homage to Mailer, saluting the breadth and depth of his output alongside his pugnacity and joie de vivre, and entreating the guests at the ceremony, held as usual at the In & Out Club, in St James’s Square, London, to raise their glasses to his memory.
Asked what he imagined Mailer’s reaction would have been on learning of his triumph, Womack declared his confidence that the author “would have taken it in very good humour”.
Mailer was joined on the shortlist by seven others, but the final decision came down to a three-way wrangle between Mailer, Ali Smith and Christopher Rush.
In his novel on the life of Shakespeare, Rush came close to pipping Mailer at the post with his inexplicably nautical rendering of an encounter between Anne Hathaway and an alarmingly callow young bard who notes the lovely female body “rag[ing] and founder[ing] in the rising foam as I clung like a mariner to her heaving haunches”.
Smith incurred the judges’ interest for a depiction of sex in which the protagonists are compared to a baffling and apparently endless array of inanimate objects — “We were blades, were a knife that could cut through myth, were two knives thrown by a magician ... we were the tail of a fish, were the reek of a cat, were the beak of a bird, were the feather that mastered gravity ...”
“Smith was a close contender,” confirmed Womack. “From a literary point of view we took exception to the mixed metaphors.”
Honourable mention went to Jeanette Winterson for her use of the phrase “silicon-lined vaginas”.
There was disappointment, though, for Ian McEwan, initially viewed as one of the strongest contenders for the award following his longlisting for On Chesil Beach, a novel devoted to the horrors of bad sex, and in particular, messy premature ejaculation. His failure to make it past the longlist was the final setback in a frustrating year that also saw him lose out in October as Anne Enright scooped the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
Last year’s award was taken by the debut novelist Iain Hollingshead, whose description of a female character’s “crotch taut against my bulging trousers”, in his novel Twenty Something, sealed his win for the judges. A delighted Hollingshead, who received a statuette and a bottle of champagne, announced that he “hoped to win it every year”.
The roll-call of previous winners includes Sebastian Faulks, Giles Coren and Mailer’s fellow American and near-contemporary Tom Wolfe, who was victorious in 2004 with his descriptions of fumbling sex in his campus novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.
Wolfe was one of the few authors in the award’s history who declined his invitation to accept the prize. — Â