Of dildos and bad sex

The story of the seduction of a lesbian by an ageing stage actor, which includes an eye-watering scene with a green dildo, has won novelist Philip Roth the dubious honour of a place on the shortlist for the Literary Review‘s bad sex in fiction award.

Roth can comfort himself with the fact that a roll call of literary fiction’s great and good — from Booker winner John Banville to acclaimed Israeli novelist Amos Oz, the Goncourt winner Jonathan Littell and the Whitbread winner Paul Theroux — have made it into the line-up this year.

Auberon Waugh set up the award to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel — and to discourage it”.

On a shortlist of 10, singer Nick Cave was picked for his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, about a sex-obsessed salesman. “Frankly, we would have been offended if he wasn’t shortlisted,” said Anna Frame at his publisher, Canongate.

Roth makes the line-up for The Humbling. The Literary Review singled out a scene in which Simon the actor and Pegeen, a lesbian, pick up a girl from a bar and persuade her to take part in a threesome. Simon looks on as Pegeen uses her dildo to great effect.


“This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen was a magical composite of shaman, acrobat and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be,” writes Roth. “There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement — the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.”

“Roth is very anxious about his description of sex,” said the Literary Review‘s Jonathan Beckman of the extract. “Why write of a scene that repeatedly features a green dildo, ‘this was not soft porn’, unless you’re worried that it might be taken as such … but it’s the overcompensation that qualifies this passage for the award — the totems and shamans are an attempt to convince us that Roth’s leering is actually giving some vital anthropological insight.”

Sanjida O’Connell is the only woman to make the shortlist, selected for The Naked Name of Love about a young Jesuit priest who is taught how to love by a gifted shaman woman in Mongolia.

The winner of the award, a plaster foot, will be announced on November 30. —

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Alison Flood
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