Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards, 2008
by Ibn Warraq
From New English Review, December 2008.
The best and the worst attitudes of the English to sex were on display in recent weeks in London. The English are embarrassed about sex, and often seem to think that it is only snigger worthy, but, at the same time, they do also take pains to demystify it. There was first the Jonathan Ross Affair, and then the Literary Review evening of the Bad Sex Awards.
Every year for the last five or six years my wife, Lucy, has attended the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards in St. James’s Square, at The In & Out (Naval & Military) Club, situated at the corresponding angle opposite to Thomas Carlyle’s revered institution, The London Library, behind Piccadilly. My wife could not go this year but I was more than intrigued, and was eager for a glimpse of the literary life of London, and besides, the invitation card promised “Champagne & Merriment”.
Literary Review was founded in Edinburgh in 1979 by Dr Anne Smith, head of the English Department at Edinburgh University. She soon acquired Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, known for his political incorrectness and courage to say what people least want to hear, as editor, a post he held for fourteen years, during which Literary Review established itself as a journal that took literature, reading and culture seriously. It is still said to attract “the best writers in the country, many of them experts in their fields.” On the lighter side, it was Waugh who inaugurated the Bad Sex Award in 1993 to “highlight, and thereby possibly to discourage, redundant or poorly written passages of a sexual nature in fiction.”
I arrived early and was immediately offered a choice of a gin and tonic, red wine or champagne. I stuck with the latter throughout the evening. The single room hired for the evening filled up rather quickly and I was soon lost in a sea of self-confident strangers. I was rescued by the very friendly Robert Irwin, an associate editor at The Times Literary Supplement, and a fellow critic of that charlatan, Edward Said. He at least tried to introduce me to as many people as possible. Hazhir Temourian, a distinguished journalist, a Middle East expert and author of a recent book on Omar Khayyam, introduced me to his wife. But he found the entire proceedings “vulgar,” and left early.
One could not move, so packed was the room – there must have been nearly four hundred people present. Nonetheless, some did stand out from the melee: one had a glimpse of a group of tall, lithe, though voluptuous, heavily made-up, young girls who seemed to undulate through the murky waters of the crowd like four goldfish. I learned the following day that they were members of the dance group Satanic Sluts, accompanied by Georgina Baillie. Baillie was the centre of attention recently. Two well-paid BBC presenters and hosts, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, left a message live on BBC Radio on 78-year-old veteran Fawlty Towers actor –he played “Miguel from Barcelona”- Andrew Sachs’ answer phone saying Brand had “f***ed” his granddaughter, Georgina Baillie. There were calls from the Prime Minister, and several Members of Parliament for the dismissal of these spoiled, foul-mouthed, BBC stars. Ross was merely suspended for twelve weeks without pay. The BBC, which is funded by taxpayers, and is supposed to set a high moral standard and tone, was inundated with 40,000 calls complaining of the disgraceful behavior of Ross and Brand. It is a depressing fact but the two radio stars are very popular among the English young, who do not seem to understand what the fuss is about, and seem totally unaware of the vulgarity of the whole affair. The affair also of course revealed the utter cruelty of leaving unpleasant messages for an old man in his late seventies.
Each year, Literary Review manages to persuade some television or film star to present the prize. Past presenters have included Mick Jagger, Sting, and Germaine Greer. This year it was Dominic West, who plays the Baltimore Detective James ‘Jimmy’ McNulty in the very successful television series, The Wire.
Before going on to the 2008 shortlist and winners, here is a quick word on the 2007 award. Norman Mailer received the posthumous award for some truly dreadful descriptions of oral sex in his novel The Castle in the Forest, where a penis is likened to a “coil of excrement”. In the novel, Will, on the life of Shakespeare, Christopher Rush came a close second with such dithyrambs to the female pudenda,
“O glorious pubes! The ultimate triangle, whose angles delve to hell but point to paradise. Let me sing the black banner, the blackbird’s wing, the chink, the cleft, the keyhole in the door. The fig, the fanny, the cranny, the quim – I’d come close to it now, this sudden blush, this ancient avenue, the end of all odysseys and epic aim of life, pulling at my prick now, pulling like a lodestone”.
The 2006 winner was Iain Hollingshead, who described a female character’s “crotch taut against my bulging trousers”, in Twenty Something.
Hollingshead accepted a statuette and a bottle of champagne in very good humour and expressed a desire to win it every year. The previous winners include Sebastian Faulks, Giles Coren, and Tom Wolfe.
In one sense, the Bad Sex Awards gives us the best of the English: the ability to laugh at the pompousness and pretentiousness with which sex is taken even by the most distinguished of novelists, from Salman Rushdie, and Norman Mailer to Ian McEwan; the sexual act is, after all, as Chamfort once put it, “the exchange of two fantasies and the contact of two epidermises.” But it also gives us the worst, since there is something vulgar, immature, and redolent of English boarding school humour about it all. The English can only snigger guiltily and embarrassingly at the mere mention of sexual intercourse. One also wonders if the audience is laughing at a good description of badly performed sex, or just at the bad descriptions of the sexual act. And are we sure that Kathy Lette is not laughing at us for taking her seriously when she writes: “Sebastian’s erect member was so big I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town. I almost started directing traffic around it.”? [Full extract below.]
This year, 2008, there were two winners. Though the 16th Annual Bad Sex Award, hosted by Alexander Waugh, went to Rachel Johnson, for a passage from her book Shire Hell, a Lifetime Achievement Award went to John Updike, whose The Widows of Eastwick earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Rachel Johnson, who is the sister of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, claimed it was an “absolute honour” to win, keeping company with such greats as Norman Mailer, Sebastian Faulks and Tom Wolfe. “I’m not feeling remotely grumpy about it. I know that men with literary reputations to polish might find it insulting, but if you’ve had a book published in the year any attention is welcome, even if it’s slightly dubious attention of this sort.” She received a plaster foot – intended to be an abstract representation of sex, according to Tom Fleming, Deputy Editor of Literary Review.
The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer (Little, Brown) p67-68:
‘Are you all right?’ she cried out as he lay beside her, his breath going in and out with a rasp that sounded as terrible as the last winds of their lost children. ‘All right. Yes. No,’ he said. Then she was on him. She did not know if this would resuscitate him or end him, but the same spite, sharp as a needle, that had come to her after Fanni’s death was in her again. Fanni had told her once what to do. So Klara turned head to foot, and put her most unmentionable part down on his hard-breathing nose and mouth, and took his old battering ram into her lips. Uncle was now as soft as a coil of excrement. She sucked on him nonetheless with an avidity that could come only from the Evil One – that she knew. From there, the impulse had come. So now they both had their heads at the wrong end, and the Evil One was there. He had never been so close before.
The Hound began to come to life. Right in her mouth. It surprised her. Alois had been so limp. But now he was a man again! His mouth lathered with her sap, he turned around and embraced her face with all the passion of his own lips and face, ready at last to grind into her with the Hound, drive it into her piety.
From Will by Christopher Rush (Beautiful Books) p132-3
O glorious pubes! The ultimate triangle, whose angles delve to hell but point to paradise. Let me sing the black banner, the blackbird’s wing, the chink, the cleft, the keyhole in the door. The fig, the fanny, the cranny, the quim – I’d come close to it now, this sudden blush, this ancient avenue, the end of all odysseys and epic aim of life, pulling at my prick now, pulling like a lodestone.
Anne Hathaway’s cow-milking fingers, cradling my balls in her almond palm, now took pity on the poor anguished erection, and in the infinite agony of her desire, guided it to the quick of the wound. At the same time I searched wildly with the fingers of my left hand, groping blind as Cyclops, found the pulpy furred wetness, parted the old lips of time and slipped my middle finger into the sancta sanctorum. It welcomed me with soft sucking sounds, syllables older than language, solace lovelier than words. She pulled my hand away, positioned the prick, slid her buttocks deep into the grass, raised her thighs back high, crossed her legs behind my back, dug her heels into my spine and hauled at me savagely and hard. I fell into her.
It was exhilarating, to be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space. But Anne Hathaway was a cruel queen. Her calves crushed my ribs, her crossed heels digging in hard, drawing me in deeper. She responded with those cries that men long to hear, the sweet deep moaning sounds that echo the sigh of oceans, the ebb and flow of fields, the sough of stars. So we drank from one another, clung together on the ship we’d made of ourselves, breasting the irrelevance of time.
All around us nature joined in … Streamers of heat lashed my back and shoulders and far beneath me now the body of Anne Hathaway began to rage and founder in the rising foam as I clung like a mariner to her heaving haunches, the deep keel of her backbone dipping and lifting through July, through the green surge of growth, till at last the moment came when some colossal wave flung her up high, and I held on for my life, and she screamed loud and long Then O! then O! then O! my true love said and I felt death go through her. Our vessel ran shuddering onto the rocks, a wave of wetness ran through us, the air was rent with screams and I became aware that the bank on which we lay drenched and grounded was journey’s end, love’s end, the very sea-mark of our utmost sail.
Shire Hell, by Rachel Johnson (Penguin Books).
JM comes over and pushes me gently back down on the fake fur. I try to rise up to kiss him – it’s so lovely, the kissing – but he pushes me down, again. He likes to kiss me all over before he does anything else. He starts with my eyes, and plants a tender kiss on each lid.
… He moves on to my ears, a kiss that makes my nipples stand erect, and me emit little moans that drown out to my own ears the loud, distracting sound of Cumberbatch swiping dock leaves and tearing nettles and long grasses very close to the rickety stoop.
JM’s hands are caressing my breasts, now, and I am allowed to kiss him back, but not for very long, for he breaks off, to give each breast in turn the attention it deserves. As he nibbles and pulls with his mouth, his hands find my bush, and with light fingers he flutters about there, as if he is a moth caught inside a lampshade.
Almost screaming after five agonizingly pleasurable minutes, I make a grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside, but he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop. I find myself gripping his ears and tugging at the locks curling over them, beside myself, and a strange animal noise escapes from me as the mounting, Wagnerian crescendo overtakes me. I really do hope at this point that all the Spodders are, as requested, attending the meeting about slug clearance or whatever it is.
The Widows of Eastwick, by John Updike (Hamish Hamilton).
‘[…] Do you want to see my vagina? Have you ever looked at one?’
‘Why ‘of course’? Many men haven’t. Straight men. They’re scared to. It’s the Medusa’s head, that turns them to stone. Uh-oh. You’re losing your stoniness. I guess you’re not ready to think about vaginas yet.’
‘No. I am. I’ll get ready. But – ‘
‘I know, darling. I know.’ She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin. He had wanted to cry out, sitting up as if jolted by electricity as the spurts, the deep throbs rooted in his asshole, continued, but he didn’t know what name to call her. ‘Mrs Rougement’ was the name he had always known her by. God, she was antique, but here they were. Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea. The rhythmic relentless shushing returned to their ears. She laid her head on the pillow and seemed to want to be kissed. Well, why not? It was his jism. Having got rid of it, there was an aftermath of sorrow in which he needed to be alone; but there was no getting rid of her. ‘Call me Sukie,’ she said, having read his mind. ‘I sucked your cock.’
‘You sure did. Thanks. Wow.’
Brida, by Paulo Coelho (Harper Collins).
Brida kissed him. She felt the taste of his mouth, the touch of his tongue. She was aware of every movement and sensed that he was feeling exactly the same, because the Tradition of the Sun always reveals itself to those who look at the world as if they were seeing it for the first time.
‘I want to make love with you right here, Lorens.’
Various thoughts flashed through his mind: they were on a public footpath, someone might come by, some other person crazy enough to visit this place in the middle of winter. But anyone crazy enough to do so would also be able to understand that certain forces, once set in motion, cannot be interrupted.
He slipped his hands under her sweater and stroked her breasts. Brida surrendered herself entirely. The forces of the world were penetrating her five senses and these were becoming transformed into an overwhelming energy. They lay down on the ground between the rock, the precipice and the sea, between the life of the seagulls flying up above and the death of the stones beneath. And they began, fearlessly, to make love, because God protects the innocent.
They no longer felt the cold. Their blood was flowing so fast in their veins that she tore off some of her clothes and so did he. There was no more pain; knees and back were pressed into the stony ground, but that became part of their pleasure, completing it. Brida knew that she was close to orgasm, but it was still a very remote feeling, because she was entirely connected to the world: her body and Lorens’ body mingled with the sea and the stones, with life and death. She remained in that state for as long as possible, while some part of her was vaguely conscious that she was doing things she had never done before. What she was feeling, though, was the bringing together once more of herself and the meaning of life; it was a return to the garden of Eden; it was the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam’s body and the two halves became Creation.
At last, she could no longer control the world around her, her five senses seemed to break free and she wasn’t strong enough to hold on to them. As if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning, she unleashed them, and the world, the seagulls, the taste of salt, the hard earth, the smell of the sea, the clouds, all disappeared, and in their place appeared a vast golden light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy.
Sashenka, by Simon Montefiore (Bantam Press).
Inside, the room was dark, lit only by the lurid scarlet of the electric stars atop each of the eight spires of the Kremlin outside the window. They backed on to a bed that sagged in the middle, the sheets rancid with what she later identified as old sperm and alcohol in a cocktail specially mixed for Soviet hotels. She wanted to struggle, to reprimand, to complain, but he grabbed her face and kissed her so forcefully that a lick of flame burned her to the core.
His hands pulled her dress off her shoulders and he buried his face in her neck, then her hair, scooping up between her legs. He pulled down her brassiere, cupping her breasts, sighing in bliss. ‘The blue veins are divine,’ he whispered. And in that moment, a lifetime of unease about this ugly feature of her body was replaced with satisfaction. He licked them, circling her nipples hungrily. Then he disappeared up her skirt.
She pushed him away from there, once, then twice. But he kept returning. She slapped his mouth, quite hard, but he didn’t care.
‘No, no, not there, come on, no thank you, no…’ She cringed, closing her eyes bashfully.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he said.
Could that be true? Yes, he insisted and he swiped her with his tongue. No one had ever done this to her before. She shivered, barely able to control herself.
‘Lovely!’ he said.
She was so ashamed she actually hid her face in her hands. ‘Just don’t!’ ‘See if you can pretend it isn’t happening!’ was his suggestion as he buried his face in her. When she finally looked down, he peered back at her, laughing. I’ve got a lover, she thought, incredulous. His irrepressible carnality enthralled her. It was like the first time with her husband, her only other lover – but then it was not like that at all. In fact, she reflected, this is me losing my real virginity at the hands of this infernal, lovable, Jewish clown who is so unlike any of the macho Bolsheviks in my life.
He’s a madman, she thought as he made love to her again. Oh my God, after twenty years of being the most rational Bolshevik woman in Moscow, this goblin has driven me crazy!
He eased out of her again, showing himself.
‘Look!’ he whispered as she did. Was this really her? There he was between her legs again, doing the most absurd, lovely things to places behind her knees, the muscle at the very top of her thighs, her ears, the middle of her back. But the kissing, just the kissing, was heavenly […] He made her forget she was a Communist […]
To Love, Honour and Betray, by Kathy Lette (Bantam Press).
Sebastian was lying across his bed with the blinds drawn wearing nothing but a towel, hands lazily laced behind his head as he watched the cricket on a small flickering television screen in the corner. His chest was the size of a South American country. A slanting tongue of lamplight lit up his lap and I could see the outline of his large appendage.
After agonizing for, oh, about two-fifths of a second, I straddled him on the bed, pinning his arms beside him with all my body weight. ‘Remember what you said about chastity being curable if caught early enough?’
I kissed his mouth ravenously, devouring his neck, earlobes, chest. He broke free with muscular ease, unhooked my bra with composed expertise, found my nipple and flicked his tongue back and forth until it went hard. His towel fell away. Sebastian’s erect member was so big I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town. I almost started directing traffic around it. He rolled me sideways on to my back and, in one flowing motion, my tracksuit and panties were down, lassoing one ankle. His fingers edged up my thigh and then plunged inside me. My legs yielded to the weight of his body and I wrapped them around his hips, tugging him against me with a pang of hunger I hadn’t felt for so long […]
I was pulling him into me with an animal force I didn’t know I possessed. I’d been parched for so long, and he was the long, cool, sensual drink I’d craved. I twisted under him, caught in the heat and the slide and the thrill of it. There was nothing but obliterating sensation as we contorted like origami creations for the next hour, until a sweet and inward rapture spread through my thighs, leaving me tranquil, calm – serene at last.
Triptych of a Young Wolf, by Ann Allestree (Book Guild Publishing).
Christine, on her knees, turned to see him naked before her. She was shocked anew by his fine strong body with its prodigious cover of curly black hair. Swiftly he lifted her up and pressed her to the wall. Fondling her breasts he undid her shirt, her linen trousers fell to the floor. She kicked off her moccasins and gave way to his arms. Uqba snatched at the bath towels and lay her down. Her nipples tensed as he dabbed them lightly with his tongue; her skin tingled at the brush of his lithe body slipping to her knees. ‘Open your thighs,’ he urged as he parted the folds of her vulva.
‘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. She flung her arms around his neck and pulled him down. He rubbed her slowly with the tip of his nose and his lips as she shuddered to her climax.
Uqba stood and grinned happily down at her, his own Christine, tousled and flushed in the foetal position. He was fingering his penis, but before he could plunge it deep inside her, she had knelt before him and taken the membrane into her mouth. With pursed lips and darting tongue and teeth, her fingers drumming on his buttocks and up his soft inner thigh, she was destroying him. He clung to her shoulders, trembling, as he ejaculated, moaning with each gush.
The Gate of Air, by James Buchan (MacLehose Press).
She stood in the afternoon light, as if the light was coming from her own body, from her breast and eyes and where her dress had been […] Jim ached with her nakedness. His arms and legs were as lifeless as fallen branches. He understood that love was of a power and force of a different order from anything else beneath the sky, and could demolish not merely family relations or notions of right and wrong but also what was real and what was not. Jim’s world had been knocked a little out of its axis, and would not be restored.
She turned to him. Her face had taken on her nudity or rather had shed a veil it wore for the world. She said:
‘Perhaps you’d like to take off your shorts.’
‘Do I have to?’
‘I think you do.’
He felt that if he touched her breast she might be brought down to earth. He touched the round breast and hard bead at its tip. He felt something else fall from her, like a garment, as she leaned one knee on the bed. Light billowed out of her, and warmth in damp gusts as if from a garden after a rainstorm. She did not seem to be a woman, but something altogether stronger and sweeter. A darkness engulfed him, like a wave breaking over him in the sea shallows, and when he opened his stinging eyes he saw her pretty face before him.
‘What about your husband?’
‘Sod him.’ She seemed to have forgotten she had one.
Jim felt strong, and handsome, and armed to the teeth. He felt like a barefoot runner, a wrestler, a charioteer. He felt his childhood receding from him, and he felt not the smallest regret. No more the poor fatherless orphan for him! He was an outlaw and all the better for it!
All in the Mind, by Alastair Campbell (Hutchinson) page 103.
[…] So now here he was, in the cold autumn air, and stuck-up Rosalie from Lavender Park Avenue was yanking her hand up and down his penis, he was clutching her knickers, and all he really knew was that he had to get his penis to where the knickers had been and hope for the best. It was too cold, and possibly even a bit damp, to get down on the ground, but he had never seen a film in which the love scene took place on an oddly shaped park bench with intricate metalwork at either end. He stuffed Rosalie’s knickers into his pocket, and while her right hand continued to play with his penis, his moved down to pubic hair which felt very different to his, crinkly rather than soft. He worried she might resist as he started to push his hand hard between her legs, but she was making little purring noises that made him think he was doing fine. He levered himself up, pushed her skirt up and tried to roll his chest onto hers, trailing his legs behind him.
‘Ow,’ she said, as her back dug into the bench, and her arm brushed the metalwork. ‘Oh, sorry. Are you OK?’
She wriggled her back into a more comfortable position, pulled his head towards her and as they kissed, he manoeuvred his body into what he assumed to be the right place. He wasn’t sure where his penis was in relation to where he wanted it to be, but when her hand curled round it once more, and she pulled him towards her, it felt right. Then as her hand joined the other on his neck and she started making more purring noises, now with little squeals punctuating them, he was pretty sure that he was losing his virginity. He didn’t know, technically, whether loss of virginity related to penetration only, or whether it required a climax. Either way, one appeared to be completed and the other was not far away. It was then that his problems started. He climaxed, trying not to make too much noise for fear of passers-by seeing them, and as he finished, Rosalie began to punch his back, then his chest, shouting ‘off, off, off’, and he was deeply confused. He had had his first orgasm inside a woman, who until a moment ago appeared to be a consenting partner in this but now, immediately post-orgasm, was trying to banish him. He felt this would be one of those moments that would stay with him for some time, even qualify as one of the final thoughts flashing through his mind on his deathbed. He pulled away from her, at which point she stood up, brushed herself down and ran away, leaving him alone with his rapidly softening penis, her knickers in his pocket, and a worry about what he had done wrong, and how he was going to explain being late home for dinner.
Attachment, by Isabel Fonseca (Chatto & Windus).
They stopped and looked at each other with no message exchanged, no corny smolder, and for this Jean was grateful. She closed her eyes like pulling down the blinds and Dan picked her up, her legs instantly lifting to wrap around him, and carried her not to his bed but to the long lacquered table.
He placed her carefully like a large terra-cotta urn and skillfully set about his work, as concentrated as a specialist restorer focused on her intricate finish, as if she wasn’t even there. A tug here and the top of her dress fell to her waist. He tilted her head back to get under her chin, and his thumbs on her jaw and her throat and her chest moved swiftly, smoothing the skin as if it was quick-drying clay.
[… He] kissed her about her ears. She didn’t know about having her ears kissed – how it pulled like a drawstring threaded right through you, teasing, tightening, bringing you in. With each nuzzling kiss the line extended over other parts of her body, gathering into a new constellation of improbable shapeliness – Archer, Boar, Mermaid – another point from among her scatter of solitary stars. His wide hands now completely covered her breasts and with that wolfish smile, he yanked her bra down, forgetting the fiddly hooks – such attractive, hungry, butterfingered frustration.
The Reserve by Russell Banks (Bloomsbury).
Their passion rose slowly. His because he had never made love like this before, delicately, teasingly, fully aware of each slow turning, and though it frightened him a little, it excited him in a fresh way. Hers rising slowly also, but with her it was because she had made love in this fashion many times before and knew very well its effect on a man who was used to having his way with a woman quickly and efficiently without being conscious of having lost awareness of his body.
Men like Jordan Groves, egocentric sensualists, men whose lovemaking left them with a sense of accomplishment, were rarely truly satisfied by a woman, unless she managed to slow him in his headlong rush. He had to be brought, bit by bit, cell by cell, to complete awareness of his body, moving, as if he were a woman, from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, so that when he did lose his body, he lost everything. Men like Jordan Graves had to be braked and slowed. They were the only men capable of exciting Vanessa’s passion. Slowing them almost to a stopping point gave her a power over them that she otherwise lacked. It brought her out of herself and forward toward another human being and through that other into the shuddering void beyond, and when that happened she cried out in joy. Afterward, with no memory of having cried out, she had to be told of it by her lover, as if she had been elsewhere at the time. For she had been elsewhere – she had left the locked and guarded, dark room of her body for the blinding light of self-forgetfulness, where there was no one to be courted or seduced, where there was no one to affirm her reality by means of his or her gaze, and no one to fail at it over and over again. Making love with men like Jordan Groves let Vanessa Cole believe for a few seconds in the sustained reality of her essential being, even though afterward she could not remember ever having experienced it as such. Even though afterward it was as if self-awareness had been surgically removed and all she had to go on, all she was capable of experiencing, was its phantom.