It has become a bit of a literary institution, the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, for the most excruciating depiction of a love-making scenario. This year it has been won by US-based mathematics professor, Manil Suri, 54, for a section in his novel The City of Devi where three characters interlock in inter-galactic intimacy.
The award in intended to highlight “crude, badly written or perfunctory use of sexual description” so winning is a mixed honor, but it is usually seen as a bit of an in-joke and all in good fun, and Suri has joined previous recipients to accept it with grace. He didn’t attend the ceremony, but sent his publishers, Bloomsbury, along to accept on his behalf.
His scientific sounding sex sparked “shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei” and “Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy” as a physicist and his wife go to bed in Mumbai with a young gay Muslim man, on the brink of the threat of nuclear war. “The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karn’s body, locked with mine, remains.”
The prize was established by The Literary Review, under editor Auberon Waugh, in 1993, and they soon saw they were onto a jolly jape, as it is notoriously difficult to write convincingly well about sex, without provoking sniggers.
Suri’s attempt relies heavily on astronomical metaphor, after the cosmic copulators have streaked “like superheroes past suns and solar systems” they breakthrough to a “fourth star” and, perhaps most surprisingly of all “statisticians the world over rejoice.”
Bloomsbury reminded the audience that the Times Literary Supplement had praised the sex scenes as being “unfettered, quirky, beautiful, tragic and wildly experimental” and that there were, as Tolstoy once had Anna Karenina say “as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” They urged the 400 guests in attendance to take the book to bed with them. However, the Bad Sex judges clearly found the scenes to be more quarky than quirky.
Sometimes known as the “Dreaded” Bad Sex Award, for the mixed blessings it confers on a writer’s reputation, most who win accept with a smile, knowing that there is no such thing as bad publicity, only, as Oscar Wilde quipped, no publicity. The run up to Christmas is a fine time for a boost to sales.
The City of Devi faced stiff competition. Susan Choi’s My Education made a good stab at first place with her “magma” that “still heaved and groaned and was yearning to fling itself into the air” also taking a geophysical line. Also in competition was Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth; “in the fires of her stomach she strained and moved to bathe his blood into the rumble and the thunder of her own” and The Victoria System by Eric Reinhardt, with the wonderful line “My erection beat time in my underwear.”
Pornography or intently erotic writing is banned from the judging, hence the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey being exempt from the distinction. It would otherwise made a good candidate for the Bad Sex in Fiction award. Previous winners in this priapic pantheon include Melvyn Bragg, Norman Mailer, AA Gill, Tom Wolfe and Sebastian Faulks.
Author William Nicholson was also nominated this year for his novel Motherland, and he wrote defensibly about having made the shortlist. He rose a petition for a Good Sex Award to counterbalance it. He said that, although he wrote often about sex in his books, his reaction on hearing about his selection was “shame and anger.” Although he then quickly tried to convert this to the “its just a joke” reaction, he felt his original response was the valid one. “So yes, it hurts,” he admitted, but “why spoil the fun by taking it too seriously?”
Nicholson’s underlying point is, that in a society super-saturated with sex, there has to be a place for it in the novel. He writes about relationships “about the struggle to love and be loved, and the mess we make of it” and feels it would be irresponsible to duck “the realm of sex.” He calls for the Literary Review, if it truly cares about literature, to establish an award for writing on sex that is “subtle, tasteful, fully developed and necessary.”
Manil Suri, along with William Nicholson, no doubt hoped that his writing ticked the subtle and tasteful boxes, but nonetheless he is the winner of the 2013 Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
By Kate Henderson