I wrote last year about the Bad Sex Awards, given for bad writing about … well, sex obviously. Last year Manil Suri carried it with this fine exemplar:

“Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.”

This year Ben Okri, author of “The Famished Road” took it. The BBC’s write-up only  contained a short extract, which I didn’t find too bad at all:

When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain.

Compared to the other nominee, Richard Flanagan’s writing (“He kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world.”) it didn’t seem that bad. I was going to say they messed up, but the further extracts from the guardian report here fit in a bit better with the tone of previous competition winners.

Confession: I admire Ben Okri greatly. I already bought a copy of this book (The Age of Magic) and this award doesn’t diminish my anticipation at all. But — perhaps because for once someone I like was affected — I’m liking the idea of this award less.  I think William Nicholson  on what it feels like to be nominated, whether this award makes sense and why we should maybe have a good sex award:


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…

The more I puzzle over this, the more I find myself asking, why is sex being singled out here? Bad writing can deal with romantic love, or murder, or the weather. Why sex?

Well, it’s more fun, for a start. Awards pillorying the use of the pathetic fallacy in the modern novel wouldn’t make for much of a party. But there’s more to it than that. I think there’s an underlying assumption that it’s not good form to write about sex as if it really matters. Irony, dirty jokes, porn, all fine. But serious sex – that’s a private matter. We all do it, but there’s no need to talk about it.

If the Literary Review cares about literature, and not just about having a good party, let its editors institute alongside the Bad Sex award a Good Sex award. Let them champion writing about sex that is subtle, tasteful, fully developed, and necessary. Let them show they take sex seriously, and can do more than snigger about it.

Nicholson is right. Most entries that win do so because their prose is overly earnest, something that is easy to mock in a time when ironic detachment is the norm. But I think there’s something to be said for the honesty of this approach, the naivete we belittle — we make fun of things we fear, and sex is no exception.