Some time ago, we announced the Literary Review‘s finalists for the one of the world’s most dreaded competitions – a prize for the most embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel. The awards ceremony for the 20th annual award finally took place last week at the In & Out (Naval & Military) Club in St James’s Square, where 400 guests raised a toast to the winner.
And the winner is … Canadian writer Nancy Huston, with her novel Infrared. I know, I know … you want me to deliver the goods. Well, here’s the Literary Review‘s version of why they bestowed the award on Huston:
“Sentences from the novel such as ‘Kamal and I are totally immersed in flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ caught the judges’ attention. One long passage in particular stood out:
‘He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, my self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate…”
My goodness, I don’t think it’s all that bad. Is that the worst they could do? I think the other finalists were daffier – go here and see if you agree. (By the by, John Updike received the lifetime achievement award in 2008.)
A friend recently protested against the Literary Review‘s anti-award, saying it inhibited writers from trying to describe sex at all. I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Gone are the days when a writer like Henry James could describe the sexual fever of a hand brushing across the back of another. Gone are the days when Jane Austen could convey more passion with a blush more than most of today’s writers can express with an orgy. We’ve lost the ability to describe the range of nuances in affection, love, devotion, rejection in our haste to describe the relentless interlocking of body parts.
According to Literary Review editor Jonathan Beckman, that’s exactly the reason why former editor Auberon Waugh founded the prize in the first place: “He was genuinely convinced that publishers were encouraging novelists to include sex scenes solely in order to increase sales. The award’s remit was ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it’.” I couldn’t agree more.
The Paris-based Huston has received more conventional awards, such as the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens and Prix Femina, but she seems to hold a special place in her heart for her newest distinction. In a statement read at the ceremony, she announced, “I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.”
To which we can only add: Please no. Not that. Anything but that.
Huston is married to the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov. On Twitter, Elif Batuman responded: “I just learned that the winner of this year’s Bad Sex Award is married to Tzvetan Todorov and it is ROCKING MY WORLD.” No further explanation offered. After all, it was only a tweet.
It’s not often that two guys having a literary discussion end up by hauling off and whacking each other. And yet it happened in the city of my alma mater, after several hours of serious drinking:
A 34-year-old Ann Arbor man was sent to the hospital with a head injury after another man punched him on Saturday during a literary argument, according to police. … the man was sitting on the porch with some people he had just met, talking about books and authors.
The 34-year-old man was then approached by another party guest, who started speaking to him in a condescending manner. An argument ensued and the man was suddenly struck in the side of the head, suffering a cut to his left ear …
The injured man – who was smacked so hard his glasses flew off and a lens popped out – was treated at a local hospital.
The story jumped from Ann Arbor to The Guardian, whose blogger, Sam Jordison, telephoned Michigan to get the scoop: “The details remain sketchy, but the prominent rumour around town is that the men were disputing the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.”
Then Jordison shares his own self-satisfaction and his derision of his betters (Henry James, for example, is “the old windbag”) – apparently, he never loses a fight and is always right, just like the rest of us. (It is the one thing we all have in common.) Then he asks a question:
But all this does make me wonder whether anyone else has experienced book-based violence. Have you had a literary argument so heated that you’ve only been able to resolve it with blows? Or could you imagine doing so – or at least losing your cool? And what’s your tipping point? If, for example, I were to inform you that J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace is a clever book for people who don’t like to think, would you hold it against me? And how do you like to annoy other book-lovers?
Here’s a few.
Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ‘All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.’ So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’
So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.
Then there’s the time that Desmond Leslie punched journalist and theater critic Bernard Levin in front of 11 million viewers over an article Levin had written about his wife, the actress Agnes Bernelle. The incident occurred the TV show That Was The Week That Was in 1962.
I am forced to come to the conclusion that book-lovers are a quarrelsome lot, not so much from these incidents as from some of the unsupported character assassination in the reader replies (though they did tip me off about where to find the best fights). Basta! What is it in us that likes to watch a fight? As Virgil says to Dante in the Inferno: “To hear such wrangling is a joy for vulgar minds.” It’s one reason the Inferno has always been more popular than the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Something to remember when one indulges in the “Comments” sections.
The two who come out best from the whole mess are … those two tweedy Oxford dons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Lewis, in particular, was generous and self-sacrificing to an extreme, and though the two men disagreed, they remained gentlemen and friends.
According to an article in The Australian:
For centuries, the semicolon has carved out a tenuous – but precious – place for itself between the comma and the colon.Without the humble semicolon, some of the greatest achievements of English prose – the looping, qualified sentences of Henry James; the elaborate, ironic juxtapositions of Evelyn Waugh – would not have been possible. It has endured; it has persisted; it has even thrived.
But now – under the various pressures of texting, email, journalese, “plain English” and PowerPoint – the career of the semicolon appears rapidly to be approaching a full-stop.
The rare, and usually middle-aged, journalists [Ahem! – ED.] who still revere the semicolon will discover it is no favourite of sub-editors, who will nowadays allow the comma to do much of the semi’s previous work of co-ordinating ideas inside a sentence. And as sentences get shorter, there is less of that work to do.
In short (literally), texting, email, tweets – all have given rise to the impatient, minimalist sentence. The semicolon, it appears, has become an endangered species.
Even technical and legal documents – the bread-and-butter of semicolons everywhere – are dumping their hardworking employees: the middle-aged semicolon is giving way to younger, fancy bulleted points that think they are hot stuff.
Still, the humble punctuation mark has its champions: Author David Malouf argues for its continued employment: “If you want longer sentences and still allow readers to find their way through, then the semicolon is very good,” he says. “I tend to write longer sentences and use the semicolon so as not to have to break the longer sentences into shorter ones that would suggest things are not connected that I want people to see as connected.
“Short sentences make for fast reading; often you want slow reading.” Like wanting slow food, cooked for hours, over something quick you can grab at a fast food joint. Like “dining” versus “having something to eat.”
In a vulgar age, however, good things must be put to vulgar uses, and Pavlova‘s pirouettes must make way for pole dancing:
If this most subtle of punctuation marks is to survive, it may well be inside one of the most vulgar: the emoticon.
To which the only fitting response must be: ;*(