An evening of bad sex…but is it bad enough?


She’s honored. (Photo: Elena Torre)

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.


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3 Responses to “An evening of bad sex…but is it bad enough?”

  1. John Adams Says:

    Prize-giving as ridicule doesn’t seem to be having the intended effect. Even badly written sex sells. Eros calls for something better.

    As ever, Jacques Barzun looks deeper into a question, in this case of sex scenes in books. In “Venus at Large: Sexuality and the Limits of Literature” he concludes:

    “Since sexuality is of our very being, sex cannot be called illegitimate, immoral, or uninteresting. But it is terribly limited; and its appeal being unfailing, it is – or it ends by being – a cheap device. When, moreover, sex is present to make up for deprivations in the culture of a whole age, it becomes a burden to literature. As Shaw said in praising the purity of Poe, ‘Literature is not a keyhole for people with starved affections to peep through at the banquet of the body.’ One is permitted to think that the glut of sex in our prose and verse fictions will remain as the special mark of our work, the brand of the times on our genius; and one may perhaps imagine further that sooner or later a Cervantes will come, who in a comic saga of sex will bury our standardized bedroom adventures like so many tales of chivalry.”

    Before reaching that conclusion, though, he surveys a broad array of literary sex examples before distinguishing those from sexuality: “Sex – that is to say the particulars of the act – is an inescapably trite and insignificant event for literature. …

    “Sexuality is on the contrary the very atmosphere in which all literature breathes and lives. But sexuality can be made palpable in thousands of ways, ancient, modern, and still to be discovered. There is surely more to the sexual instinct and its derivatives than the rapid mechanical transaction we have been given as its sum and summit. There are tendernesses and hesitancies, sensations and fantasies that are not of the readily nameable sort, and the language for them does not as yet exist. It is the business of art to create it.”

    Excerpted in *A Jacques Barzun Reader*, Michael Murray, ed., HarperCollins, 2002, pages 175–186; full essay in *Encounter* magazine, March 1966, pages 24–30.

  2. John Adams Says:

    Dear Cynthia:

    I used two hyphens to give the sense of em-dashes before “a cheap device” but WordPress wouldn’t let them be. Would you please restore them before publishing the comment above? Thanks.

    The strange operation of the WordPress “smart quotes” feature also drives me to distraction.

    I enjoy your “Book Haven” very much.

    Warm regards,


    P.S., My photocopy of “Venus at Large” shows the Stanford Libraries stamp on the edge. If you don’t have ready access to either the JB Reader or bound volumes of Encounter, I’d be glad to scan the latter and make it available to you via Dropbox. Just say the word.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Forgive, forgive, John! Just found this post as I was cleaning out my spam folder!