I may be wrong (and correct me if so), but I don’t think there are a huge number of prizes out there for bad writing. There’s this one, but the one that springs most immediately to mind, here in the UK at least, is The Bad Sex Award, whose remit is to ‘draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.’ To be completely fair, it’s ‘not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature,’ but for the sake of this post I’m going to talk about both erotica and more mainstream fiction.
At the moment, I’m reading Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard, which has a sex scene very early on. I came to it (no double-entendre intended) wary, partly because it was recommended by my boss, and partly because I went to see the author speak about it last Friday night, and she described the sex as ‘a real knee trembler,’ which I found a bit cringy and coy for someone who, actually, can write sex and who, bravely for a mainstream novel, is writing about a woman in her mid-50s having good sex. She writes to her lover, and she says ‘Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf.’
That line won’t work for everybody. Won’t work for many people, probably. It didn’t make me horny, but it stuck, the way lines from prose I love do, for me. The way ‘It didn’t last, and it wasn’t love, but we had our moments,’ from Anne Raverat’s Signs of Life is still on the tip of my tongue weeks after I read it.
Let’s stick with animal similes/metaphors now we’ve started. In Alison Tyler’s anthology Sudden Sex, there’s a story by Gina Marie called Seasonal Affected Disorder. Kristina Lloyd reviewed that story before I bought the book, and reading that review and what it had to say about the use of the word goat (‘He bites at my neck. “A fucking beast of an animal,” he says, “A horny little fucking beast. An excitable little fainting goat.”‘) was what drove me to Amazon. Not because the goat thing made me wet – it’s generally hard to tell from a few very short extracts in a review whether a story will make you wet or not – but because I thought that as writing goes, it’s fucking brave. And actually, yes, I have wanked to it since, so it does work for me.
Back to the mainstream, and Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters, and this, my favourite bit:
“I did the fellatio thing,” Caitlin said as she and Vix were driving home one night, the rumble of thunder in the distance. “He loved it. It made him crazy.”
“But what about … you know.”
“It wasn’t that bad, if you don’t mind warm gooey laundry detergent.”
It’s definitely *not* traditionally hot sex writing. If Blume wrote it today, I daresay she’s famous enough that it may well make the Bad Sex Award shortlist. As I’ve said many times before though, I like my sex, and my erotica, visceral, and there’s no doubt that it’s that. It even pops into my mind sometimes when I’m giving head (no reflection on the guy I’m fucking or the way he tastes!). I just like it.
I was having a conversation with someone the other day about a erotic novel and asking what they thought about it. “I think the prose is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness,” was the response, and I understand that to mean that the author takes risks with language, and, as a result, every so often misses the mark. That’s fine, on two counts: firstly, I think what works for the individual in erotica is deeply, deeply personal, so what works for one person is almost certain to leave another cold. Secondly, I would far, *far* read something that took risks and sometimes got it wrong than something which played it super safe and left me feeling meh.
I really, really wanted to end this by giving examples from the Bad Sex Award Shortlist that I think work better/are hotter than the judges are implying. Sadly, I do think that most of the ones in the Guardian article that I linked to at the top of this post are pretty awful. But I don’t think that changes the fundamental point. And, if you have examples of unusual/’bad’ sex scenes in literature that do it for you, please, *please* leave them in the comments.
I *love* that wolf line. It actually is fairly erotic to me, but maybe because I can envision – and want – sex like that. But even if they don’t turn me on, like you, lines of prose that move me that way stay with me long after I read them.
This is a very thought provoking post. One thing came to mind: some of us like green beans, others don’t. Some of us like swimming, others don’t. What some of us find bad sex writing, others might totally love. Isn’t it like this with everything? We all have different opinions, love different kinds of things, and that’s a good thing. And, I don’t mind reading bad sex writing either – meaning what *I* consider as bad sex writing – because I can learn from that.
INteresting stuff. One of my favourite erotic novels is War Clouds by Artemis Oakgrove, and the writing is *diabolical* (OK, compared to EL James AE is, you know, any mid-list competent hack…) but the plot, and the characters, and the utterly insane world of trans/butch/dyke motorcycle gangsters and their tangled love lives mean I have read it again and again.
I agree so much. Some people can write sex and some people can write about sex. I like to think (and I may be kidding myself) that I’m reasonareasonably proficient at the latter, but my attempts at the former have been so arse-clenchingly, cringe worthy that they have been purged from existence.
I’ll stick to what (I hope) I’m reasonably good at.
I think there is a difference between sex writing that doesn’t do it for you and bad sex writing. I have read lots of stuff that is just not my thing but that doesn’t mean it is written badly, however I have read some truly terrible sex writing in my time… one that sticks in my head to this day was a scene where the male character ‘writes his name inside the woman’s love box with his rod’ I will grant you, it is hilarious but not sexy.
Very interesting and Completely agree. I would much rather read something that took risks and occasionally missed than a piece that never did and missed its potential because that.
I find it interesting how vastly different many of our thoughts on what is and is not good sex writing are. The E.L. James books were atrocious on many levels for me, although I did read them for a book club I was part of at the time, but I have a girlfriend who just could not get enough. I’ve read some of the Bad Sex Award excerpts and what I like about some of them is their marked difference from the “Harlequin” type of sex my aunts read. I think part of the problem is that we are unable to write about sex because we are unable to talk about it in an open and honest manner with our mothers or daughters or aunts. Because there has been a stigma in even talking about it that shows up in the writing of it.
I am going to have to check out some of the books mentioned in this post and the comments.
I wonder, in regards to bad sex writing (different from sex you’re not interested in) if the reason people respond to it, enjoy it, and keep going back for more is because they transcend the words completely. The words are meaningless at a certain point. The picture has been painted in the reader’s mind and that’s what they’re responding to. It’s almost as if they don’t see the words but the ideas and visuals their own mind has created.