Rowan Somerville honored with Bad Sex in Fiction Award

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How can you expect a fiction writer to be adept at describing sex when he spends most of his time alone with his computer fighting the urge to view online porn? The problem with writing about sex is that it's difficult to find inventive ways to describe this basic human experience, the mere mention of which makes many people, especially high art snobs, uncomfortable. Then there's the question of taste; an author may describe sex in a way that is sensual to him while offensive to others.

To commemorate blunders in the literary bedroom, Britain's Literary Review awards  "The Bad Sex in Fiction Award" each year to a mainstream author who inspires eye rolling and disgust with his or her descriptions of sexual liaisons.

Rowan Somerville won the literary shame this year for his sexually charged book, The Shape of Her, which includes this sexual simile lacking literary lubricant: "Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her." The book also includes a comparison of a nipple to

the “nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing in the night.”

Somerville defeated the likes of such literary bigwigs as Jonathan Franzen and his book Freedom. The other 2010 candidates include The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon, Maya by Alastair Campbell, A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee, Heartbreak by Craig Raine, and Mr Peanut by Adam Ross.

The award was presented to Somerville at a ceremony in London. Director Michael Winner presented the prize, saying he avoids sex in his own writing as “sex starts with a joke and ends in tragedy.”

In response to the award, Somerville said, “There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you.”

Although the honor is humbling, the list of authors who have won since the award's inception in 1993 include names like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Jonathan Littell.

While there are plenty of more offensive sex scenes in erotic, pornographic, and romance novels, the award is reserved for fiction of a literary quality. Former editor of the Literary Review, Auberon Waugh, started the contest to publicly ridicule  “the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” No word on why the award is not open to nonfiction contenders.

Criticizing bad sex writing is almost as easy as creating bad sexual metaphors. While few can deny the charm of giving away such a prize, one wonders why there's not a "Best Sex" award. Are these literary critics too snobbish to acknowledge a quality sex scene, or would their praise for such a description betray their particular kinks and preferences. The Bad Sex award is simply another reminder of how far removed "high art" believes itself to be from the carnal desires that motivate most humans and fictional characters. Sure there's going to be plenty of awkward sex scenes, especially for people who are already uncomfortable with sex in general. But to discourage writing about sex is like telling authors to stop writing about love or any other significant human encounter that may expose too much of yourself. For trying to innovate and failing, I applaud Somerville. Bad sex is still better than no sex, and a bad sex scene is still more titillating than a book with no sex at all.

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