Sexual healing: James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room voted best erotic passage

Author beats contenders including Jeanette Winterton, DH Lawrence and Philip Roth in the Literary Hub’s contest to find the best sex writing

A passage from James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room has won a tournament of literary sex writing launched by the Literary Hub to reward the best erotic passages from literature.

In stark contrast to the Bad Sex in Fiction prize run by the Literary Review, which seeks to single out “poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description”, the Lit Hub site set out to find the best sex writing in literature. Judges including the writers Roxane Gay, Candace Bushnell and John Ashbery considered passages drawn from the past 200 years, with an extract from Baldwin’s novel emerging triumphant on Friday morning over fellow finalist Jeanette Winterson.

Giovanni’s Room tells of David, a young American in Paris, who has just proposed to his girlfriend but is drawn to bartender Giovanni while she is away on a trip. The winning extract deals with narrator David’s early homosexual encounter with his friend Joey.

Baldwin writes: “Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as it were, by accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other ...

To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.

Winterson’s contender, from Written on the Body, describes how “she smells of the sea. She smells of rockpools when I was a child. She keeps a starfish in there. I crouch down to taste the salt, to run my fingers around the rim. She opens and shuts like a sea anemone. She’s refilled each day with fresh tides of longing.”

The judges said Baldwin’s passage was “almost unanimously” chosen as the overall winner.

“There is a good reason most awards given for sex writing are for bad sex writing: to commit to words that most intimate and personal act is generally a doomed undertaking. For even our best writers, to describe sex is to veer between the biological and the euphemistic, the soft-focus and the fluorescent. It rarely works. And yet many have tried, and will continue to do so,” said LitHub, announcing the contest last week.

The competition is designed as a tournament, with writing divided into four groups: everything prior to the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, then writing between 1922 and 1955 when Lolita was published, then 1955 until the 1980s, and then from the 1980s until the present.

These divides were chosen for the first round “in the interest of fairness, variety, and to reflect the literary canon without being entirely dead, white, male, straight”, according to LitHub editor, Jonny Diamond. This was as well as marking “shifts in mores as reflected in literary scandals. The first era was pre-1922 Ulysses, followed by Lolita in 1955 … We did this to avoid Kathy Acker being compared to Flaubert. After the first round, we opened up the competition regardless of era.”

The passages selected, said Diamond, were intended to be “the more iconic examples”. “For example, we went with a selection from Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth, even though there are probably better sex passages in Roth’s oeuvre. People have complained about this, but that was inevitable, no matter what.”

The initial “Sexy Sixteen” contenders, which LitHub said was selected from “many, many worthy candidates”, featured authors including Henry Miller, Annie Proulx, Erica Jong, Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston. This list was narrowed down to “The Erotic Eight” and “The Final Four of F*cking”.

Baldwin’s entry beat Jong in the first round, Bram Stoker in the second and an extract from DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which “all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamouring, like a sea anemone under the tide, clamouring for him to come in again and make fulfilment for her”, in the third round.

The poet and judge John Ashbery said the Lawrence passage was “ridden with embarrassing clichés”, but that Baldwin writes of “just things as they happen”, ‘another person’s body, […] another person’s smell’. In other words, chances are this really happened.”

Diamond said that the tournament coincides with the American college basketball tournament, known as March Madness, a single elimination tournament comprised of one massive bracket. “We were talking about doing something fun in that format, from a literary perspective, and literary sex writing just seemed the obvious choice. It’s easy to find bad examples, and very hard to find good— considering this is pretty much a basic and universal experience, we thought we’d try to figure out who’s done it well.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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