Bad sex award twosome: prize goes to Didier Decoin and John Harvey

‘Britain’s most dreaded literary prize’ for bad sex in fiction awarded to the novels The Office of Gardens and Ponds and Pax

In a year of two Booker prize winners and two Nobel laureates, the Bad sex award has plumped for two recipients of “Britain’s most dreaded literary prize”: Prix Goncourt winner Didier Decoin and British novelist John Harvey.

Established in 1993 by the Literary Review editor Auberon Waugh and critic Rhoda Koenig, the award is for “the year’s most outstandingly awful scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel”. It is intended to draw attention to “the poorly written, redundant, or downright cringeworthy passages of sexual description in modern fiction”.

Decoin, a French author who received the Prix Goncourt in 1977 for his novel John l’Enfer, won for passages in his novel The Office of Gardens and Ponds, a fable set in Japan 1,000 years ago. It includes descriptions such as: “Katsuro moaned as a bulge formed beneath the material of his kimono, a bulge that Miyuki seized, kneaded, massaged, squashed and crushed. With the fondling, Katsuro’s penis and testicles became one single mound that rolled around beneath the grip of her hand. Miyuki felt as though she was manipulating a small monkey that was curling up its paws.”

Harvey, the author of five novels and a life fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, was nominated for his novel Pax, which featured this scene: “She was burning hot and the heat was in him. He looked down on her perfect black slenderness. Her eyes were ravenous. Like his own they were fire and desire. More than torrid, more than tropical: they two were riding the equator. They embraced as if with violent holding they could weld the two of them one.”

This is the first time either author has won the prize. In a statement announcing the result on Monday night, the judges said: “Faced with two unpalatable contenders, we found ourselves unable to choose between them. We believe the British public will recognise our plight.”

In a clear callback to the controversial decision to award two Booker prizes this year, when chair of judges Peter Florence claimed, “We tried voting, that didn’t work … We couldn’t separate them”, the Bad sex judges said they were unable to choose even “after hours of tortuous debate”.

“We tried voting, but it didn’t work,” they said. “We tried again. Ultimately, there was no separating the winners.”

Other titles up for this year’s award included The River Capture by Mary Costello (“She begged him to go deeper and, no longer afraid of injuring her, he went deep in mind and body, among crowded organ cavities, past the contours of her lungs and liver, and, shimmying past her heart, he felt her perfection”); City of Girls by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert (“I screamed as though I were being run over by a train”); and Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel (“For most of the proceedings he felt his own desire as if it were tethered to a wire, a bright red balloon floating in his peripheral vision, but eventually he burst through.”).

The award, which is traditionally announced at a ceremony at the In & Out (Naval & Military) Club in London, has been dominated by male novelists over the years. Only three women have won in 26 years, with authors including Sebastian Faulks, John Updike and Giles Coren taking the dubious honour, and with varying reactions. While Coren turned up to the ceremony and said, “I wish I’d written them all”, Tom Wolfe boycotted the prize when he triumphed in 2004 for a scene in I Am Charlotte Simmons that included the line “slither slither slither slither went the tongue”.

“There’s an old saying: ‘You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her sing.’ In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it,” Wolfe said later.

Last year’s prize was won by James Frey for the novel Katerina, which included lines such as: “One. White. God. Cum. Cum. Cum. I close my eyes let out my breath. Cum.” Frey took the prize in good humour, saying he was “deeply honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious award”.


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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