Novelists who have strayed into the more intimate realms in their recent writing will have breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday after the Literary Review announced it had cancelled this year’s Bad sex in fiction awards.
The prize was set up in 1993 by Auberon Waugh, with the intention of “gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”. Last year it was jointly won by Didier Decoin for The Office of Gardens and Ponds, which included the passage: “Miyuki felt as though she was manipulating a small monkey that was curling up its paws”, and John Harvey for Pax, in which the characters “embraced as if with violent holding they could weld the two of them one”.
The award’s judges said they took the decision because they felt “the public had been subjected to too many bad things this year to justify exposing it to bad sex as well”. Fewer books were published this year because of the coronavirus, and this was likely to have been a factor, too.
But the judges warned authors not to take the cancellation as a “licence to write bad sex”.
“With lockdown regulations giving rise to all manner of novel sexual practices, the judges anticipate a rash of entries next year,” said a spokesperson. “Authors are reminded that cybersex and other forms of home entertainment fall within the purview of this award. Scenes set in fields, parks or back yards, or indoors with the windows open and fewer than six people present will not be exempt from scrutiny.”
The prize was first won by Melvyn Bragg for a scene from A Time to Dance. “I won six other awards but that’s the one they remember,” Bragg later said. “Ian McEwan said it’s the most envied prize in the English language. I thought I wrote about sex pretty well, actually.”
Some authors take the win in good spirits. James Frey, winning in 2018 for his novel Katerina, which includes a scene containing eight separate references to ejaculate, called himself “deeply honoured and humbled” to win. Tom Wolfe, however, taking the prize for a passage in I Am Charlotte Simmons that included the line “slither slither slither slither went the tongue”, responded: “You can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it.”
And Morrissey, who won for his novel List of the Lost and its reference to “the pained frenzy” of a “bulbous salutation”, said he felt it was “best to maintain an indifferent distance” from the award, “because there are too many good things in life to let these repulsive horrors pull you down”.