Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Bad Sex Awards 2018

Earlier this month, the winner of the 26th annual Literary Review Bad Sex In Fiction Award was won by author James Frey for KATERINA. The novel is described by its publisher, John Murray, as ‘a sweeping love story alternating between 1992 Paris and Los Angeles in 2017.’ It is billed as a fictional retelling of a love affair experienced by Frey in France in the 1990s.

One of the Amazon reviews for Frey’s KATERINA says, “I had never read any of his work. Then I read a few reviews saying that ‘Katerina’ might have been the worst thing published this year—which made me pay attention. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.” The reviewer gave the book four stars.

The Bad Sex Award was established in 1993 by Auberon Waugh, the then editor of the Literary Review, and literary critic Rhoda Koenig. It was designed to ‘draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.’ And it was not intended to apply to work that is intended to be erotic or pornographic right from the outset. For some reason, Vince Cable’s novel, OPEN ARMS, was deemed not to qualify for the Award in 2017 on the grounds that its author was a Member of Parliament.

The shortlist for this year was all male. I’m not sure how important that is in terms of how male authors or female authors write sex scenes in their novels. Perhaps there is a point to be made there? But, I think it may be one of the few times female authors will not be lobbying for a more gender-balanced final line-up.

So, the shortlist:

THE PAPER LOVERS by Gerard Woodward, who was also nominated for the Booker. A two-star Amazon review is headed: ‘The pitfalls of suburban shagging.’

KILLING COMMENDATORE by Haruki Murakami. A three-star Amazon review reads: “My problem is that his handling of sex is not only gratuitous—certainly does not add anything to the storyline—but it’s soooooo deadly dull. Yes—people have sex. Can we get on with the story now?” 

And SCOUNDRELS by Major Victor Cornwell & Major Arthur St John Trevelyan, edited by Duncan Crowe and James Peak. Described in one Amazon five-star review as “Possibly the most ridiculous book I have ever read. Puerile, bawdy, crude, grotesque, caddish, filthy, saucy, mildly offensive and very silly. This is my kind of literature.”

In the opinion of the judges of this year’s Award, KATERINA emerged the winner after days of consideration because: “James Frey prevailed against a strong all-male shortlist by virtue of the sheer number and length of dubious erotic passages in his book. The multiple scenes of sustained fantasy in Katerina could have won Frey the award many times over.”

To spare your blushes here, if you want to read examples of these books’ worthiness for inclusion on the shortlist, I’ll include a link to the appropriate page of the Literary Review. Let me just say that any writers contemplating a sex scene who use the words like warm butter, pestled, chugging, vaginal ratchet, and compares intercourse to a boa constrictor swallowing its prey, they have my reluctant and every so slightly wincing admiration.

Not so much that these phrases were used in the first place—we are all striving, after all, to find a new way of describing actions and emotions that might otherwise seem commonplace—but that they survived the editing process. I can only imagine the poor audiobook narrators trying to read all this out without letting the laughter loose in their voices.

Let’s face it, writing about sex is tricky. Do you go all out, as it were, or leave your enamoured couple coyly at the bedroom door and beat a hasty retreat marked by a line of asterisks?

Sometimes it's best to leave things at the bedroom door...
And anything that seems appropriate to the story during the writing process may no longer appear so when read out of context. I speak as someone who took part in a panel at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival a few years ago, chaired by Stuart MacBride. He organised the panel as a kind of quiz show, in which he included a Missing Words round. I won’t quote the sentence from one of my books that he ultimately read to the 400-strong audience. Suffice to say, the missing word was ‘condom’… We’ll leave it at that, shall we?

I’m not a prolific writer of sex scenes. There has to be a pretty good reason why one is required in a straightforward crime thriller rather than something that falls into the romantic suspense genre. But, the stories which mean most to us are all about characters and how they react and intersect within the framework of the narrative. Sex can be an important part of a relationship—it defines and changes things.

So, sometimes, it does feel necessary to step into the bedroom with your creations and not only watch what they do but also take notes. As for how the results will be read—with embarrassment, avid interest, or scorn, we can only imagine.

The link to the shortlist quotes in Literary Review, as promised: click here.

This week’s Word of the Week is agamic, which in British English means asexual, occurring or reproducing without fertilisation. In American English it means having no sexual union, or able to develop without fertilisation by the male. From the Greek agamos meaning unmarried.


  1. Agemic? Now, where's the fun in THAT?

  2. I love the five star review! Here's someone who is honest!

  3. Wonderful, Zoe. You've made me laugh out loud twice this week (here and with that Tweet about petty crime in London and the NYTimes :). To my utter astonishment, I get compliments about my love scenes only from men. In the books at least, the female characters are enjoying them too.

    Regarding the all male shortlist above, could it be because, for some men, lots of sex is enough to make a good story? Most women, I imagine, would like something else in addition. But I could be wrong.

    1. Hi Annamaria. Thank you for that. I aim to entertain. I remember being on a panel at an event years ago with a particular writer who explained to the audience that he worked out all the fight scenes in his books by acting them out with his dog. Then the discussion moved on to sex scenes, and I'm afraid I couldn't resist...

      The next time the writer saw me, a couple of years later, he looked me in the eye and said, "Ah, my nemesis..."

  4. I can see Vince Cable being called on by the Speaker, "Will the member rise?"

    1. LOL. Very good, David, although I think you'll find it should be 'the honourable member'. He is a Sir, after all... :))

    2. Honorable? Wow, from the way this was headed I thought you were going for “on her a bull” but that would be very wrong.

    3. Now, Jeff, you're making up your own jokes. I like that about you. xx