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Bollocks: Why the Guardian* Bad Sex Award is Essential

Thanks to my Twitter feed yesterday, I ran across this very angry and defensive piece on the Literary Review Bad Sex Award, which is a highlight of my year, along with the Bulwer-Lytton. So let me explain why I disagree with Roger Morris so very thoroughly.

To begin with, perhaps there should be an award for good sex scenes. That’s irrelevant, though, to whether there should be an “award” for fucking appalling sex scenes. The existence of the Oscars in no way precludes the existence of the Razzies, and they obviously do very different things. The existence of awards for good film-making did not stop anyone making Howard the Duck.

What the Bad Sex Award does is point out a curious phenomenon where otherwise perfectly competent writers suddenly have their abilities desert them when writing a sex scene. Morris points out one (fnar) passage from the winner and criticises the judges’ judgement on it, but oddly he ignores the other extract in the Guardian piece:

In the shower, Ed stood with his hands at the back of his head, like someone just arrested, while she abused him with a bar of soap. After a while he shut his eyes, and Diane, wielding her fingernails now and staring at his face, helped him out with two practiced hands, one squeezing the family jewels, the other vigorous with the soap-and-warm-water treatment. It didn’t take long for the beautiful and perfect Ed King to ejaculate for the fifth time in twelve hours, while looking like Roman public-bath statuary. Then they rinsed, dried, dressed, and went to an expensive restaurant for lunch.

I’m sorry. That’s a fucking terrible piece of writing. That’s a cringe-inducing smear of awfulness.

Why does this happen? Because of the way we treat sex as different, and separate from, everything else. We don’t write Meal Scenes, or Driving Scenes, but we don’t write a piece that happens to have sex in it, we write a Sex Scene.

We see this quite a bit at Bardic Web. People sit down to write a sex scene and start sweating with stress. Their writing style completely changes. Their characters cease to be characters.

I’ve run workshops on writing sex scenes, and the first thing you have to do is justify why you have sex scenes at all. The answer to this is actually pretty simple, but it depends on integrating sex as a part of life, not compartmentalising it as something either magically special or dirty and wrong – either attitude makes people awkward and uncomfortable with writing it.

If your story features a sexual/romantic relationship, then the actual sex is a really important part of both your plot and character development. The way someone has sex is an expression of their experiences and their personality. Are they awkward, sensual, hedonistic, mechanical, hide-bound, experimental? As Russell T. Davies had Ianto say of Jack on Torchwood, “bordering on the avant garde”? Even if you never write it out, as an author you should know.

And sex is an vital, central part of a relationship. What happens the first time a couple have sex? In real-world terms, not soft-focus, no dialogue, romantic strings. Who’s the aggressor? Who makes the ‘first move’, who takes control? Is it slightly awkward? Was it planned, was either party surprised, was it more or less pleasurable or emotional than anyone was expecting?

In order to express those things, you need a reasonable amount of detail. And yes, vocabulary can be a problem. Some writers tend to be either far too abstract and flowery ( we asked for a ban on “manhood”, and any metaphors involving plants or weather systems), or too clinical. You don’t want to be using words that make the reader do a double-take, and you don’t want to be using the same words over and over.

Yeah, it’s not easy. But writing’s not easy. As Michael Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” That’s no excuse for churning out bollocks only in your sex scenes.

So yes, for as long as we’re this uncomfortable with sex, the Literary Review Bad Sex Award shouldn’t be going anywhere.

*I’ve had several conversations on-line about this award in the last couple of days, and everyone refers to it as the “Guardian Bad Sex Award”. Despite the strong association with The Guardian, the award actually “belongs” to the Literary Review. But, call it that and most people don’t know WTF you’re talking about.

3 responses to “Bollocks: Why the Guardian* Bad Sex Award is Essential

  1. Max Rose December 9, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    One of the problems with the awards is the assumption that sex scenes should be sexy, and if they are written to be awkward and clunky they have failed. But awkwardness and clunkiness are a part of life, and all too often a part of sex, so scenes of bad sex should be expected. That’s not quite the same as a bad sex scene, but with first-person narration one might expect the narrator’s prudishness, awkwardness, crudeness or poor vocabulary to show through.

    Which is not to say that there is some terrible sex writing out there, or that Morris has a point. But sometimes the judges really seem to have missed the point of certain scenes (that 1Q84 one among them).

    • Emma December 9, 2011 at 1:28 pm

      I think probably the one thing he did have a point about was the Murakami. When I read through the finalists it just didn’t seem to sit with the others. And you can make almost anything sound clunky if you take it far enough out of context.

      But yes. If you integrate sex as part of plot and character, and even theme, then you do get less sexy sex and more real sex. More range, more variation, because it’s more individual.

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