Putting the 'rot' in eroticism

STEPHEN BAYLEY is a London design consultant and author of "A Dictionary of Idiocy" (Gibson Square Books, London, 2003).

NO. 4 ST. JAMES' Square has played a part in English national life for more than 300 years. It was built in 1679 as the London home of the 11th Earl of Kent. Nancy Astor, the American woman who became the first female member of Parliament, lived there.

This week, it was host to the annual "Bad Sex in Fiction Awards," the 13th in a series of deflationary accolades that since 1993 has lampooned dysfunctional literature.

The awards were established by Auberon Waugh and Rhoda Koenig of the Literary Review, a small but well-respected magazine kept in print by eccentric enthusiasm rather than big budgets. "Bron" Waugh, who died in 2001, was the eldest son of Evelyn Waugh, England's greatest comic novelist. A much-loved eccentric, very much his father's son, the younger Waugh had suffered accidental, near-fatal self-inflicted injuries with a machine gun while on military service in Cyprus that had given him a very particular view of life. He had an eye for a pretty girl and a well-developed taste for wine; he cultivated pet hates, nourished acidulous animosities, despised posturing and cant, relished absurdities and delighted in tormenting the establishment.

The Bad Sex Awards are a fine Waugh memorial. Although there are elements of the scatological tastes and puerile delight in smut that are typical of the English public (which is to say: "private") schoolboy, the Bad Sex Awards are not concerned with pornography or even erotica. Instead, their province is the "literary novel" with all its high-flying absurdities and pretensions. The first winner was Melvyn (Lord) Bragg, a grandee of London media and a political favorite with a keen estimation of his own self-worth. Bragg's "A Time to Dance" was cited for its epic, wince-producing passages.

Last year's award went to Tom Wolfe for "I am Charlotte Simmons," an ambitious project in which his normally infallible touch occasionally left him. Judges cited Wolfe's clunking description of a kiss: "Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth." And a moment later: "Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns."

Other memorable moments in bad sex writing: In 1996, David Huggins, author of "The Big Kiss," won the award for a passage that included the line: "Liz squeaked like wet rubber" (not completely dissimilar from Nicholas Royle's winning passage in 1997, in which a character named Yasmin was "making a noise somewhere between a beached seal and a police siren.") In 1994, Philip Hook won for: "Their jaws ground in feverish mutual mastication. Saliva and sweat. Sweat and saliva. There was a purposeful shedding of clothing."

And Christopher Hart took the prize in 1991 for his second novel, "Rescue Me": "Her hand is moving away from my knee and heading north. Heading unnervingly and with a steely will towards the pole.... Ever northward moves her hand, while she smiles languorously at my right ear. And when she reaches the north pole, I think in wonder and terror ... she will surely want to pitch her tent."

At one level, the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards are a merry jape. The winner receives a statuette called "Sex in the Fifties" by an artist called Posner of Zurich, a fiction of Waugh's (modern art being one of his virulent dislikes). "Beautiful young actresses" read short-listed passages to a slightly intoxicated audience. The award was given this year by Grayson Perry, a transvestite ceramicist.

But beyond the merriment, there is serious critical purpose. The Bad Sex Awards are designed to stigmatize "the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it."

It would be wrong to find puritanism here. The Bad Sex Awards are not based on any reluctance to acknowledge the erotic element in literature but rather on clear critical standards about how sex may be written best. Thus, every year's short list reflects a process in which novels are vigorously scrutinized for pomposity, ludicrous metaphors and embarrassing wish-fulfillment by aging literary superstars.

Something about sex makes even the greatest prose stylists ham-fisted. This year, the usually adroit Paul Theroux erred when he referred to "a demon eel thrashing."

Ben Elton's "The First Casualty" included the passage: " 'Ooh-la-la!' she breathed as he smelt the clean aroma of her short bobbed hair and the rain-sodden grass around it. 'Oooh-la-jolly well-la!' And so they made love together in the pouring rain, with Nurse Murray emitting a stream of girlish exclamations which seemed to indicate that she was enjoying herself." In Giles Coren's debut novel, "Winkler," he described a male character's genitalia "leaping around like a shower hose dropped in an empty bath."

Of course, most of the short-listed passages cannot be printed in this newspaper, and besides, they have to be read in full to savor the atrocious lapses of judgment that acts of love inspire even in literary Olympians.

In the end, it was Coren (a restaurant critic turned novelist) who won this year's award -- a winner who shaded Updike, Salman Rushdie and Theroux in the deadeningly consistent, oceangoing, lavatorial awfulness of his novel. As a rule, bad sex means a bad book. And that -- not the tumbling, stroking, sighing and groaning -- is the point.

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