A roll in the hay, or just a Danish?

ON WEDNESDAY in London, the 14th annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award was presented to British author Iain Hollingshead for his debut novel “Twenty Something.” Judged by the editors of Literary Review magazine, the prize’s mission is to sniff out “the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel.”

At 25, Hollingshead is the youngest author to win the award, edging out formidable competition such as the bestselling novelist Mark Haddon and the legendary tome-writer Thomas Pynchon, whose latest novel, “Against the Day,” includes a sex scene involving a dog that concludes with the sentence, “Reader, she bit him.” Another nominee was Booker Prize finalist David Mitchell, who was recognized for a short story in which a character’s breasts are likened to “a pair of Danishes.”

Hollingshead, for his part, clinched his victory with passages pertaining to “bulging trousers” and “a commotion of grunts and squeaks.” Host Courtney Love presented the prize -- a bottle of champagne and, according to British newspaper descriptions, a “semi-abstract” statuette.

Being British and all, the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards -- whose past winners and nominees have included Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- have an ironic mark of distinction. In a nation that is often believed to be squeamish about sex, proving oneself to be lacking in the erotic writing department may signify a focus on loftier, more chaste concerns.


Besides, a lot of writers -- myself included -- can’t so much as attempt to disrobe their characters without finding themselves either blushing or gagging at the cheesy burlesque of it all.

The Bad Sex in Fiction Award manages not to shame its winners utterly because it recognizes literature as a genre that, while certainly no stranger to sex, is not wholly dependent upon it. Despite the marketing anxieties of modernday editors, many a fine novel has been written that contains no hanky-panky at all.

What’s more, it’s entirely possible for a book to win a Bad Sex Award and still be a good book, albeit one with a few missteps in the form of bulges, grunts or even Danish comparisons.

That said, I can’t help but draw a few connections between the existence of a bad sex fiction prize and the whole state of sexuality in popular culture. Judging from these excerpts, it looks like many of these writers lose their way when they resort to over-the-top language designed to connote high levels of excitement. In other words, they start to trade in hyperbole. From there, you’re only a few grunts and bulges away from all-out cliche.


But then again, how do you avoid cliche when writing about a subject that mainstream culture has exploited so thoroughly that it is itself a giant cliche? How do you write about sex without coming across as an imitation of any cable television show, raunchy teen movie or Abercrombie & Fitch billboard that’s done us the favor of telling us exactly who and what is sexy (chiseled abs, push-up bras, lips that resemble dual air bags) and what conditions are necessary in order for sex to occur (stalled elevators, out-of-town parents, improbably debris-free beaches).

These stereotypes are not just hackneyed, they’ve been so over-described that there’s almost no room left to try again. That can derail even the best writers, who must choose whether to leave sex out of the equation altogether or attempt to come up with something that neither panders to nor entirely alienates our well-buffed expectations.

Of course, the results are often unintentionally hilarious, which is why the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is so much fun. But perhaps it’s no accident that in the 14 years since the contest began, popular definitions of “sexiness” have grown ever narrower. Some of us are old enough to remember (or at least to have been told about) a time when there was actually a range of sex symbols available for our various fantasies. What do Farrah Fawcett, John Travolta and Patti Smith all have in common? Not much, except that they were all celebs who were considered erotic objects in the 1970s (and only Farrah shaved her armpits).

Today, people (celebs and/or not) seem to have -- or at least want -- more or less the same clothes, the same hair, the same body types and even the same turn-ons. We’re all surrounded by and mimicking the same erotic models, shapes, sizes and situations that say that sex is not an esoteric, highly subjective alchemy of mind and body but a factory-assembled object (see: Pamela Anderson) complete with instructions (see: Internet pornography and “American Pie”).


In their efforts to transcend these limits, even pretty good authors might find themselves compensating, turning out prose that is so gratuitously quirky (or, in Pynchon’s case, bestial) that they end up standing in line for their air kiss from Courtney Love.

When breasts are being compared to Danishes, you can hardly blame readers for turning the page and Bad Sex prize givers from pouncing. On the other hand, compared to much of what’s out there, Danishes sound pretty appealing.