The prize, established in 1993 to draw attention to “redundant” sex writing, is all about who’s in on the jokeby Joanna Walsh / November 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
I’m not sure I can get it up over the Bad Sex Award.
A few writers are regularly vocal about the prize getting right on their tits: they say that it discourages experimental and exploratory sex-writing, or writing about sex altogether. That it’s a prurient award created by prudes.
Established in 1993 “to draw attention [my italics] to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it,” the Bad Sex Award doesn’t so much gravely call for better sex writing as gleefully highlights what it condemns.
The prize is the skirt round the Victorian piano leg, the fig leave painted over the Renaissance nude, it instructs us tongue-in-cheek—like Frankie ‘titter ye not’ Howerd—that sex should be an entirely serious business, and that therefore it isn’t. At best it’s a celebration of what it seems to condemn: ‘redundancy’ in sex writing.
The prize condemns the “tasteless… redundancy” of linguistic excess (isn’t sex itself characterised by excess?), but sometimes ludicrous can be ludic. What can’t be mentioned slips sideways into metaphor, which slides so quickly into pun—the ability of something to represent more than one thing at once is the basis of the dirty joke. Jokes, in turn, are evidence of what they repress in their telling (“Jokes virtually instruct us not to talk about them,” wrote Adam Phillips) and as such they have been used with thrilling and disturbing flexibility equally to reinforce or to bypass social norms.
There have always been politics of gender and class attached to who’s free to say what, and where: it’s no accident comedy acts were, along with girlie shows, the backbone of vulgar vaudeville. Sex provokes language that constantly and joyously slips through the barriers of taste, which intersect so closely with social boundaries. How monstrous would sex writing be as the unvarying literary equivalent of Alvar Aalto furniture: minimal, tasteful, useful—qualities you’d look for in a stool, perhaps.
Sex writing, for anyone who hasn’t noticed, is not the same as sex. Confusingly, though, it’s close to a speech act: the words having the potential to provoke a state as well as describing it. There’s nothing so discomfiting as admitting you might…