Last week the Literary Review announced its nominees for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which seems to have prompted some ritualistic mea culpas. John Banville, who’s been on the shortlist before, smirkingly suggested he ought never write about sex again; writing in the Telegraph, previous nominee Iain Hollingshead is candid about his own experience being on the list. “Writing about sex is generally more technical, and certainly a lot less fun, than having it,” he writes. “Either you descend into flowery metaphor or you indulge in the ‘naming of parts.’”
But that’s a concern with any kind of writing, no? Writers, especially fiction writers, constantly run the risk of either looking like they’re showing off or making their writing feel dead on the page. I’ve read only two of the books on the shortlist, Philip Roth‘s The Humbling and Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, enjoyed both, and didn’t feel either was a lesser work because of some howlingly bad sex scene. This may mean only that I have a tin ear for that sort of thing, but I’m comfortable figuring that the scenes worked just fine within their contexts. The Humbling is about an aging man in the midst of an unusual sexual reawakening—of course any sex scene is going to convey a feeling of awkwardness.
Among the problems with the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards is its implication that that sex is the worst thing a fiction writer could screw up. The ways a writer can screw up are legion; as I read, I tend to note badly written passages by scribbling the word “ugh.” Below, a few passages that made my heart sink from 2009 books:
Bad Attempt at Monologue Jokes by Late-Night Talk Show Hosts Award:
So science has finally discovered that happiness is mostly inherited. But just remember these are the guys who discovered that sterility may be inherited…. It’s interesting that, for some reason, the happiness genes aren’t particularly widespread. Not as widespread as, say, the obesity gene. Now the obesity gene: talk about wide spread…
—Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
Bad Small Talk Award
“You know, ” Isabelle commented by way of introduction, “before you start cooking with me, I should tell you, I am losing my way, these days.”
—Erica Bauermeister, The School of Essential Ingredients
Bad Union Caricature Award:
“I can get you all fixed up and install a proper system, but I can’t fix that old gal. I can even give you some heat while I’m doing it. It’ll take a little longer that way but I don’t charge union wages. And I don’t do union work neither—I do the job right.”
“How much?” Mrs. D asked.
“About sixteen grand. that’s for as sweet a boiler you ever seen included, and all the fittings. And all I charge is ten percent over cost for the materials. I don’t have my hand down everyone’s pockets, not like them union bosses with their diamond pinkie rings and their shivery smiles, all teeth.”
—Marjorie Kernan, The Ballad of West Tenth Street
Bad Strategy to Build Dramatic Energy by Listing All the Ways One Might Die Award:
Death by drowning, death by snakebite, death by mortar, death by bullet would, death by wooden stake, death by tunnel rat, death by bazooka, death by poison arrow, death by pipe bomb, death by piranha, death by food poisoning, death by Kalashnikov, death by RPG, death by best friend, death by syphilis, death by sorrow, death by hypothermia, death by quicksand, death by tracer, death by thrombosis, death by water torture, death by trip wire, death by pool cure, death by Russian roulette, death by punji trap, death by opiate….
—Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
Bad Journalist Award:
Sarah looked into his eyes. He was a congressman. He was a source. But not that much of a source anymore. She had already gotten into trouble twice for sleeping with the wrong men. But he felt just right, at least for now.
—Leonard Downie Jr., The Rules of the Game
My review of Paul Auster‘s new novel, Invisible, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It starts this way:
Relatively early in Paul Auster’s new novel, one of its narrators says that “any writer who feels he is standing on safe ground is unlikely to produce anything of value.” True enough, Invisible (Henry Holt, $25) is a book whose value is a function of its riskiness.
Auster’s readers will be familiar with some of the chances he takes, like the deliberately confused identities and stories within stories, and here they’re so smoothly deployed they feel more like pulp-fiction reveals than metafictional gimmicks. But Auster’s real daring in Invisible is in his study of morality, which covers a lot of ugly, unsettling territory: murder, psychological abuse, physical exploitation and, not least, incest.