London’s 20th annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award is held at the distinguished and buttoned-down Naval and Military Club, affectionately known as the “In and Out.” When you sweep up the grand carpeted staircase and accept a glass of chilled champagne, a bright-eyed blonde with a clipboard asks, “Are you here for the Literary Review?”
What she means of course is are you here for the Bad Sex? But she can’t very well say that, so you twinkle politely and venture in alone to find your date. The ballroom, which overlooks St. James Square, is rammed to the rafters, swarming with a mix of people your date describes as “literary toffs, random lowlifes and everything in between.” It’s so crowded that for a second you feel you might be pitched up and hung upside down from the enormous gilt chandelier. There is a tsunami of free gin flooding the room, razing everything in its path (Hendrick’s is a sponsor). An elderly American who claims to be a screenwriter demands your phone number and when you refuse, pinches you hard on the bottom and calls you a “schmuck.” Nancy Dell’Ollio, the original footballer’s wife, is giggling beside V.S. Naipaul. Sir Tim Rice chats with a girl in fur hat. A cat floats by clinging to a log. You decide to have another drink.
On the stage there is a zaftig fellow with mad, glittering eyes and a receding afro. This, your date informs you, is Alexander Waugh, grandson of the novelist Evelyn and son of the late journalist Auberon, who founded the prize in 1993. He explains to the swaying, burbling crowd that the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award is “the celebration of someone doing something wrong” and reiterates its historic mandate to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” Then he sideswipes a past winner (Rowan Somerville, 2010) who recently wrote in The Independent that the prize’s enduring popularity was the result of old-fashioned English prudery. “What nonsense,” Waugh declares. “We don’t just stand around and titter. We absolutely ROAR with laughter!”
And the crowd roars back at him.
The shortlist is announced. This year there are two controversial exceptions, which Waugh feels compelled to mention. One is J.K. Rowling who, he says, “doesn’t write nearly badly enough,” and the other is “that woman whose name escapes me who wrote a book called Fifty Shades of Something.” The judges didn’t count it because “you can’t just write any old rubbish with lots of bad sex. It has to be a good book that’s rather ruined by the bad sex.”
Then the actors appear. They read passages from The Noughties by Ben Masters (“she led me to her elfin grot”), The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills (“semen-bedizened blood-pusillanimous bed onanistic quiddity fulcrating pelvic thrusts”) Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (“his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle”), The Yips by Nicola Barker (“He knows her body now, even tightly sheathed and slippery as it is; a ripe, red plum”).
But to your immense surprise, it is the work of a Canadian by the name of Nancy Huston that truly brings down the house. Her just-published novel Infrared, about erotic photography, contains an oral sex scene of such squirm-inducing imagery you find yourself covering your face to rid your mind’s eye of the sight (“never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water”).
She wins, of course, and to thunderous applause. Rightly so! But how, you wonder, could any self-respecting Canadian write so courageously badly about sex? The woman grew up in Calgary, for heaven’s sake, where you’re pretty sure sexual water imagery carries a stiff fine and a jail sentence. The answer, of course, is that she lives in Paris, writes in French and once studied under Roland Barthes. Right then.
You look around for your fellow Canadian but she is nowhere to be found. Instead, her British publisher accepts the award, which is presented by actor Samantha Bond, a.k.a. Miss Moneypenny. The publisher makes a statement on Huston’s behalf, saying the author “hopes this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.”
The London party guests look at each other momentarily puzzled, then shrug their shoulders as if to say, “Canadians – go figure,” and resume their heroic consumption of free booze.
Your date asks if this is the first time a Canadian has won the Bad Sex Award, and you allow that yes, it is – making this a historic night. You look out at the room full of braying toffs and drunken lowlifes winding each other up and think of the earnest, quietly decent country you came from. A country where literary prizes are unironic and bad sex is neither celebrated nor generally mentioned at all.
You feel a pang of homesickness. And then you decide to have another drink.