This year, the award was largely expected to be a two-horse race between Erica Jong and Morrissey, and on Tuesday, the musician-turned-novelist was announced as the victor—to almost no one’s surprise. Morrissey’s work should’ve perhaps been ineligible: His novel List of the Lost has been universally panned, and therefore the sex scene fails to meet the criterion of being part of “an otherwise good novel.” This technical objection notwithstanding, the winning passage is startling:
Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.
Is this #badsex? If so, why? Or is it just good ol’ #badwriting? When it comes to fiction, Kurt Vonnegut says that “every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” Having read List of the Lost, I can bear witness: This sex scene does neither. Can that be the extent of the objection to this piece of writing?
The craft of writing sex scenes stumbles at the first hurdle: language. How to describe the, ahem, apparatuses involved? Euphemism? This is Morrissey’s tactic and, when stripped of their adjectives, a reader must come to terms with the fact that the two euphemisms Morrissey selects are “salutation” for penis and “zone” for vagina. This approach is rarely satisfactory to a modern reader. How about just keeping it real? Tell it like it is: Use biological, anatomical diction. An eye for an eye, a penis for a penis, a clitoris for a clitoris. Or perhaps colloquialisms—at the risk of lowering the tone or turning the scene comic. Euphemism, anatomical diction, colloquialism: Within that mix lies the problem of language for sex in fiction. How to overcome?
In my attempts to find an exemplar for #goodsex, I decided to revisit Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which I remembered as a book that dealt admirably and expertly with this material. But, I was in for a surprise. The novel had, I discovered, been nominated for the bad sex award in the year of its publication (it was longlisted, but wasn’t deemed “bad” enough to make the shortlist). I like to think of myself as a thoughtful, sophisticated reader, so how did I end up in such vehement disagreement with the judges? And for that matter, what of the 2007 Booker Prize panel, who shortlisted On Chesil Beach for that prestigious award? Why is the novel excellent while the sex scenes are bad?
Well, they aren’t bad. A novel is a single, indivisible entity—a continuous waking dream. Removed from the fiction it lives in, almost all sex will appear gratuitous. By evaluating isolated passages, the work of a sex scene on both character and action is inherently lost, and even the most accomplished prose can falter. You can’t judge the merit of a novel by an isolated sex scene any more than you can judge the value of a person by the shape of their liver. Here’s a passage from On Chesil Beach, in which the newlyweds Edward and Florence are in bed together for the first time:
Drawing her fingers across its underside, she arrived at the base of his penis, which she held with extreme care, for she had no idea how sensitive or robust it was. She trailed her fingers along its length, noting with interest its silky texture, right to the tip, which she lightly stroked; and then, amazed by her own boldness, she moved back down a little, to take his penis firmly, about halfway along, and pulled it downwards, a slight adjustment, until she felt it touching her labia.
McEwan has opted for anatomical language—and this is, I think, more tolerable than Morrissey’s euphemisms. Nevertheless, it’s uncomfortable to read, and certainly as an isolated passage it can make a reader cringe. Does that make it bad sex?