Bad sex award: shortlist announced for ‘Britain’s most dreaded literary prize’

Dubious honour lines up contenders for the years most outstandingly awful sexual scene, with Elizabeth Gilbert and Didier Decoin among the nominees

Describing itself as Britains most dreaded literary prize, the Literary Reviews Bad sex in fiction award has unveiled this years shortlist, which ranges from Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of Eat Pray Love, to the acclaimed French novelist Didier Decoin.

Dreamed up in 1993 by the Literary Reviews the editor Auberon Waugh and critic Rhoda Koenig, the award is for the years most outstandingly awful scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel. It is intended to draw attention to the poorly written, redundant, or downright cringeworthy passages of sexual description in modern fiction.

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This years contenders include The River Capture by Mary Costello, praised by the Guardian as an audacious act of literary ventriloquism and one that Costello pulls off astonishingly successfully; The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Decoin, a former Prix Goncourt winner; City of Girls by Gilbert, which the Guardian said was a glorious, multilayered celebration of womanhood; Pax by John Harvey, and The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith.

Costello was cited for a passage that included the line: She begged him to go deeper and, no longer afraid of injuring her, he went deep in mind and body, among crowded organ cavities, past the contours of her lungs and liver, and, shimmying past her heart, he felt her perfection. Decoin made the cut for a selection of passages, one of which included a woman handling a mans genitals in a way that felt as though she was manipulating a small monkey that was curling up its paws.

Gilbert was singled out for the climactic lines: I screamed as though I were being run over by a train, and that long arm of his was reaching up again to palm my mouth, and I bit into his hand the way a wounded soldier bites on a bullet. And then it was the most, and I more or less died. Pax was criticised for a passage including its reference to: Tooth-marks, claw-marks, marks of the lust-beast, while The Electric Hotel was cited for Smiths mention of the russet, malty inlet of her groin.

The judges felt that these particular passages succumbed to some of the common pitfalls of bad sex writing: namely, convoluted and florid description, contorted and incongruous metaphor, and an over-reliance on hyperbole, said a spokesman for the Literary Review.

Organisers said that Jeanette Winterson had narrowly missed out for her twist on Frankenstein, Frankissstein, as did French controversialist Michel Houellebecq for his latest novel, Serotonin.

Houellebecq came particularly close, with lines such as she would have waited until we were in the water to offer her moist parts to my triumphant phallus, but ultimately the judges considered the sex scenes in Serotonin to be of a piece with the novels overall tone, said the Literary Review.

The prize was won last year by James Frey and his novel Katerina, which included lines such as: One. White. God. Cum. Cum. Cum. I close my eyes let out my breath. Cum. Frey, who judges said prevailed against a strong all-male shortlist by virtue of the sheer number and length of dubious erotic passages in his book, took the prize in good humour, saying he was deeply honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious award. He offered kudos to his fellow finalists, saying they had all provided him with many hours of enjoyable reading.

Tom Wolfe was less impressed at the honour when he won it in 2004. Theres an old saying You can lead a whore to culture but you cant make her sing. In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you cant make him get it, said the American novelist, after winning for a passage in I Am Charlotte Simmons that included the line slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns.

The winner will be announced on 2 December.

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