In 1993 Auberon Waugh, then the editor of the Literary Review, established the Bad Sex in Fiction award, aiming to "draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction". The idea was to highlight a few of the year's more excruciating examples, and for everyone else to have a titter at the whole spectacle. Every year since then, hacks, authors, and assorted people who look like they could buy and sell you if they could be bothered have come together to celebrate the awards and get drunk.
The ceremony is held in the members-only In & Out club to award the prize to the lucky author, though many recipients of the dubious honour choose not to accept in person. Morrissey abstained last year after his win with for this amazingsegment from his memoir, which reads as though written by someone who has never seen a human body: "At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into 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 whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza's body except for the otherwise central zone."
I've noticed an increasing number of writers I admire denouncing the awards, not so much on moral grounds but to avoid the embarrassment. The award is indicative of nothing so much as public schoolboy sniggering, they say; they are prudish and epitomise a peculiarly English inability to tolerate frank discussion of sex. This was a view I largely agreed with until this year, which, coincidentally, was the first year I was invited to the party. I decided to go along with an open mind and see if, as claimed by various editors of Literary Review, the prize was not designed with the intention of bullying writers, but serves as merely another kind of criticism.
Going to literary parties – like having sex with men and working for the Guardian – is one of those things I desperately wanted to do when I was younger but have grave qualms about now. I always think the free drinks will tide me over, but the overwhelming presence of rich white men giving you side eye is a real buzz kill. And of course there are only so many parties of this kind you can go to and still deny your own complicity – one day you wake up and you are the rich white men.
I considered this at the awards last night, having wandered away from the fray and found myself in a room with a rhino head mounted on the wall. A tiny woman with a frazzled platinum wig wandered in and looked up at it too.
"Is it real?" she asked.
"I was just trying to work that out," I said.
"Marvellous, just marvellous," she murmured, trailing back out towards the champagne.
The awards are held in, without doubt, the most fascist-looking building I have ever set foot in – a naval and military club filled with terrifying portraits of men I can only assume murdered ceaselessly throughout their long and illustrious careers. Mounted animal heads are dotted here and there, alongside the weapons used to kill them. It's beautiful as well; one of those places, like good restaurants, that make you realise rich people really are a different species.
Before the awards begin, a presenter tells us that the very room we're in is where Ribbentrop once made fun of Hitler's moustache. The crowd chuckles wryly – and wryly is how they will continue to chuckle throughout the evening – and behind me an American woman legitimately says the word "Huzzah!". Between this and the extremely strong gin, everything is beginning to feel vaguely surreal.
I look around me at the crowd, who are without doubt the poshest people I have ever been allowed near. Men with bombastic David Lynch-esque white hair and pink trousers abound. Rachel Johnson is there. I talk to a civil servant who is really enjoying his work in the new Brexit department. He really likes Rachel Johnson. I am not quite sure how to respond to this and wander off to get more drinks.
Then the awards begin, which basically consists of the nominated passages being read aloud in a camp fashion."Well that's not really fair," I think to myself when the line, "She was a virgin" gets a big laugh. "She was a virgin' isn't funny written down. All writing would sound farcical if you read it like that, with a big arched eyebrow drawn over it.
That's not to say the nominated pieces are necessarily good, or unworthy of being laughed at. One in particular, which solemnly describes a woman who likes to put chilli on her lover's dick before fucking him, has me guffawing guiltily away with everyone else.
"Is this mean?" I wonder. "Am I being mean?" It doesn't feel mean to me in that moment, it feels quite natural to laugh at someone being so earnest about something ridiculous. What occurs to me then is that the idea of highlighting bad writing is not the problem; it's just that there's no reason we should stop at sex. Where are the awards for the Worst Sensitive Young Man Portrayal? Or Worst Coming of Age Cliches? Any objections I have with these awards is not based in the belief that writers should be treated more kindly, but that we should all be roundly mocked more often for our terrible ideas and lazy prose, and that needn't necessarily take place in protected buildings in central London.
It's only at the end, when the prize itself is awarded, that I feel really dirty. The presenter, who is for some reason by this point the man who plays Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, announces that it goes to the Italian author, poet and translator Erri De Luca. De Luca's nominated passage is from his novel the Day Before Happiness: "My prick was a plank stuck to her stomach. With a swerve of her hips, she turned me over and I was on top of her. She opened her legs, pulled up her dress and, holding my hips over her, pushed my prick against her opening. I was her plaything, which she moved around. Our sexes were ready, poised in expectation, barely touching each other: ballet dancers hovering en pointe."
The presenter tells us all to make a rude gesture so that he can film it and email it to De Luca, who hasn't attended. I cringe behind a woman who is enthusiastically making a wanking gesture as the camera pans around, dying at the thought of anyone at all seeing me in this frankly insane display. It's not that I imagine De Luca would mind – nobody could be truly offended by this, only baffled.
I don't believe the awards are intended to be bullying, or are mean spirited. They're just deeply strange, deeply archaic. There is something about the combination of rather dated Private Eye-style ironic criticism and the eye watering poshness of the event which makes them so. Are they malevolent? Only in the way that all gatherings of predominantly white and male and wealthy parts of the culture industry are, which is to say very. But their intent is not. I don't disbelieve that the judges are people who love literature and would like it to be better.
More stuff like this: