By virtue of the glut of smut we've read in 2012, it's no surprise that as Literary Review announced its shortlist for the Bad Sex Award, a chorus of voices could be heard clamouring for Christian Grey's head (or his loins). For the first time in several years the judges had to stress one aspect of the rules: "The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature."
Nevertheless, come the announcement of the shortlist, two types of article were written in profusion: one covered the whole "J K Rowling misses out on a Bad Sex nomination"; the other was much the same* except with another double-initialled author's name in place (not, before you think it, poor ol' J D Salinger). But I imagine it was fortunate for the judges that they'd ever put that rule in place - there was no requirement to consider the (de)merits of mummy porn, or to sift through the multiple sequels and spin-offs that such an erotic reading sensation has prompted.
In short: Fifty Shades of Grey is erotica and thus disqualified from the Bad Sex in Fiction Award 2012 (or indeed in any other year). Phew.
Literary Review's judging panel for the prize is spared from having to stand in judgement over that particular book. Who cares if the sex is well-written or not? It's there because the whole book's about that bondage malarkey. Take it away, and you'd be left with a rather sorry state of affairs indeed. It's essential - the book's raison d'être.
That's not to say that sex chambers can't also find a place in literary fiction. The mention of a 'red room of pain' normally makes me think of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. In that collection of stories, and in the titular story in particular, Carter examined sex and pain by reworking fairy and folk tales, looking at those earlier stories' emphasis on the loss of innocence as part of growing up. Sex is considered a necessary element to that; in Carter's stories, it is often violent and uninvited. And, it should be added, her sex scenes are also very well written - that is to say, good sex writing, due an award for 'Good Sex in Fiction' were such a thing to exist. It perfectly matches the timbre of Carter's prose elsewhere.
Of course, there's no particular need for a 'Good Sex in Fiction Award'. The purpose of the Bad Sex Award is 'to draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.' Bad sex writing breaks the rhythm and fabric of a novel; it stifles with cliché or overwrought prose. Good sex writing, as with any good writing, need not necessarily astound or titillate to achieve its purpose.
The Literary Review's 20th Bad Sex in Fiction Award winner will be announced at a ceremony on Tuesday 4 December. Get updates and excerpts from the entries by following Literary Review on Twitter. Look out for the Bad Sex hashtag, #LRBadSex2012.
*much like this piece, say...