The Bad Sex in Fiction Award is announced on November 30. Kiran Dass takes a look back at literary sex crimes.

Jungle flowers, iron stalks, slippery seals, gnomons (that's the metal pin on a sundial), a fish flipping itself, and audacious swells below - these are just some examples (sadly, all true) of ham-fisted turns of phrase and excruciatingly shonky writing about sex in literature. When leading British magazine Literary Review initiated the Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 1993, they established the one literary award no self-respecting author would want the dubious honour of winning.

The notorious award is dished out each year to writers responsible for the worst lines of sexual description in modern literary fiction (pornography and erotic fiction are not considered). These are novels that are perfectly fine otherwise but are ravaged by poorly crafted sex scenes. And nobody, not even literary royalty is exempt from being made an example of. A dizzying roll call of previous winners and nominees includes Man Booker Prize winners Arundhati Roy, Ian McEwan and John Banville alongside other heavyweights Paul Theroux and Philip Roth. Whether they're going for poetic licence or gritty forensic realism, these sex scenes are eye-watering stinkers, guaranteed to turn you right off.

It's a slippery slope awash with dodgy metaphors. Crucifying the worst sex scenes that are deficient in charm, the awards are presented each November in a lavish booze-soaked ceremony with fire-cracking levels of pomp. Attendees snigger over the worst examples, read out by actors. And if the winning author refuses to show up to the ceremony, he or she risks the threat of being humiliatingly impersonated by well-known actors. Competition is stiff and, for their literary sins, the winner is presented with a crude plaster of paris foot-shaped trophy.

Smug and mean-spirited or simply a light-hearted attempt to encourage good writing?


Of writing sex scenes in fiction, current Literary Review editor Nancy Sladek has reportedly said it's nigh on impossible to pull off. "I don't think there are any cases where it works," she has said. Last year's winner, Erri De Luca, for his novel The Day Before Happiness, saw his narrator describe his private parts as "a plank stuck to her stomach" before going on to compare the two entwined figures to "ballet dancers hovering en pointe".

The judges dryly observed that "the winning entry is a reminder that even in the wake of Brexit, Bad Sex knows no borders".

When presented with the award in 2010 for his wince-worthy sex scene in The Shape of Her, Rowan Somerville accepted it with good grace, saying, "There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the entire nation, I thank you."

The offending passage compares a sex act to "a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect". It conjures a strange and terrifying parallel universe where Kafka wrote erotic fiction.

So, let's celebrate more of these stupendously dismal clunkers. In 1997 top honours went to Nicholas Royale for The Matter of the Heart, where he charmlessly describes a woman in the throes of passion as "making a noise somewhere between a beached seal and a police siren", before our character punches "smoothly in and out of her like a sewing machine". In his acceptance speech, Royale lamely fobbed off the blame to his wife, declaring that she had forbidden him from writing any sex scene that could in any way be construed as being between them.

Special mention must be made of a cracker from Jonathan Littell's 2009 novel The Kindly Ones.

"I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg." Feeling queasy? It's enough to make even the most hot-blooded among us shrivel up and wither inside. A clear winner, for sure.

On the shortlist that same year was a bizarre and deeply unsexy example from Richard Milward's Ten Storey Love Song: "George has to roll Mr Condom down Mr Penis for him and she has to help insert him into Mrs Vagina." It's like a demented, adults-only version of Play School.


And speaking of Play School, how about Blue Peter? Or to be more specific, these scenes from The Butcher's Hook by former Blue Peter host Janet Ellis: "I am pinned like wet washing with his peg," and "I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below ... and I spill like grain from a bucket." This is literary muck.

Further proving that this isn't just the domain of men, Erica Jong whose 1973 novel Fear of Flying had a significant hand in developing second-wave feminism was shortlisted for the Bad Sex gong in 2015 for her novel Of Blessed Memory. "And he plunges into me with his iron stalk, touching my womb again and again."

Jong was pipped by that bequiffed moaner, Morrissey. If you didn't think his music miserable enough, in 2015 he published his debut novel, The List of the Lost. "Eliza's breast 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." Mozz's heroes Keats and Yeats would surely be shuddering in their graves.

It feels appropriate to end with this example from respected novelist Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay. Two or so pages of feverish frenzied sexual activity climax when "the condom made a sad plop on the floor next to the bed".