Bad Sex Writing

12 Dec

The Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing, began publishing quarterly journals sometime before I was born. Nevertheless, I had never heard of it until I stumbled across an announcement of this year’s winner of the Bad Sex Writing Award, which the journal’s editors have lovingly bestowed for the past 16 years. This year’s winner is Rachel Johnson, author of Shire Hell. On the one hand, I feel badly for Ms. Johnson. On the other hand,

Johnson said it was an “absolute honour” to win, taking her place alongside former winners including Norman Mailer, Sebastian Faulks and Tom Wolfe. “I’m not feeling remotely grumpy about it. I know that men with literary reputations to polish might find it insulting,” she said, “but if you’ve had a book published in the year any attention is welcome, even if it’s slightly dubious attention of this sort.”

If she can be such a good sport about the whole thing, then I certainly won’t waste tears of empathy and commiseration on her (after all, tears must be rationed carefully, utilized where they are required most and employed where they will generate the greatest effect). Besides, judging from the shortlist of candidates for this year’s award, she worked damned hard to earn it. Kudos to Ms. Johnson, I say.

If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering what constitutes bad sex writing. I will enlighten you by sharing some excerpts from the literature that the judges considered when rendering their wise literary judgment.

Excerpt #1 (from Sashenka, by Simon Montefiore):

Inside, the room was dark, lit only by the lurid scarlet of the electric stars atop each of the eight spires of the Kremlin outside the window. They backed on to a bed that sagged in the middle, the sheets rancid with what she later identified as old sperm and alcohol in a cocktail specially mixed for Soviet hotels….

He pulled down her brassiere, cupping her breasts, sighing in bliss. ‘The blue veins are divine,’ he whispered. At that moment, a lifetime of unease about this ugly feature of her body was replaced with satisfaction….

There he was between her legs again, doing the most absurd, lovely things to places behind her knees, the muscle at the very top of her thighs, her ears, the middle of her back. But the kissing, just the kissing, was heavenly […] He made her forget she was a Communist.

Excerpt #2 (from To Love, Honour and Betray, by Kathy Lette):

Sebastian’s erect member was so big I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town. I almost started directing traffic around it.

And finally, the winning excerpt from Ms. Johnson’s book:

JM comes over and pushes me gently back down on the fake fur. I try to rise up to kiss him – it’s so lovely, the kissing – but he pushes me down, again. He likes to kiss me all over before he does anything else. He starts with my eyes, and plants a tender kiss on each lid.

… He moves on to my ears, a kiss that makes my nipples stand erect, and me emit little moans that drown out to my own ears the loud, distracting sound of Cumberbatch swiping dock leaves and tearing nettles and long grasses very close to the rickety stoop.

JM’s hands are caressing my breasts, now, and I am allowed to kiss him back, but not for long, for he breaks off, to give each breast the attention it deserves. As he nibbles and pulls with his mouth, his hands find my bush, and with light fingers he flutters about there, as if he is a moth caught inside a lampshade.

Almost screaming after five agonizingly pleasurable minutes, I make a grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside, but he holds both by arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop. I find myself gripping his ears and tugging at the locks curling over them, beside myself, and a strange animal noise escapes from me as the mounting, Wagnerian crescendo overtakes me. I really do hope at this point that all the Spodders are, as requested, attending the meeting about slug clearance or whatever it is.

While I’ll admit that none of these passages inspire me to light candles, pour chardonnay and don naughty lingerie, I must also confess that I could not write a sex scene any more arousing than the ones noted above. Fortunately, since I don’t have to write for a living, I don’t have to try to do it. Lindesay Irvine notes that writing compelling sex scenes is not at all easy. She reports that even such an accomplished author as Kingsely Amis would merely “follow his characters as far as the bedroom door and then leave them to it.” Therefore, even though this post pokes gentle fun at some authors’ bloopers, I also offer it as a tribute to those authors. I admire the fact that they undertook a notoriously difficult task and put their efforts out in the open for all to see. I can say without any doubt that their cojones are far bigger than mine. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is as sexy as my writing gets.

— the chaplain


Posted by on December 12, 2008 in humor, literature, sex


9 responses to “Bad Sex Writing

  1. Sean the Blogonaut

    December 12, 2008 at 11:19 pm


    The second excerpt made me laugh, reminded me of Douglas Adams’ writing. More comical than sexual.

  2. PhillyChief

    December 13, 2008 at 1:04 am

    I think the problem is they’re trying too hard (unintentional pun). The strained similes and metaphors are ridiculous.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a sex scene before because, well, I’m a guy. Well ok, I’ve read a few Penthouse letters, but that was more of a goof (I never thought this could happen to me, but…). I thought this was the crap that filled all those romance novels with the blowing hair and bare chested Fabios blah blah

  3. athinkingman

    December 13, 2008 at 7:34 am

    I enjoyed this. Thanks. I had to tell my wife about Sebastian’s erect member and Kathy’s description of it which had us both chuckling into our lunchtime soup :-)

    Like you I have nothing but admiration for those who, faced with very predictable happenings, strive to avoid the predictable and cliche, and who, at the same time, can keep a sense of proportion :-)

  4. chanson

    December 13, 2008 at 11:03 am

    She reports that even such an accomplished author as Kingsely Amis would merely “follow his characters as far as the bedroom door and then leave them to it.”

    There’s a certain logic to this. If we’re talking about modern adults who know their way around the bedroom, the precisions of which body part did what don’t necessarily add anything to the story any more than describing precisely what they had for dinner or the details of eating it would. Sometimes it makes sense just to leave it to the reader’s imagination.

    For myself, the times I’ve written sex scenes, I’ve stuck to writing only as much detail as is relevant. Have a look at my most widely-read short story, the Gratuitous Love Scene to see what I mean. My novel Exmormon actually has three sex scenes in it because the core of the story is about how religion affects relationships and sexual development. But with my second novel, I took more of a “fade to black” approach to sex scenes because sexuality wasn’t as central a theme.

  5. the chaplain

    December 13, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Yeah, that second excerpt is hilarious.

    I’ve never read Harlequin romances (I guess those are the ones with the windblown hair and manly chests) either. John Jakes, Ken Follett and Irwin Shaw are three non-Harlequin-style authors whom I can think of at the moment who lace their stories with steamy, titillating (how’s that for an evocative word!) sex.

    I’m glad you and your wife were able to share a chuckle. The deacon and I shared a couple of them too.

    Some authors are so good at laying the groundwork for the eventual sexual encounter that descriptions of the actual sex events are unnecessary and would probably be a letdown. On the other hand, some authors are very good at describing both the setup and the actual event.

    I’ve read your online short stories and have felt that you’ve handled sex scenes quite skillfully. You’ve provided detail without getting caught up in florid (or crude) language, yet known when to back away and allow readers to fill in gaps with their imaginations.

  6. chanson

    December 13, 2008 at 2:16 pm


  7. heather

    December 14, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    I don’t know why they picked the Kathy Lette one – she’s supposed to be a comic novelist. Her quote was obviously meant to be funny.

    I thought the point of the awards was to pick rubbish bits from serious writers. (They don’t look at “romantic novels” or they could never stop giving out awards.) Maybe there just wasn’t enough real overblown literary stuff in the contenders pile this year.

  8. the chaplain

    December 14, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Thanks for the scoop on Kathy Lette. I’ve never read any of her books. Her quote definitely was funny. It’s good to know that it was probably intended to be the side splitter it is rather than a really bad goof.

    Your note about picking bits of rubbish from more renowned authors makes sense. Norman Mailer and some of the other previous award winners definitely do not write Harlequin romances, unless they are doing so under pseudonyms. :)


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