I thought, as an erotica writer, I’d write some short critical reflections of the nominated passages for each of this year’s Bad Sex Award entries. I’m looking at language, veracity, honesty and craft, as well as erotic potential where relevant.
If you write fiction with erotic content that is meant to arouse readers, I challenge you to read each of the passages, and do something similar. There is good writing here, and bad, and good sex writing, and writing that pretends to be writing about sex when it isn’t, and some writers who seem to be very scared to get to the point.
1. House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
Back and forth, side to side, they moved on their bed on the hay. Back and forth, side to side, they moved their hips, their feet, their legs, their whole bodies. Their arms tied into knots like vines climbing trees, and the trees moved and swayed, and there was a time and a rhythm to the blend of the movement. And inside the door of her womb she felt her inner organs and tissues, all her muscles and glands, felt them roll, squeeze, squeeze, and roll, and felt that every inch of her whole being stretched, reached, felt out, felt in, felt all around the shape of his penis. So magnified and so keen were her feelings that her inner nerves could even feel the bumps, the ridges, the pimples, the few stray hairs along the shaft of his male rod.
This is a good example of why men should be hesitant before writing from a woman’s POV. Although I like some of the poetics of repetition in the language, it is clear the writer has never possessed a vagina and should stay away from trying to describe what it is like to have one. This is a man fantasizing about what it must feel like to have one, and though I appreciate the solidarity, Mr. Guthrie, my vagina is not a tongue tip. And even if I could feel the pimples and stray hairs along the shaft of a penis (which I can’t), it’s not what I would be perceiving or focusing on while fucking.
Had this been written from the explicitly male point of view – a fantasization about what a woman feels – it would have been revealing and interesting. But by writing it from her POV, it simply reveals that Mr. Guthrie knew little about female anatomy and was a fantasist about vaginas. In that way, it actually conforms to my definition of pornography. Had he written it as what the male character imagined, it would have been far more honest and acceptable.
2. Motherland by William Nicholson
‘So are we going to do it, Lawrence?’
‘Yes,’ he whispers. ‘Yes.’
‘Doesn’t the Catholic Church say it’s wrong?’
‘Yes,’ he says.
‘Fucking me is wrong.’
‘But you want to fuck me even so, Lawrence.’
‘Yes,’ he groans, feeling the tip of his cock pushing into her a little way.
‘If you fuck me, will God punish you, Lawrence?’
‘I don’t care,’ he says.
‘God won’t punish you,’ she says, ‘if you love me.’
‘I love you, Nell. I love you. I love you.’
He feels the intensity of his love for her with each repetition, along with the tingling in his cock, and the profound shock of joy with which he has heard each utterance by her of the word fuck. She seems to know how much this electrifies him. She moves her hips, pushing him deeper into her all the time, and as she does so she whispers, ‘Fuck me now, Lawrence. Fuck me now.’
I really don’t find very much wrong with this passage. It feels honest, and has some of the frisson that guilt can burden sex with. It’s about that, and how the utterance of a word can sometimes free you to move past the hesitation, like an invitation, like a blessing. My single criticism is the line “‘But you want to fuck me even so, Lawrence.’” It doesn’t ring true as dialogue. The ‘even so’ is too much. Otherwise, kudos, Mr. Nicholson. This turned me on, whether you intended to do it or not.
3. The City of Devi by Manil Suri
Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.
This one, I fear, is very hard to judge out of context. Is this a reminiscence of sex the narrator had in the past, or is it present in storytime? Because if it is the former, I don’t have a problem with it. With time, memories of sex acquire meaning. If it is describing sex in the moment, it is far, far too abstract to ring true.
4. Secrecy by Rupert Thomson
I closed my eyes as well and moved inside her, imagining the ribbed flesh, the supple rings of muscle. Mauve and yellow flowers filled the blank screen of my eyelids, the petals loosening and drifting downwards on to smooth grey stone. I kissed the soft bristles in the hollow of her armpit, then I kissed the smaller hollow of her clavicle. I moved up to her mouth, which smelled of ripe melon. Not the wound-red Tuscan watermelon, but the pale-green variety I had bought in Naples once, and which had grown, so I was told, on the wild coast of Barbaria.
The first sentence starts off well. I think men can and do ideate penetration, visualize it in their heads. The rest of it is utterly disconnected and trying so hard to be literary that he’s not THERE in the moment at all. It reads like a man with ADD so bad, he can’t let go and be in his body – a really dramatic departure from the first line where he clearly is embodied. The rest of it simply reads as if he’s so bored, his mind has wandered to the subject of comparing melons.
5. The World Was All Before Them by Matthew Reynolds
In the dappled shadows the bodies cling and thrust and arc and stretch. Toes splay. Arms prop shoulders from which a torso slopes. Two legs spring into the air. A head flaps from side to side. Fingers tense, hips grip and ankles twine. Forehead bows to forehead and hair touches in the air as eyes look longingly into eyes, thighs vie, lip lips lip and…
But, damn, dammit! – what was this?
Anxiously he began to get the impression that his vas deferens was initiating its rhythmic squeezing too soon, too soon …
But phew she too seemed to be surfing the waves of neuromuscular euphoria, so that as, sweating, panting, he bowed his forehead to her chest, she gripped him tight, her sharp nails stabbing; and then they were grinning and kissing each other’s noses, cheeks; and then they lay entangled for a moment, breathing; and then they rose, one after another, went for a piss, came back and settled into bed again.
The first paragraph is a poor effort at soft-porn cinematography. Heads don’t ‘flap’ and hips don’t ‘grip’. And the longing looks are cliche. But it does descend into nonsense just about the time he mentions his ‘vas deferens’ and her ‘neuromuscular euphoria’. This is the kind of distancing language that shoots a reader right out of the moment and into a highschool biology textbook. It’s perfectly okay to say he feared he might be coming too soon, Mr. Reynolds. We’re all adults here, and very few of us are urologists.
6. My Education by Susan Choi
Until now, my orgasms had been deep and ponderous things; slow to yield to excavation; self-annihilating when they finally did, so that in their wake I felt voided and calm, every yen neutralised, and gazed on whoever had managed the work with benign noninterest. Never had there been this tormenting, self-heightening pleasure, like a hail of hot stones, and yet she seemed to recognise just what had happened, so that before I had even stopped keening she bore down again. She made me come so many times that afternoon that had I been somewhat older, I might have dropped dead. Had I been a doll, she might have twisted off each of my limbs, and sucked the knobs until they glistened, and drilled her tongue into each of the holes.
I have no idea why this was even nominated. Admittedly a little abstract, it is a nice and very queer exposition of how a new lover can make your earlier sexual experiences pale. I especially like the metaphor of the doll. Fucking sexy.
7. The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood
Reaching behind me, I found the Brie and broke off a fragment, sucking her nipple through it. She tasted almost as she had the day I took the drop of milk on my finger.
Manon smiled when she realised what I was doing.
You know the peasant saying? If you can’t imagine how neighbouring vineyards can produce such different wines put one finger in your woman’s quim and another up her arse, then taste both and stop asking stupid questions… My fingers found both vineyards. At the front, she tasted salt as anchovy and as delicious. At the rear, bitter like chocolate and smelling strangely of tobacco.
This should have won the award. It’s jaded, affected and self-consciously mannered. This is a person writing about sex who doesn’t really want to write about sex, and shouldn’t. On the other hand, I’m wondering about context here. Is the narrator written to be a covert misogynist? If so, then it might be a good piece of writing about the way a really unpleasant human being thinks about sex. But frankly, we’ve had a lot of that already. Move on.
8. The Victoria System by Eric Reinhardt
We made love for five hours. Anxious by nature and always fearing that I will disappoint, I became a different man in this bed – freed of all worries, carried away by an irrational exhilaration.
For me, Victoria was like a deep nocturnal forest that I strode through without knowing where I was going, through woodland, amid ferns, under tall shivering trees, far from any path. There were noises, puddles, odours, dampness, shapes that vanished, treetops overhanging our bodies. I thought of nothing. I let our frolics lead where they would. I experienced moments of fulfilment and astonishment, euphoria and intimidation, and then episodes of grace when Victoria smiled at me, overcome with happiness, as if we were lying in a glade.
This, like the Manil Suri extract, is hard to judge out of context. If it is someone’s memory of sex, then I do hope the character was portrayed as prone to over-romanticization, and if it is describing sex in the storytime moment, it’s a very good example of an author who is terrified to write about the real thing.