Sexologist Dr Nikki Goldstein at home.
Sexologist Dr Nikki Goldstein at home. Craig Greenhill

Let's write about sex ...

There may be some pun-like material in this story but don't allow cheap titillation to detract from the serious issue at hand.

How, in the 21st century, can it be that some of the most celebrated writers in the English language have also won the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award?

The gong, bestowed by Britain's highly respected Literary Review, is not for writers of erotica or run-of-the-mill bad sex but for the supremely talented who meet the criteria of producing "an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel”.

The award was instituted in 1993 when literary critic Rhoda Koenig and late Review editor Auberon Waugh couldn't help but notice the growing ranks of literary novels being ruined by bad sex scenes.

"Perfunctorily introduced and charmlessly described” is how Waugh characterised the offending scenes back in the day.

"It was as if every novelist felt obliged to include a sex scene, possibly under pressure from the publisher - under the illusion that some sex at least was necessary to sell anything.”

Among the literary craftsmen who've taken out the award during its 25-year history are Man Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Notable recipients include British writers Sebastian Faulks and AA Gill and iconic American novelists Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. The man regarded as the greatest American writer of the modern era John Updike won a lifetime achievement award for his four consecutive nominations.

And poetic ability offers no protection it seems. The man hailed as the finest lyricist in British history, whose word wizardry is the subject of academic study, musician/songwriter Morrisey took out the award in 2015 with his debut novel, List of the Lost.

In it, he had his protagonist's "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”.

Last year's hands down winner was Christopher Bollen, who contributed this to the canon: "Her face and her vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.”

Despite the obvious anatomical questions, the point, er, purpose, of these passages, er, excerpts, is to illustrate that writing about sex does not come easily (...) even in this age of hypersexuality and easy access pornography.

Australian sexologist Nikki Goldstein says a big part of the problem is that sex is still a taboo topic in polite society.

"That's what we're taught. Even though you can be a really good writer, our attitude to sex acts as a filter.

"There's shame and stigma and people are fearful of the person next to them finding out what's going on in their head or in their search histories.

"We need to normalise talking about sex across all forms of the media.”

Literary fiction is hardly the pin-up medium here, with its often bizarre attempts to replace the physical act with metaphor. Take English writer Nicola Barker's analogous effort in her novel The Yips that earned her a place on the 2012 shortlist:

"She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard. She steams. He applauds, his tongue hanging out (like a bloodhound espying a raw chop in a cartoon). She is topped with melted apricot jam. It makes her shine. Beneath that: the spongy gold, the give, the softness. Then still further down, the firmer butteriness of a thin-baked layer of crumbling shortcrust.”

Then there are the memorable one liners:

"My body was her gearstick.” (2016 winner Erri De Luca, The Day Before Happiness)

"I am pinned like wet washing with his peg.” (Janet Ellis, The Butcher's Hook, 2016 shortlist)

"Her breasts are placards for the endomorphically endowed ...” (2003 winner Aniruddha Bahal, Bunker 13)

But there are also plenty of literary authors who eschew the symbolism and wade right in with the more direct approach.

Here is not the forum to publish the more robust of them, but American author Adam Ross may well have had a quick check of his old biology text in writing his sex scenes. Here is one of his more temperate sentences:

"He felt as if his heart had liquefied and then been shot out of him up through her vagina and uterus and her ovaries and up over her diaphragm and somehow down the vena cavity to her heart, his own now coating hers.” (Adam Ross, Mr Peanut, 2010)

Ross was most disappointed to miss out on the 2010 award, which went to Irish writer Rowan Summerville for his scene in which a nipple is compared to the upturned "nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing in the night”. (The Shape of Her, 2010)

In accepting his prize that year in the Bad Sex in Fiction Award's spiritual home, London's In and Out Club, Somerville was graceful in victory.

"There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you,” he said.

In the award's quarter century, the response to receiving it has been mixed. Many winners have boycotted the prize ceremony, refusing to acknowledge the honour or collect their trophy, which started out as a plaster foot and has evolved into a less esoteric statuette of a naked woman draped over a book.

2015 winner Morrisey decried his victory as a "repulsive horror” while Indian writer Aniruddha Bahal flew from New Delhi to collect his prize in 2003.

The 2005 winner food critic Giles Coren, who depicted male genitalia as "leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath”, said he wished he'd written all the short-listed passages that year.

In 2008, English novelist Rachel Johnson, the sister of MP Boris Johnson, said she was "absolutely honoured” to take it out.

Although no Australian authors have ever won the award, some of our top-shelf writers have been short-listed over the years, including Man Booker winner Richard Flanagan, author Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap and musician Nick Cave.

When Cave was nominated for his novel The Death of Bunny Munro in 2009, his publisher said, "Frankly we would have been offended if he wasn't short-listed.”

In recent years there have been suggestions the award is becoming more difficult to bestow, that sex writing is actually getting better.

No doubt the Bad Sex in Fiction Award has played its part in that. Writers' websites offer much free advice on how to avoid nomination and throughout the literary world, scribes of all persuasions can attend workshops to improve their sexual depictions across all genres.

Krissy Kneen.
Krissy Kneen.

In Australia, Brisbane author Krissy Kneen is the go-to girl for writing good sex. She regards the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards with some scepticism.

"The thing with the award is that sometimes it can be writing about bad sex rather than bad sex writing,” she says.

"Some of it, if it's taken in isolation, can be comical and silly out of context.”

Yes, but surely that's half the fun and possibly difficult to avoid given many of the judges no doubt emerge from the English boarding school tradition where tittering about body parts and sexual entendres is fundamental to the British sense of humour.

After last year's timely billiard analogy, judges moved to assure the literary world there was still much material ripe for reward.

Nominations are now being taken for the 2018 award, with the shortlist due to be released in November. Some English betting agency is no doubt running a book on it somewhere.

It seems as long as sex sells, bad sex will also prevail, invoking steaming Bakewell puds, snooker scenarios or any number of nocturnal creatures, with no need of supplemental oxygen.

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