Vice’s Broadly has a piece about the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction award, which includes the remarkable tidbit that another literary magazine is considering a GOOD sex writing award:
This year The Erotic Review, another U.K. literary review magazine, said they would start a good sex award, an initiative that various reviews and critics propose every few years. “We have laughed enough,” Lisa Moylett, the publisher of The Erotic Review, told The Times in October. “We are throwing down the gauntlet. No more ‘bad sex’ writing. That is not something we should be celebrating.”
But the article goes on,
But [award spokesperson] Brinkley doesn’t see the appeal of awarding good sex writing. “My feeling about a good sex award is that it would be a little bit like a ‘good description of sunsets’ award, a ‘good opening chapter’ award,” he says. “You hope any novel published has that, and actually pointing it out seems a bit strange. There are so many books where passages of sex are good. It’s not that the sex described is wonderful or athletic or satisfying to everyone involved; it’s because the writing is good. The bad sex award is bad writing rather than bad copulation.”
But of course writing well about sex isn’t even a little bit like writing about a sunset or writing a good opening chapter, because sunsets and first chapters don’t come with a a truckload of shame and guilt and stigma. As a person who has written about sex in both fiction and nonfiction, I know that doing it well is not the same as writing other things well.
Writing well about sex requires writing in a way that neutralizes the truckload of culturally learned guilt, shame, judgment, prejudices, and anxieties that the reader brings to the page.
Sunsets do not requires that of a writer. People aren’t walking around with a truckload of terror about the ways they might be failures at observing dusk, or about the ways that granting permission to people to watch the sunset any way they want to might lead to the destruction of civilization.
Fine writing about a sunset is difficult, of course, but it’s difficult because it’s been done to death, not because it has to vault over or blast through or sneak around the reader’s deep and often unexamined anxieties, in order to touch their hearts and minds and, yes, their genitals.
But it’s bigger than that, isn’t it?
Fine writing about sex is… well, just look at why the Bad Sex Writing award was created in the first place:
It was created by Rhoda Koenig, a literary critic, and Auberon Waugh, at that time editor of Literary Review, who felt that sex scenes were becoming increasingly gratuitous in literary fiction. “It was almost as if authors were being asked to add sex scenes by their editors because then there’d be a news story saying, ‘Have you read so-and-so’s new novel? It’s got a racy sex scene in it,'” says Brinkley. “They wanted to set up an award where they could make fun of awards and poke fun at that worrying trend in literary fiction.”
The idea of incorporating explicit writing about sex into “literary” writing has the taint of “commercial,” in a world where that word invokes “opposite of literary” and therefore inferior.
And I say: fuck that.
Fine writing about sex is art, and I think it deserves an award.