Since 1993 The Literary Review in the UK has annually shortlisted candidates and selected the winner of a Bad Sex in Fiction Award to “[honour] an author who has produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel.” (noting as the Literary Review itself points out that “expressly erotic literature” was not considered). This award tends to cause an amused flutter of interest in the national press. This seems partly because of the faint thrill of the word ‘sex’ in what may be seen as the otherwise solemn context of “good literature” and partly caused by some of the selected passages themselves. It is also merriment when well-known and acclaimed writers are shortlisted – previous nominees have been Ian McEwan Jonathan Safran Foer, Isabel Allende, Philip Roth, and Gabriel García Márquez, amongst many others over the years, even centuries.
It was refreshing to see that in 2016 the Literary Hub ran the Tournament of Literary Sex Writing, looking at passages in sixteen novels from across the past 200 years. Again, these were not extracts from ‘erotica’ as such, although some of the writers (such as Erica Jong, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, DH Lawrence) are known for their frankness in writing sexual content.
The eventual winner was James Baldwin, the 20th century American writer and social critic, for a passage in Giovanni’s Room, his 1956 novel about an American man living in Paris and dealing with the challenges and feelings in his relationships, particularly his doomed coupling with Italian barman Giovanni.
Given the time span for the novels included in the short list, this appears to be a one-off rather than an annual award. However, it would be nice if an award like this were regular, acknowledging the challenge of writing scenes that are sensual and erotic and celebrating when works are successful. also to acknowledge sex as an intrinsic and important part of life.