"One person's mediocre shag is another's bliss on a stick." (Photo: Getty)
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Laurie Penny on high culture: In defence of bad sex

Half a century after the end of the Chatterley ban, high culture still recoils at the least whiff of smut.

The Bad Sex Awards are not as exciting as they sound. Personally, I rather like the idea of a ceremony at which the great and good can be rewarded for selfless works with the talentless fumble or sub-standard quickie of their choice. But the Literary Review’s annual competition for the worst piece of erotic writing in fiction, whose 20th shortlist has just been announced, is something altogether more priggish. Pleasant as it is to point and laugh at other people’s intimate fantasies, there’s something about this spot on the critics’ calendar that makes the skin creep – and it’s not just the eye-watering descriptions of what two people can get up to with one piece of ripe French cheese.

It’s a very British censoriousness, this sort of smut-shaming. The Bad Sex Awards were established in 1993 “to draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. There are a number of reasons why the whole thing makes me queasy.

First, it’s so dated. Scanning through the episodes of hay-twitching and “morphinergic mechanisms splutter[ing] into life,” in this year’s crop of entries, I got the urge to take the editorial staff of the Literary Review by the hands and introduce them, as gently as possible, to the internet. There, on fan fiction sites and messageboards whose printed pages would fill whole libraries, they will find as much weird and woeful erotic writing as their fussy little minds can imagine.

Why would I want to sneer at the indelicate phrasing of another Hampstead duvet novel when I can open my laptop and access reams of smutty stories – some of which, like EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, end up as paperback bestsellers — whose anatomical detail is that much more speculative?

Secondly, many of the passages of “bad sex” selected for public mockery are, in fact, rather well-written descriptions of sex that happens to be fumbly and awkward. In real life, that’s what a lot of sex tends to be, especially at major plot points.

Here are some of the things that occur in the shortlisted “bad sex” passages: two young people worry if God will judge them for bunking up. A man is overwhelmed by sensation during intercourse and starts having weird minor hallucinations. A woman attempts awkward dirty talk involving her own breasts.

All of these are things that actually happen, and it behoves us to imagine that art and literature can describe the many worlds of human lust, pain and emotion that do not take place in soft focus, with billowing white sheets and smooth jazz playing in the background.

I would like to put in a word for wonky sex writing, both as art and instruction. I don’t know about you but I rarely find passages of sexual description “redundant” in otherwise bloodless books. In fact, a surprising number of the modern novels in my possession happen to fall open at redundant passages of sexual description, almost as if those pages have been read and reread just to check how perfunctory they are — especially the volumes I owned as a randy, bookish teenager. So, I’d like to thank all of those novelists and sleazy science-fiction writers who braved a turn in the critical stocks to share their visions with me and my fellow lonely nerds.

More than half a century since the end of the Chatterley ban, “high” culture still reaches for its smelling salts at the least whiff of sauce. The squeamish sensibilities that produce the Bad Sex Awards have, in common with commercially produced pornography, the assumption that there is an objective scale by which the goodness or badness of sex may be judged, and a standard script from which one ought not to deviate.

The reality, of course, is that one person’s mediocre, embarrassing shag is another person’s idea of bliss on a stick – but you only get to find that out after a few gauche encounters with other people’s “morphinergic mechanisms”.

Priggishness may yet do to literature what pornography has done to cinema — namely, to widen the gap between sexual content and everything else. Over the past decade, as racy videos have become freely available online, mainstream movies have become substantially less explicit. An 18 rating is no longer the draw it once was. Nobody needs to go to the cinema to see a pair of breasts any more and it is more lucrative for most directors to keep it chaste for a lower age-rating. The result is an increasing divide between sex and the rest of culture: airbrushed limbs and choreographed grinding are permissible but the truly explicit stuff must be kept out of the mainstream, banished to its own shady realm where we can access it with the proper degree of shame and self-hatred.

This is how we arrive at a situation where, as has been exhaustively observed, boys and girls are learning about sexuality from violent, repetitive misogynist porn and nowhere else. Ignorance and censoriousness breed violence and suffering. They prevent us from talking about danger and desire with anything like honesty; they replace learning and creativity with a semi-secret sexual script that we wall off from the rest of society so that it grows up weird and stilted.

The truth is that bad sex is not nipple slips and weird cheese scenes. It’s not clunky metaphor made clumsy flesh. Bad sex is ignorance, abuse and trauma. Bad sex is what happens when we believe that talking about sex is “redundant” and writing about it is “crude”. It’s what happens when sexuality becomes a shameful, angry place at the forbidden centre of culture, where all the angst and hate and gendered pain is enacted on the bodies of others. Ritual humiliation and fear of humiliation are still part of the modern erotic script — and that’s what makes really bad sex.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism