"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

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder