"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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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue