Every year the Literary Review, a small British literary magazine, bestows the Bad Sex Award upon a lucky novelist for writing terrible sex scenes. What's it like to win the award? According to this year's winner, Rowan Somerville, it's (unsurprisingly) "annoying" - "a hard pill to swallow."
Somerville's quite well-reviewed novel, The Shape of Her, is in fact a very serious novel about a young couple on vacation in Greece who must face the sexual traumas in their pasts. As Somerville points out in a short essay in The Guardian, his novel was even praised for its treatment of sex.
Unfortunately for Somerville, the seriousness of his artistic aims couldn't stop Literary Review editor Alexander Waugh (grandson of Evelyn, son of Auberon) from "mawkishly reading out the sex bits" of his novel, "belting out a compilation of sex from the whole work with leering innuendo." (You can read some of the "sex bits" here.) Somerville feels the whole thing is "a travesty," but in the end can't bring himself to denounce the award after he's accepted it. He comports himself quite well, actually, telling the audience: "There's nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of a nation, I thank you."
The Bad Sex Award smarts, of course. It's not quite like its cousin, the Bulwer-Lytton Award for the worst sentence. Those sentences are just made up by the contestants; the Literary Review takes its sentences from real novels, written by serious novelists. "My novel has lots of sex in it," Somerville writes, "because it is about sex."
Ultimately, though, Somerville's sees the glass as half full. He feels bullied by the award jury (drawn, he notes, from "the upper classes") - but, at the same time, he admits that "this ridiculous award had put my novel in newspapers and websites across the world . . . . So, although it surprises me to say it, I am very grateful to them." It's what the French call a "succés de scandale."
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.