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What is it about men and bad sex?

News this morning that relatively unknown Irish author Rowan Somerville is the winner of this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award for his novel, The Shape of Her, beating off stiff opposition (ooh-er) from a shortlist dominated by heavy-hitters like Jonathan Franzen and Christos Tsiolkas.

I’ll let others discuss the merits or otherwise of the various nominees; what interests me is the fact that the winner is a bloke. At one level that’s not a surprise, especially given the shortlist of eight included only one book by a woman, but it starts to look more striking when you glance down the list of writers who have won the award since it was inaugurated in 1993, and absorb the fact that of nineteen winners to date, only two have been women.

So what is it about men and bad sex? I’ve got a few ideas of my own but I’m guessing many of you have thoughts on the subject as well. Is it just the inherent sexism of the literary and cultural world on show in an amusing and ironic way? Or are men predisposed to write awful sex (or to put it more accurately, since most winners of the Bad Sex Award win for descriptions of what they think of as good sex, are men predisposed to write good sex badly?). And if they are, do women write it better? Or do they just avoid writing about it at all?

Thoughts, please . . .

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. You’d have to tally up a lot of sex scenes in a lot of books to be sure, but I hypothesise that men and their writing are more noticed than women and theirs, rather than an actual difference in quality of description.

    November 30, 2010
    • I think that’s definitely part of it, but are you sure that’s all it’s about? You don’t think there’s something distinctly masculine about the icky combination of forensic detail, lurid imagery and sentimentality that characterises a truly awful sex scene?

      November 30, 2010
      • I don’t think men have the monopoly on “throbbing members” and other fabulous euphemisms… although the examples that come to my mind first off don’t exactly count as literary. No, I’m not going to admit what trashy novels I’ve read. Or, you know, just looked at.😉

        November 30, 2010
  2. bloowillbooks #

    As someone who writes ‘trashy novels’ for a living, I have to tell you, I’ve read plenty of books by women that include sex scenes that make me go “ick”. Truth be told, I think ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex is entirely subjective. What some people enjoy gives others the heebiejeebies.

    Because I’m a woman who writes for a largely female audience, I tend to focus more on the sensuousness of sex rather than the mechanics. As soon as mechanical detail becomes the crux of the sex scene, I’m out.

    Who were the judges? If they were predominantly female then perhaps this description of process rather than sensation is what gets so many men on the list? (yes I realise I’m generalising but how else can this conversation occur?)

    And really, if you’re going to write a book called ‘The Shape Of Her’ (with a cover like that) any sex scene would need to be a masterpiece of sensuality.

    November 30, 2010
  3. ST #

    In the past 20 years the Booker prize winner has been more than twice as likely to be a man, so that bias would probably explain 90% of whatever it is about men and bad sex in literary fiction. But there’s not that much graphically described sex in literary fiction anyway, is there? Not compared with genre fiction, as people have noted above. Perhaps graphic sex in itself is not considered very “literary”. After all, what would constitute a “good” graphic sex scene? Even Lady Chatterley’s Lover makes for pretty cringe-inducing stuff these days, however revolutionary it may have been at the time.

    My guess is that if you tallied up all the graphic sex scenes in published books in a given year, you’d actually find the vast majority written by women. Erotic fiction is a bit of a woman’s domain.

    November 30, 2010
  4. Maybe writers think too much..and sex isn’t something you should be thinking about when you’re doing it. It’s like trying to use words to describe a piece of free jazz.

    perhaps men, being (generally) more visual about what turns them on, start the scene in a literary style then get hijacked by their own hormones and start writing more crudley but struggle to keep it “literary”. Then it just gets totally confused, and turns “bad”. A clash of style?

    I’m thinking of Henry Miller or Bukowski, who both managed to produce “non-bad” sex scenes, as crude or repulsive as some of them were…at least the style was coherent within the context of the rest of the book.

    November 30, 2010
  5. Barbara #

    Hmmm. I’ve read some shockers by women, so I don’t think we are exempt at all.
    Who decides these things anyway? Do they have an award for the Best sex in Fiction?

    November 30, 2010
  6. judy horacek #

    Definitely agree with ST’s point – the 17 out of 19 would be more fruitful if compared with the numbers of men and women winning other writing awards. I bet it’s rarely a 50/50 split. There’s a bias towards men winning stuff – and maybe it doesn’t matter whether they’re winning acclaim for good or for bad. Perhaps it’s about women being largely overlooked in both cases rather than questions of differences in quality or approach.

    Crunch those numbers James!

    December 1, 2010
    • I agree as well, though while I think it’s a big part of it I’m not sure the gender/profile bias entirely explains the predominance of men. That said, I think this piece by Laura Miller at Salon is pretty much spot-on.

      December 1, 2010
  7. drnaomi #

    I for one am dying to know exactly which scene in The Slap qualified Tsiolkas for the nomination (I have a pretty good idea though). The ick in his book was the way he positioned the women as adoring and subjugating themselves to the throbbing male members of his heros/antiheros. His hetero sex read like a gay male’s view and felt like porn. Yet I loved the dirty brutal sex in Loaded. It’s all about the context and what the scene tells about character, motivation, connection (or, as in Loaded, the lack thereof).

    Perhaps it’s part of the imaginative journey you go on as a reader? A bad adjective can really wreck the mood. Visual adjectives are even worse – I feel when writers closely describe appearances they reduce the reader’s capacity to identify with the characters, and close physical descriptions of sex do exactly the same thing.

    Have to say, the best sex scene I’ve read recently was Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach – even though it was a depiction of failed sex, he got the conflicted internal narrative of the woman so perfectly that I was deeply moved.

    December 2, 2010

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