15 December 2004

Bad sex

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:39 am

The Literary Review‘s annual “Bad Sex in Fiction” prize has been announced, and the winner is Tom Wolfe for I am Charlotte Simmons. Here is an extract:

Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck the ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth. She tried to make her lips move in sync with his. The next thing she knew, Hoyt had put his hand sort of under her thigh and hoisted her leg up over his thigh. What was she to do? Was this the point she should say, “Stop!”? No, she shouldn’t put it that way. It would be much cooler to say, “No, Hoyt,” in an even voice, the way you would talk to a dog that insists on begging at the table.

Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns—oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest—no, the hand was cupping her entire right—Now! She must say “No, Hoyt” and talk to him like a dog…

…the fingers went under the elastic of the panties moan moan moan moan moan went Hoyt as he slithered slithered slithered slithered and caress caress caress caress went the fingers until they must be only eighths of inches from the border of her pubic hair—what’s that!—Her panties were so wet down… there—the fingers had definitely reached the outer stand of the field of pubic hair and would soon plunge into the wet mess that was waiting right… there—there—

Now, I think Wolfe is clearly putting us on here: his descriptions of sex are deliberately clumsy, heavy-handed, ill-advised—in short, as gleefully bad as real-life college sex can be. And at least it’s readable—unlike many of the other entries, which are unbearably florid, read like instruction manuals, or involve actual cows. So I would say that while Charlotte Simmons may include the best “bad sex” writing, it’s a far cry from the worst sex writing in fiction.

It’s hard to write about sex—but you always want to, you can’t help yourself. You want to be the first person to write well about sex, but of course you’re not, it’s pure hubris, and disastrous as always. My worst ever sex writing was this, from Nomad, which was actually published (parental advisory—duh):

They were kissing. Lips. Teeth. Tongue. Words darted around his head, triggered like the nerves that were firing all over his body. Metallic tang of saliva. Muscles struggling to be free. Fragments, images: everything had become narration. Her mouth detached from his and sank down to his—what? Penis. Prick. Cock. Whang. So many words; a thesaurus. Some guys had pet names for theirs. One-eyed Jack. Old Feller. Clovis….

She sat back on the rug and let her legs fall outward. He knelt on the ground, held her around the thighs and slipped his tongue into the cleft of her—this was even harder. This wasn’t even his: he didn’t know how to name it, couldn’t think about it without a name. Not a vagina, medical, clinical, cold. Too warm for a vagina; too warm and wet. Too definite for abstracts like her womanhood, her sex. Too real. Not a pussy, stupid word, insulting. By no means a steaming damp slice of chocolate love cake. Perhaps a cunt, base word, no beating around the bush: frank, brutal, but at least not coy. Call a cunt a cunt. Break the taboo, diffuse its power. Right on. But these were all his words, English words: she might know them, but privately she would use her own. For something so intimate she would surely think in Finnish, or possibly Swedish, the other official language. She would probably even contemplate him with the same vocabulary, he realised. Sex had no single language. He had been transformed again. What was once his dick had become something else, something he couldn’t even pronounce, bursting with umlauts and double consonants.

It goes on, but I can’t… I mean, you can see what I was trying to do—can’t you? Trying to write about sex while at the same time writing about writing about sex, and how difficult it is… plus, I was like 20. I think I’ve got better since then, and realised what everybody else probably knew all along: being clever won’t get you anywhere, the mechanics aren’t really important, you don’t have to bang on and on, and a quick game is a good game. (This is all about writing, stop being smart.)

One Response to “Bad sex”

  1. Alastair Says:

    Just for the benefit of your Nomad protagonist, the Swedish word is “Fitta”.

    I know the Finnish word but it’s embedded in a phrase that I can pronounce but not spell.

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