Monday, 30 November 2009

Bad Sex Award

So this is the man who won. Jonathan Littell from his Prix Goncourt winning novel, The Kindly Ones. According to the judges:

The Kindly Ones, which tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of one of the executioners, beat off stiff competition from a stellar shortlist that included entries from Philip Roth, John Banville, Paul Theroux and the literary rock star Nick Cave.

The judges paid tribute to the novel's breadth and ambition, calling it "in part, a work of genius".

"However," the citation continued, "a mythologically inspired passage and lines such as 'I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg' clinched the award for The Kindly Ones. We hope he takes it in good humour."

The Kindly Ones is, of course, the ironic title for the Eumenides, aka the Erinyes, aka The Furies.

I suspect the bad sex awards are essentially British, inviting and producing a cross between a snort and a snigger. Howard Jacobson thinks, probably rightly, that (in English at least) the best sex writing is that which does not describe the act. I was writing to a friend in India who has been translating some Tamil erotic poetry, which seems to find a natural register, and in this case to locate it in the female voice (the Tamil writer being female).

It is not very much like the home life of our own dear queen.*

It may be that the often remarked-on concreteness of the English language, that tends to reject abstraction and ideas in favour of the empirical and tangible (the nation of shopkeepers being conspicuous disdainers of airy Frog waffle) produces poetically concrete metaphors that are always going to look somewhat ridiculous compared to the empirical concrete of the act itself in all its varieties. All this for THAT! cries the reader.

I haven't checked, of course, since these posts are all thrown off in a hurry, but my guess is that the best erotic writing in English will always veer to the humorous, or else avoid the act altogether and concentrate on the building up of circumstance.

In other word, I propose that all straight-faced sex-act writing in Eng Lit is, by definition, bad sex writing. Unless proved otherwise.

As concerns the politics of it, that lies with the Furies - the Kindly Ones.

*Gold and Fizdale, in their biography of Sarah Bernhardt, recount an incident from the London production: "After watching Sarah as Cleopatra, lasciviously entwined in her lover's arms, an elderly dowager was heard to say:' How unlike, how very unlike the home life of our own dear queen'."


Unknown said...

I like that it beat off stiff opposition. Ooo errr missus


Gwil W said...

Of course, this kind of thing has a long tradition going back to the Elizabethan age and the amazing WS. Good sex writing, as George has picked-up on, must have a more than a little humour.

point me graciously with fair aspect ... show my head where thou mayst prove me

for example.

George S said...

I was going to point out the stiff opposition myself but I thought it might be a flaccid argument.

What's that lovely Graves poem? Ah yes, 'Down, Wanton Down'.

Unknown said...

You can rely on me to point out the double entendres George, its what I look for from writing.