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Do we need an award for bad sex scenes in books?


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As the end-of-year awards season begins, from Sports Personality of the Year to Time's Person of the Year, the prize everyone is longing to know about is this: the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. This year's winner is Christopher Bollen, for a passage in The Destroyers where he compared male genitalia to a billiard rack. 

Sexy, it ain't. 

It's easy to titter and snigger, and most people enjoy a terrible euphemism, but dedicating an entire award to bad writing about a particular element of life seems to perpetuate the need for books to be dripping in sexual content. Instances of terrible conversations, fight scenes and descriptions are much less publicised and picked over. We might also question exactly why bad writing deserves a medal at all. After all, isn't bad writing what we're trying not to do? 

Besides which, truthfully, there are few sex scenes in literature or film which don't feel somewhat surplus to requirements. As someone who managed to plough her way through the entire Fifty Shades trilogy, by book three, I was skipping pages, wondering when the story would get going again. Perhaps I'm in the minority, though, as Game of Thrones, The Borgias and Poldark positively thrive on gratuitous sex scenes, whilst TV company Starz only wanted the BBC's 2013 series The White Queen on the proviso that extra 'adult' scenes would be shot for their American audience. For my part, I'm usually just waiting patiently for them to get their clothes back on and do something constructive to the plot, like tame a dragon or murder their brother. You know, fun stuff like that. 

The thing is, such heavy-handed treatments of sex are not only cringe-worthy, but also insulting to the reader. Trust me as an English Literature graduate and teacher: if there's even a sniff of sex in a book, we will find it like heat-seeking missiles. It's what we do, and if you approach a book with that intention, every sentence can be mined for potential sexual undertones, often with hilarious results. We don't need a blow-by-blow account of who did what to whom; this isn't a manual. What we need is a bit of respect from the writer that we can fill in the gaps for ourselves. 

And given the issues that have arisen this year surrounding sexual conduct, highlighting a book for its clunky and embarrassing description of the act might be wasting the opportunities open to us. Perhaps instead we should emphasise the books and films which present appropriate sexual behaviour, showing how easy it actually is to avoid being a Weinstein or a Spacey. Celebrate characters who ensure consent is given, treat each other with respect and don't abuse their power. Perhaps an award for 'Bad Sex in Fiction' should actually be used to decry instances where it is used as lazy filler or as a weapon. 

Maybe as an aspiring writer myself I should find this award inspirational. After all, previous winners include Melvyn Bragg, Sebastian Faulks and Norman Mailer, whose careers and literary status don't appear to have suffered as a result of a damp squib of a passage in one novel. It gives us hope that even these big-hitters make a bit of a hash of writing sometimes. In that respect, celebrating bad writing rather than sweeping it under the carpet might serve a purpose, but singling out sex scenes as the only passages worthy of such attention seems rather reductive in nature. 

So I'll let the Literary Review continue searching out the shoddiest of the smut, but let's also do some hunting of our own. Let's look for the banal conversations, the anatomically-impossible sword fights and the frankly snore-inducing descriptions. Let's give tangible examples of how to do relationships in a healthy, happy and human way. Let's point the finger at characters and writers who don't seem to get that. 

Basically, let's talk less about sex.

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