I’m not going to defend bad writing. Bad writing isn’t worth the time. But isn’t it curious that we see bad writing more clearly when it’s about sex? To the point where there is a gleeful pulling-apart of that writing on an annual basis, snipping the sex out of its context in a novel and slapping it onto websites with “READ THE BAD SEX AWARD NOMINEES HERE”. We then all trundle up to the sideshow and chortle about icky similes and clumsy adjectives. They brought it on themselves, yes, when they wrote this. Stupid writers.
I hate it. I’ve had a think about it, and I hate it so much. Sure, when I first heard of it and first saw the extracts I laughed along with everyone else. Gradually, though, I’ve come to see this yearly outpouring of mockery as not just vicious and bullying but as actively harmful to anyone who wants seriously to write or read about the entirety of human experience. Because by doing this we’re shutting people down, narrowing their scope, saying “Don’t write about this aspect of life. We’re going to take the piss if you do. Haha, look at you trying to find a poetic way to say ‘Willy’, hoo boy that’s embarrassing.” Eventually, good writers will give it up as a bad lot, because writers are nothing if not the owners of vast yet fragile egos. The last thing they’ll want to do is risk ridicule by pushing boundaries in the description of The Physical Act of Love. This, then, leaves only bad writers – your Morrisseys with his bulbous salutations – in the field, so the Bad Sex Awards become ever more hilarious. It’s a downward spiral.
I get it – it is embarrassing. Sex is personal, private, something we don’t discuss. Is that healthy? Not for me to say, but if we did talk about it more maybe we wouldn’t find it so difficult to engage with. We wouldn’t have these awards because not only would be be more comfortable, wouldn’t be driven to laugh, but also we would be better at writing about sex. If people are bad (and I’m not denying some of the writing is terrible, but then, say, Morrissey is a terrible writer. It’s not the sex, there), it’s because what literary tradition can they look to for improvement? Porn? To be sure, there’s always been very well written erotica and I’m not snobby about it but it’s a genre to itself, with very specific requirements. It’s there to get you off, and I’m 99.9% certain that every writer will have written their own erotica because FUCK IT. If you can, you will.
Novels, though. Novels aren’t, generally speaking, written to masturbate to. So how does a novelist engage with sex without, as it were, sliding into “erotica” mode? Without quietly closing the curtains and tapping as softly as possible on the keys so as not to call attention to the shameful acts being produced?
I don’t know the answer, of course. I’m just someone who writes short stories and they’re rarely very sexy. But I know this – if the Bad Sex Awards disappeared tomorrow, if we started treating sex as part of being human and allowed writers the freedom to write about it as they please, to experiment with words and forms, to be bold, if we let sex exist within a novel and not in sniggering quotations, if that happened we could probably think about organising a Good Sex Award. Now imagine that recommendation on the cover of a book.