Bad Sex in Fiction Award Goes to Somerville, Sparing Franzen

The cover jacket of "The Shape of Her." The author of the book, Rowan Somerville, won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Source: Weidenfeld & Nicolson via Bloomberg

Rowan Somerville won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, the U.K.’s “most dreaded literary prize,” for a scene in which a nipple is likened to the upturned “nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing in the night.”

The passage, from Somerville’s novel “The Shape of Her,” defeated steamy encounters in novels by Jonathan Franzen and Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spokesman.

Film director Michael Winner presented the award to Somerville during a ceremony last night at the Naval & Military Club on St. James’s Square, London, saying that he has avoided sex in his own books because “as we all know, sex starts with a joke and ends in tragedy.”

Somerville accepted the award with grace, saying “There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you.”

Previously won by Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Jonathan Littell, the Bad Sex in Fiction contest seeks to dishonor the author of the year’s “most embarrassing passages of sexual description in a literary novel.”

The decision to shame Somerville was heavily influenced by one sentence that compared a coupling to what a lepidopterist does with “a tough-skinned insect,” the judges, from Britain’s Literary Review, said in an e-mailed statement. The verdict was also affected by Campbell’s “public enthusiasm for winning,” which would have rendered the purpose of the prize ineffective, they said.

‘Crude, Tasteless’

The late Literary Review editor Auberon Waugh inaugurated the prize in 1993 “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”

Waugh’s son Alexander mentioned at the ceremony that the 10th anniversary of his father’s death is coming up. “You will keep going on with Bad Sex, won’t you,” Alexander Waugh said his father asked on his deathbed.

Pornographic or expressly erotic works are excluded from the contest. Yet the Literary Review judges always find plenty to choose from.

Franzen made this year’s shortlist for a sequence of encounters in “Freedom” that commence with phone sex. Campbell was cited for a passage in “Maya” in which a dizzy first-person narrator tears open his beloved’s green silk dress. Adam Ross was singled out for a scene in “Mr. Peanut” where a lover jumps “out of his pajama pants so acrobatically it was like a stunt from Cirque du Soleil.”

The other finalists were Annabel Lyon for “The Golden Mean”; Neel Mukherjee for “A Life Apart”; Craig Raine for “Heartbreak”; and Christos Tsiolkas for “The Slap.”

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