Nancy Huston won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, the U.K.’s “most dreaded literary prize,” for a steamy description of a threesome involving a photographer, her camera and her lover.
The passage, from Huston’s novel “Infrared,” last night defeated torrid scenes by writers including 2004 winner Tom Wolfe and Paul Mason, the economics editor of BBC TV’s current-affairs show, Newsnight.
The prize was collected in the author’s absence by Karen Duffy, associate publisher of Atlantic Books.
“Infrared” tells the story of a painful Florentine family holiday endured by Rena Greenblatt, a photographer who takes infrared images of her lovers at intimate moments.
“The Canon is part of my body,” Huston’s heroine confides. She isn’t coy when it comes to describing her encounters.
“Kamal and I are totally immersed in flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements. The word pleasure is far too weak for what transpires there. So is the word bliss.”
Instead, she tries musical metaphors, bad Italian and images of “undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate.”
Canadian-born Huston is only the third woman to win the award in its 20-year history. She writes in French, a language she learned as a schoolgirl, and then translates her own work into English. She currently lives in Paris where she has won the Prix Femina, and where Roland Barthes supervised her master’s thesis on swearwords.
“I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray,” she wrote in an e-mailed statement.
The award was presented during a ceremony at the Naval & Military Club on London’s St. James’s Square by actress Samantha Bond, who was Miss Moneypenny to Pierce Brosnan’s 007, and who currently plays Lady Rosamund Painswick in the “Downton Abbey” television series.
“I had no idea from personal experience that bad sex could be so amusing,” Bond said.
Previously won by the likes of David Guterson, Norman Mailer and Jonathan Littell, the Bad Sex in Fiction contest seeks to shame the author of the year’s “most embarrassing passages of sexual description in a literary novel.”
Pornographic or expressly erotic works are excluded from the contest, meaning that the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy and its many imitators are ineligible.
Auberon Waugh established the prize in 1993 to draw attention to the “crude, tasteless, and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels, and to discourage it.”
That noble aim might be said to have backfired. While Sebastian Faulks refused to accept the award in 1998, others have reveled in the notoriety it confers.
This year, the Literary Review judges were once again spoiled for choice. Huston defeated racy competition from an apparently unchastened Wolfe, who made the shortlist with a marathon of raunch from “Back to Blood,” in which a Russian oligarch’s genitalia become “his big generative jockey.”
In “Rare Earth,” a tale of corruption in contemporary China, Mason couldn’t resist drawing on his day job. A tantric tryst climaxes with a man panting about cartels and global markets. “‘The price is inflated because production has been capped!”’ he cries out.
Nicola Barker made the shortlist for a passage from “The Yips” that likens a woman to an English dessert while her Romeo becomes a spoon, a “helpless dollop of warm custard,” and a bloodhound.
Nicholas Coleridge, the president of Conde Nast International and distantly related to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, made the cut for an episode in which an English royal bares his buttocks and hands a bundle of freshly cut birch twigs to “The Adventuress” of the novel’s title.
The other finalists were “Noughties” by Ben Masters, “The Divine Comedy” by Craig Raine and Sam Mills’s “The Quiddity of Will Self,” which reads like X-rated fan fiction to the man himself.
J.K. Rowling, though eligible for her decidedly adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” was overlooked. There was just one passage about a vagina, said Alexander Waugh, son of Auberon. “You’ve got to do a bit better than that.”
Asked why male authors have dominated the award, judge and Literary Review senior editor Jonathan Beckman speculated that more literary fiction by men is published.
“Men feel more need to swagger when they write about sex,” he said in a telephone interview, “lest aspersions be cast on their sexual -- and literary -- potency.”