Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards: David Guterson wins

I went to my first Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2004, when Tom Wolfe won the gong  for a bracing scene in I Am Charlotte Simmons; his famous white-suited back was seen leaving as the announcement was made (or so the compere, Alexander Waugh, claimed; he of course wasn't actually there.)

Barbara Windsor, after hearing a passage from Christos Tsiolkias
The awards, which take place at the In and Out Club, in St James', are usually a joyous occasion, full of mirth and merriment; initially intended, when instituted by the late Auberon Waugh, to gently discourage the extraneous insertions of sexual writing into otherwise good books. Whilst there is no general theme, I have noticed a tendency towards sea creatures in writing about sex; this was very much present last night, in Dori Ostermiller's passage: "For a moment, two moments, three, we’re part of the same organism: some outrageous sea creature washed up and tangled on the shore, terrifying beautiful, beyond hope," which is as interesting an exposition of the beast with two backs as any I've heard.

Since my association with the magazine (I started as a lowly, wet-behind-the-ears General Assistant, and am now a slightly loftier Contributing Editor, which means I get to sit in the armchair) I've seen Giles Coren win the gong for describing a penis as leaping around like a showerhead in a bath; and, if my memory serves me correctly, ejaculating in a Z - "like Zorro." Rachel Johnson and Iain Hollingshead both accepted with pleasure - particularly Johnson, who threw off her coat on stage; Hollingshead was wrapped in a Valkyrie-like embrace by Courtney Love, who presented the award. (What I remember most about Love is how sweet she was - she wore spectacles, and reading out her speech she came across more like a librarian addressing a room full of children than a ripped-dress-wearing rock goddess. I still didn't quite manage to pluck up the courage to speak to her though.)

Last night was the 19th ceremony, and to my mind it was one of the best yet. Literary figures were out in force: novelist Edward St Aubyn looking very smart; satirist Ian Hislop looking exceedingly hunky and chipmunky; philosopher A C Grayling's noble leonine magnetic mane was a feature. There were others:  I did see Nancy Dell'Ollio quaffing champagne. The passages were read out by actress and writer Lucy Beresford, paired with writer Arthur House (looking brilliantly spindly as he enunciated some meaty scenes). Both were excellent - drawing out innuendo from pauses and emphases without being overly camp or blatant. Alexander Waugh was on the toppest of top form: a passage from Chris Adrian's The Great Night ("He came and came and came and fell backward, as if through a mile of air or a lifetime, to land on the soft grass with a noise like his name, feeling like he was saying his name properly for the first time") caused him to recite a limerick:

There once was a man from Kildare
Who was screwing his wife on the stair.
When the Bannister broke
He quickened his stroke
And finished her off in mid air.
Waugh's explanation of the Murakami - "about a cult that worships small people that come out of other people's mouths" - caused one of the biggest laughs of the night.

One indicator of a passage's success or failure - at least, in terms of gruesomeness rather than the elusive quality of "badness" -  was the expression on actress Barbara Windsor's face. You could call it the Barbarometer. She sat by the edge of the stage; most provoked mild horror, and Barbarometer readings of between 19.5 (Haruki Murakami) to 80 (David Guterson).  The one from Christos Tsiolkas' made her look as if something worse than usual had just happened in Eastenders. Barbarometer reading: 1000. Tsiolkas was nominated this year as well as last - the only time this has happened. He did, after all, suggest last year that the only pleasure Literary Review staff managed to get was "jerking each other off at Eton." So that was his reward.

Windsor was a fantastic prize-giver, with a charming mixture of pretended (I thought) prudishness and winning charm - unlike Michael Winner, last year, who was rude and boorish (he changed his tune when boos came from the crowd.) And David Guterson's acceptance letter (read out by his publisher, Michael Fishwick) was apt. His book, Ed King, is a retelling of Oedipus Rex. And as Guterson said, it was Oedipus who invented bad sex.

People tend to get themselves into a tizzy about the Bad Sex awards - particularly ones who attribute prurience, or inverse prudery, or titillation to the awards, suggesting that they are on a par with furtive adolescent fumblings. But what they really are is a celebration - of writing, and of writers, and an opportunity to laugh in a world that's increasingly characterised by dullness.

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