The Critical Mass

The old battering ram bitches about literature

Most writers will tell you this: The toughest scene to write is a sex scene.

I didn’t have to go there with Chasing the Wind, the non-fiction book that I wrote about a 93-year-old sailor. And I’m not getting too deep into the subject with the other non-fiction book that I’m finishing up, beyond a few distant observations on how baseball players go about meeting attractive women in the stands. But fiction’s another story. People gotta have that Fifty Shades of Voyeurism, that’s what the public wants. And in my one completed novel, and another half-completed novel, I think I’ve figured out the trick. I’m no Irving Wallace but, if these words ever see the backlight of an eReader, I don’t think I’ll be too embarrassed.

Unless mom reads it.

This musing comes to light because the shortlist for The Literary Review‘s 20th annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award was released this week. Eight writers nominated for creating the worst sex scenes of the year. Norman Mailer has won this award. His victorious passage came from The Castle in the Forest, his 2007 novel about Adolf Hitler’s adolescent life:

Then she was on him. She did not know if this would resuscitate him or end him, but the same spite, sharp as a needle, that had come to her after Fanni’s death was in her again. Fanni had told her once what to do. So Klara turned head to foot, and put her most unmentionable part down on his hard-breathing nose and mouth, and took his old battering ram into her lips. Uncle was now as soft as a coil of excrement. She sucked on him nonetheless with an avidity that could come only from the Evil One – that she knew. From there, the impulse had come. So now they both had their heads at the wrong end, and the Evil One was there. He had never been so close before.

The Hound began to come to life. Right in her mouth. It surprised her. Alois had been so limp. But now he was a man again!

Mailer accepted his award posthumously. Tom Wolfe will not go so quietly. He was a bitter winner in 2004 for the amazing sleight-of-word passage from I Am Charlotte Simmons:

Slither slither slither slither went the tongue. But the hand, that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns – oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest – no, the hand was cupping her entire right – Now!

No! Wolfe complained that the judges didn’t understand his irony. The judges can redeem themselves when considering his new novel, Back to Blood. Wolfe is one of eight writers who beat out J.K. Rowland, whose first mature novel, The Casual Vacancy, featured a scene that Bad Sex Award watchers thought was a certain winner:

He retained a memory of her bare pink vulva; it was as though Father Christmas had popped up in their midst… he forced his way inside her, determined to accomplish what he had come for… Krystal moaned a little. Her head thrown back, her nose became broad and snout-like.

Jesus, Krystal… and I can’t get an agent?

I’ve never read any of Rowland’s Harry Potter books. I assume she goes light on the sex scenes. So maybe she hasn’t had enough practice. Writing them, I mean. Still, Rowland is a professional writer. I assume she has access to professional editors. Or at least a friend or a neighbor who could have set Rowland straight while reading the still-wet manuscript over a glass of Pinot Grigio: “J.K., dear, this is horrid,” she’d say, wrinkling her broad and snout-like nose. “And you think you can win some kind of award with this?”

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