A couple of weeks back, Ann Bartow of Feminist Law Professors ran a post on the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Writing awards, in which she observed that misogyny breeds “bad sex writing, as well as bad sex generally.” I had no idea just how bad – and how misogynistic! – until the Daily Dish posted the winning scene, penned by Jonathan Littell, author of The Kindly Ones:
Her vulva was opposite my face. The small lips protruded slightly from the pale, domed flesh. This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon’s head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus who made me Nobody. But my cock remained inert, I seemed turned to stone. I stretched out my arm and buried my middle finger into this boundless eye. The hips moved slightly, but that was all. Far from piercing it, I had on the contrary opened it wide, freeing the gaze of the eye still hiding behind it. Then I had an idea: I took out my finger and, dragging myself forward on my forearms, I pushed my forehead against this vulva, pressing my scar against the hole. Now I was the one looking inside, searching the depths of this body with my radiant third eye, as her own single eye irradiated me and we blinded each other mutually: without moving, I came in an immense splash of white light, as she cried out: ‘What are you doing, what are you doing?’ and I laughed out loud, sperm still gushing in huge spurts from my penis, jubilant, I bit deep into her vulva to swallow it whole, and my eyes finally opened, cleared, and saw everything.
Yep, folks, that’s the winning passage, or should I say the victorious wet tunnel, spasming around the author’s fingers?
I would love to hear what French feminist Helene Cixous would have to say about the mythological figures. Her famous piece, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” builds up to this, um, climax:
You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she is not deadly. She is beautiful and she is laughing.
The Medusa represents female sexuality. Perhaps she turned Littell’s protagonist to stone, but how then did his cock remain inert? Shouldn’t it be rock-hard, too? Ah, the incoherence of phallogocentrism! (I promise not to use that word too often, but it seems just perfect here.)
And if the vagina is the Cyclops’ eye, then how is it also Polyphemus?
And if our hero swallowed the vulva whole, wouldn’t he get awful indigestion? Or did I misread it, and he swallowed his own sperm?
And if his eyes then open, does that mean he’s now got a couple of vulvas just below his forehead?
And if the eye is immersed in the vagina but vaguely connected to the hip, can I imagine the body as anything other than a monstrous molar pregnancy? Yes, I realize this is supposed to be symbolic. (Cixous and other Lacanians might say this passage is immersed in the Symbolic order, the realm of life ruled by the Law of the Father.) But anatomically, it’s a train wreck.
At any rate, looking directly at the Medusa seems to destroy all logic, so maybe Cixous was on to something there. Littell’s imagination definitely made me LOL (a term unfortunately missing from Cixous’ oeuvre), so perhaps that renders me a mini-Medusa.
Some of the runners-up were equally impressive – if by “impressive” you mean strainingly pathetic in their apparently threatened masculinity. Here’s part of Philip Roth’s entry (yes, these appear to all be big-name writers, and yes, Roth should’ve stayed with the angst-y masturbation scenes of his youth):
The green cock plunged in and out of the abundant naked body sprawled beneath it, slow at first, then faster and harder, then harder still, and all of Tracy’s curves and hollows moved in unison with it. This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though, in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. She could as well have been a crow or a coyote, while simultaneously Pegeen Mike. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.
It was English that Pegeen spoke when she looked over from where she was, now resting on her back beside Tracy, combing the little black cat-o’-nine-tails through Tracy’s long hair, and, with that kid-like smile that showed her two front teeth, said to him softly, ‘Your turn. Defile her.’
Ew. This language of humiliation – sex makes her dirty! – makes me crazy. I am okay with green cocks; better that than a “realistic” dilso. It’s the idea of humiliation and defilement that squicks me.
From John Banville:
When he kisses her hot, soft mouth, which is bruised a little at one corner, he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently – faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of fish-slime and sawdust – for he has no doubt that this is the mouth of a busy working girl. He does not mind.
I assume this Banville is hetero, and thus inexperienced with that particular taste. Fish-slime? Sawdust? I’d be concerned about what she’d used to wash out her mouth between customers. Seriously, sawdust??!?
From Amos Oz, following upon a description of a woman (or girl?) with “the breasts of a twelve-year-old girl”:
And she, like a baby, suddenly thrusts her thumb into her mouth and begins sucking on it loudly, until her back suddenly arches like a stretched bow, and a moment later, when she has sunk back onto the mattress, a long, soft cry bursts as though from the bottom of the sea, expressing not only pleasure but astonishment, as though it were the first time in her life she had reached that landing stage, as if even in her wildest dreams she never imagined what was waiting for her here.
Seriously pedophilic, dude. Give that man a rattle and a sippy cup.
And this offering from Nick Cave:
Bunny lifts his head and looks at her and sees that River’s visage has changed somehow – there is a pout of hubris with self-admiration as she picks up the rhythm of what she would consider to be, come morning’s sober light, basically a sympathy fuck.
‘Oh,’ she says, as she pounds her bullet-proof pussy down.
I’m willing to cut Cave some slack because a commenter at Feminist Law Professors says his book is actually a dark comedy that’s intended to take the piss out of misogynists. But even so, that “bullet-proof pussy” must come from somewhere. (Maybe it’s a phrase from James Bond and not a product of Cave’s own imagination?)
From Anthony Quinn:
Then he dipped his head lower until his mouth grazed the tip of the inverted white triangle that ended between her legs; he brought a hand around and, parting her legs slightly wider, allowed his finger to draw back the pouched silk. It felt to him as if he were tending a delicate weeping wound, and as he probed it with his tongue he heard her moan quietly. Excited by the oysterish intricacy of her he sucked and licked the salty folds until they became sweet, and slowly she arched her back to heighten the angle of provocation.
Wow, maybe it wasn’t a woman at all but an injured oyster? Seriously, I cut my leg shaving this week, and it was a bad scrape that kept weeping for five days. I can guarantee you it wasn’t erotic in the least, though maybe I overlooked the third eye on my ankle or possibly a stray green strap-on affixed to my pinkie toe?
From Simon Van Booy:
Our bodies moved of their own accord. Hannah’s body was swallowing, digesting all that was mine to give.
Again, the anatomy boggles! Either Hannah has incredible deep-throating skills and the world’s shortest esophagus, or some extraordinary enzymes in her genitals.
Richard Milward starts off with yet another foray into freaky anatomy …
Bobby sucks all the freckles and moles off her chest …
but then does a quick skidoo into the land of talking genitals and condoms:
… Georgie has to roll Mr Condom down Mr Penis for him and she has to help insert him into Mrs Vagina. They shag at double-speed : Inthekitchenthrydospoonsonthebreakfast baramongstallthecutlerytheninthebathroomtheyshowereachotherwithhotkissesandGeorgiekneels onthepisserwhileBobbydoesheruptheshitterthenintheloungtheybounceupanddownonthesofathenin thebedroomtheysqueakthespringsofthemattress. Meanwhile, down in Vaginaland, Mr Condom’s beginning to feel a bit iffy. He’s overheating. For some reason, the shagging seems to be twice as fast this evening, and he grimaces as he gets flung willy-nilly in and out of the pink tunnel. He starts getting friction burns, hanging onto Bobby’s stiff penis for dear life, headbutting Georgie’s cervix at 180 beats per minute. ‘Help me!’ he yells in the darkness, feeling himself melting. The sex only seems to be getting faster though, and Mr Condom squeezes his eyes shut as Bobby groans and the friction starts getting unbearable and Mr Condom thinks he’s going to be sick and the searing pain the searing pain and Bobby groans again and suddenly squirts a gallon of white molten lava from his Jap’s eye, exploding through Mr Condom’s heavy reservoir end and Mr Condom screams and screams and vomits ice cream into Georgie’s vagina.
Quite apart from the racism, that’s enough to put a gal off sex and ice cream alike for a lifetime.
(This and all other quotations came from the Literary Review’s runners-up page, which has more awesome horribleness. If you’re insatiable, previous years’ winners are here. The John Updike and Norman Mailer scenes are a must-read.)
Ann Bartow was wrong about one thing, though. The short list wasn’t all men. It did include one woman, Dr. Sanjida O’Connell. I know she considers herself a woman because I googled her and found that her webpage features flowers (gorgeous, not cutesy) and lots of feminine pronouns. Like some of the other contenders, she goes a bit heavy on water imagery, but I actually rather liked this:
He felt they were lacking some vital ingredient; she was only partly engaged, the building explosion of sensation that had made her unfurl like a flower, a morning glory greeting the sun, was missing. He stopped.
What is it? she asked.
You, he said. I’ve lost you, he whispered.
She smiled, wide-eyed, lithe as a cat, she twisted her body, took his hand and showed him what to do; he felt her breath hot against his throat, her pulse quicken, limbs grow taut.
Then it’s back to waves and currents and tides. But still. I love that the partners are in tune with each other – that she describes the inevitable asynchronies of sex as normal instead of threatening – and that the woman is confident to show the man how to make her lust blossom. Like a morning glory, if you will. I could actually imagine giving O’Connell’s book a whirl. I like her title, The Naked Name of Love. At the very least, she seems to have a solid grip on basic anatomy.
I’ve read too many Harlequins to argue that women are going to write better sex scenes than men. Most sex writing is hackneyed. It’s engorged with cliches (if you will). Writing well about sex is very, very hard. (Or maybe not so much hard as moist, apparently.) The short-listed authors at least tried to be creative, and if the list tilts heavily toward men, I suspect it’s because the roster of Serious Novelist is still heavily male. But it’s remarkable how badly these celebrated authors’ skills collapse in the authorial bedroom – and just possibly in the literal bedroom too. I gotta agree with Ann Bartow on that. These guys may be Serious Writers, but mostly they appear to be seriously anatomically challenged.
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