For three decades, authors scribbled away with the spectre of the Bad Sex Award judges looking over their shoulder. The award — run by the small Soho-based magazine Literary Review — names and shames writers for “redundant, poorly written or unnecessarily pornographic descriptions of sex in fiction”. It became so notorious that the winner is now breathlessly reported in the New York Times.
As well as being a bit of fun, the Bad Sex Award has served as a guarantor of standards in literature and left even the most pompous writers red-faced.
Norman Mailer, Melvyn Bragg and Giles Coren have all been stung by it. But, as I reported in the Londoner’s Diary last week, the award is under threat.
Especially among male novelists, who once dominated the shortlist, there seems to be an apprehension about giving readers the creeps
It has not been held since 2019 and the judges claim they can’t find enough examples of bad sex to draw up a shortlist this year. The award was inaugurated in 1993, a time when, as the novelist Amanda Craig told me: “Sex scenes were de rigueur — publishers actually asked you to put them in.”
But now the picture has changed. Some authors can even seem prudish. Especially among male novelists, who once dominated the shortlist, there seems to be an apprehension about giving readers the creeps (something that didn’t trouble previous generations).
“Sex is very out of fashion at the moment,” says Robbie Millen, the literary editor of The Times. Perhaps the award had a chilling effect, becoming its own worst enemy. There are tales of the more switched-on fiction editors gently nudging their authors: how would you feel if the Bad Sex Award got hold of this? But all hope is not lost. During my efforts to revive the award, I’ve found readers full of suggestions. Among the obvious contenders are William Boyd, who has just published a new novel and is partial to half-dozen page smooch-a-thons, and Sebastian Faulks, who won in 1998. Could Faulks be to the Bad Sex Award what Hilary Mantel was to the Booker and bag the prize twice?
With two months of the year to go, I hope we can revive this literary institution in time for a comeback party at the In and Out Club, the appropriately named venue in St James’s Square where the prize-giving ceremony is usually held.
Ethan Croft is editor of Londoner’s Diary