Bad Sex Award Winner: Nancy Huston Wins for the Worst Literary Sex Scene of 2012


Sex is everywhere.

(That may not have been the kind of attention-grabbing sentence Professor Campbell had in mind back in Journalism 101, but I suppose I’ve gotten it. Your attention, that is.)

Sex is on billboards, and signage atop cabs and on the sides of buses. It shows up in the unlikeliest of commercials — like car commercials or even insurance commercials. If the latter hasn’t happened yet, wait, just wait. Sex is pervasive in film and especially music, which is perhaps the only reason for Lady Gaga’s existence. 

But it shows up, too, almost unexpectedly, in another prominent art form: literary fiction.

It’s in that space, the black-on-white type, pages stacked and neatly bound, that one could reasonably expect sex to be written about tastefully. Often, it is. Which is precisely what makes it so delightfully ironic when it’s not. 

So delightfully ironic, in fact, as to be celebrated by Literary Review, a 30-year-old British magazine that features reviews of books on history, politics, travel, fiction and more.

Literary Review is best known as the genius behind the literary prize no one wants: the Bad Sex Award. The premise is simple: the award is given to authors of literary fiction, and not erotic authors like the E.L. James’ of the world. Nor just plain bad writers, like the E.L. James’ of the world.

And so, congratulations (or something?) are in order for Nancy Huston, the 2012 Bad Sex Award winner for her novel, Infrared.

One sentence in particular from Huston’s family drama seems to have won over the judges. She writes: “Kamal and I are totally immersed in flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements.” Babies and bedazzlements, people, babies and bedazzlements.

But there’s more! Here’s a longer passage:

“He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, my self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate ... ”

Swimming in joy like a fish in water, I fear, is an image I may never be able to shake. And my apologies, dear reader, because now, you’re forced to endure it with me.

Huston eked out her victory over such works as Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood (“Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle's own lips and maw”) and Nicola Barker's The Yips (“She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard. She steams”).

The win pits Huston in the company of acclaimed authors like Norman Mailer, the 2007 winner, and John Updike, a lifetime achievement honoree.

If you take anything from this piece, let it be this: Sex. Sex. Sex. My motivation, transparently, is to put myself in the running for the 2013 award. Sex. Sex. Sex.