This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.
There’s bad sex and there’s baaaaad sex. One is literally bad sex and the other is literary bad sex. And two brilliant examples of both emerged this year, and were rightly cited.
Christopher Bollen was accorded the dubious honor of writing what a panel of judges convened by The Literary Review deemed to be the worst depiction of sex in a novel for 2017.
Bollen’s book The Destroyers won the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, with this particular piece of prose winning over the judges, so to speak, and clinching the deal:
“She covers her breasts with her swimsuit. The rest of her remains so delectably exposed. The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.”
Granted, a sex scene is not particularly easy to write, especially if your aspirations tend toward the literary. The challenges are indeed daunting: depicting the congress of two bodies and two beings (or more) while avoiding cliché; portraying what is in fact a primal, sometimes mundane, human act with a certain amount of literary finesse, instead of resorting to purple prose; conveying the sensual and erotic without making it pornographic. And finding the right metaphors for genitals and sex without sounding ridiculous.
There are ways, of course, but even the most skilled writers, from Tom Wolfe to Ben Okri to Norman Mailer, have fallen victim to trying too hard, so hard, in fact, that the results are often, er, wooden. Or overwrought. Or cringe-worthy.
As for the billiard rack standing in as genitalia in Bollen’s novel, The Literary Review had this to say: “The judges felt that there are parts in the book where Bollen goes overboard in his attempts to describe the familiar in new terms, leading occasionally to confusion. In the line quoted… they were left unsure as to how many testicles the character in question has.” Indeed, if the package of said character were as abundant as a billiard rack, that’s a smorgasbord of testicles. I can’t imagine any man wanting that many testicles slapping against each other beneath his solitary penis. I certainly would not recommend boxer shorts.
Bollen had to fend off some pretty stiff competition, it would seem, for the prize. According to The Guardian, the shortlist also included:
#1 The Seventh Function of Language by Prix Goncourt-winner Binet (“Bianca grabs Simon’s d*ck, which is hot and hard as if it’s just come out of a steel forge, and connects it to her mouth-machine.”)
#2 Venetia Welby’s Mother of Darkness (“The green grass curls around Tera’s left breast as she curves her sleek physique around Matty’s diabolical torso like a vine. Paralysed, complete, the marble statue of the lovers allows itself to be painted by the dawn’s lurid orange spillage.”)
#3 War Cry by Wilbur Smith (“He kissed her and she responded and the boundaries between them blurred, like two watercolours on a piece of paper, joining as one to create something entirely new.”)
The irony is that the creators of these overwritten passages, replete with prone-to-uncomfortable-similes, more often than not intended to write about sex as being explosive and earth-shaking, not risibly execrable.
Kristen Roupenian, on the other hand, sets out deliberately to describe bad sex in all its reluctant, ambiguous and disembodied awkwardness in her New Yorker short story that’s gone viral, Cat Person.
And she does it with disarming simplicity as she tracks the trajectory of the brief and unlikely yet utterly relatable coupling between a college student named Margot and a 30-something guy named Robert. The use of texting as a necessary, yet inadequate tool of post-modern, device-assisted romance is skilfully deployed. Anyone who has relied on text messaging and social media as a medium of communication in a relationship will understand how both exhilarating and frustrating a single text can be, plunging us and the friends we show the text to into endless hours of speculation, choosing to second-guess every possible meaning of each word, from the implausible to the comforting.
Roupenian also captures a discomfiting truth in sexual relations between men and women that have persisted forever—that we have been socialized to accept that sex is mainly focused on a man’s pleasure; a woman’s satisfaction is secondary. As Haley Nahman writes in Man Repeller, we’ve been conditioned to be subservient to men in many ways, which lead us to feel inadequate and inexperienced and make value judgments during sex: “his orgasm is required; mine is optional.”
What makes the sex between Margot and Robert bad is a combination of factors—its inevitability, despite the stilted rapport between the two even after a borderline successful date; her lack of any real attraction to him which in turn makes her will herself into feeling more into it than she really is; his mechanical repertoire of moves; the dreariness of his flat, etc. At one point she realizes she doesn’t really want to sleep with him, but feels trapped by the situation she helped engender—his wanting to have sex with her was a validation of her desirability, so she may as well push through with it.
“Margot sat on the bed while Robert took off his shirt and unbuckled his pants, pulling them down to his ankles before realizing that he was still wearing his shoes and bending over to untie them. Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon.”
It’s not rape, not really, but there is an element of wanting to escape. The New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted that what the short story addressed was “a type of terrible sex that isn’t rape, but is tied to sexism.”
Personally, I think Cat Person went viral for three reasons. First of all, it’s a witty, insightful, unpretentious short story. Second, it addressed a taboo issue that felt timely: a type of terrible sex that isn’t rape, but is tied to sexism.
— Emily Nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) December 11, 2017
Nahman agrees, citing her own personal experiences. “For years,” she wrote, “sex was something I owed the men I liked or loved because I liked or loved them. For years, my barometer for good sex was my partner’s experience and, by extension, my partner’s impression of me. When lacking the means or sexual fluency to wield my own power, I found it through pleasing those who had it. The prize was self-esteem; the cost was self-respect.”
We may like to think of ourselves as much more sexually open or progressive, but in the end, what we really need to be is sexually literate. We need to understand that our pleasure is just as valid and important than our partner’s, and we need to be able to communicate that.
After that disastrous night, it’s no wonder Margot decides to never see Robert again. But the end of Cat Person is unexpectedly chilling—and typical of the male response to rejection. Read the story.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
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Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.
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