If you're looking to read some sexy sexy prose, you probably shouldn't bother with Stephen King's latest novel 11.22.63, which the Literary Review nominated for the 2011 ‘Bad Sex in Fiction' Award for such titillating passages as this: "She was wearing jeans. The fabric whispered under my palm." Hot.
King's susurrating fabrics helped earn him a place on a list of 11 other nominees that includes James Frey (of Oprah excoriation fame) for The Final Testament of the Holy Bible and Haruki Murakami for 1Q84. Severely underrepresented in this year's nominations? Women. Only Jean M. Auel and Dori Ostermiller made the illustrious list and if you're thinking, "Well, the ladies can't get all the best awards every year," consider that, since the ‘Bad Sex' award's inaugural winner Melvyn Bragg, only two women — Wendy Perriam and Rachel Johnson — have ever taken home the top prize.
Since 1993, when critic Rhoda Koenig and magazine editor Auberon Waugh established the award, each year the Literary Review has singled out an author who writes awkwardly enough about sex to convince readers that the winning author's experience with actual sex acts has been limited to puppet performances put on by a middle school health teacher who had a very limited sense of irony. According to the criteria for consideration, the award's purpose is, "to draw attention the crude, tasteless, and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it."
Past winners include such would-be libertines as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and John Updike, who won the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award' in 2008 for a fiction career distinguished by many bedroom fumblings and sentences such as, "His man seed exploded into her womb." With so much stiff, ahem, competition from the men, it's no wonder female authors have failed to really assert themselves in this award.
A clue to the dearth of women winners might have something to do with the fact that men still outnumber women at both commercial and academic publishing houses, according to The New Republic's Ruth Franklin. In 2010, of the 13 large houses that TNR examined, Penguin's Riverhead imprint came the closest to closing the gender gap between male authors, who accounted for 55% of books published, and female authors (45 %). And the house with the lowest percentage of female authors? That would be Harvard University Press, with a paltry 15%.
The numbers always seem to provide the neatest answer — fewer lady authors must mean fewer lady award winners, though even among the pools of past nominees, very few women break the monotonous litany of older men using discomforting metaphors to describe sexual intimacy. I'd like to think that the overwhelming presence of male authors on the lists of winners and nominees has more to do with the fact that, since women had (and often still have) to actively wrest control of their own sexuality away from a patriarchy that often determines how the female body is used and represented, they are able to speak with greater comfort and authority about sex when they achieve sexual autonomy. The difference between male and female authors could be as simple as the difference between the heir to a fortune and the entrepreneur who builds her own fortune from nothing — the heir would be more likely to take wealth for granted as a precondition and would have a harder time understanding how wealth is created and how it skews his worldview. In a word, this difference is entitlement and men have been entitled to sexual agency for much longer than women.
Either that, or Stephen King might not be the luminary of erotic fiction we always thought he was.
For some especially cringe-worthy sex passages, check out the Literary Review's list of past nominees: