Auberon Waugh, the English writer, must have been reading something on a grey dry day, which is really about unrealised possibilities in case you have missed the metaphor, and decided to set up this award. I believe it was to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.
Those who are subtle would not really indulge in such careless passages, and if they do then perhaps they genuinely mean to be crude, tasteless and perfunctory. The modern novel, as opposed to classics (or is it conservative?), does use sexual descriptions. It might be redundant to certain readers and the only thing worth reading to others.
As a teenager my female friends would be given books by the boys that had specifically marked out portions of writing from the point of view of hormones. It worked as a learning experience as well as succeeded in conveying the intent of the one rewarding them with these precious jewels.
I say 'them' because I did not read those books, and when on occasion I was asked to “at least try” I took it up with the assiduousness of an experiment, looking for syntax where I ought to have been examining the possibilities of sin.
This year’s shortlist includes Philip Roth for something he has written in his latest book The Humbling – “the story of the seduction of a ‘full breasted’ lesbian by an ageing stage actor. The novel includes a threesome scene and has several references to a green-coloured sex toy”.
I am a bit perturbed by this. It suggests that lesbians may not be full-breasted and if they are their seduction is wont to take place only by ageing stage actors. Has the threesome scene been written from the point of view of one individual or all three? Would Roth manage a balanced perspective giving three sides of the sex coin, the third being upright and poised to roll?
Use of sex toys is fairly common among the living, so I assume characters in fiction might emulate real people. I am confused about the green colour, though. Is Al Gore still at it? Green is also associated with Martians, which again expresses that it could be an out-of-world experience. All good. However, since men are supposed to be from Mars, then political correctness would unfold its wrath on Roth for assuming that women cannot really enjoy such blissful moments on their own. Green is also the colour of nature, at least when it is not autumn in some parts of the world. To refer to nature and toy in the same breath is to take the breath out of nature.
The passage, however, does not have those twists and turns:
“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.”
Paul Theroux’s attempt in A Dead Hand has also been nominated:
“Her hands were all over me, four hands it seemed, or more than four, and as she touched she made me weightless, lifting me off the table in a prolonged ritual of levitation.”
What does all this convey? I know it isn’t quite easy to write about how characters one has created would behave in bed. But authors do base personalities on people they know or read about. And they do have the power of imagination.
Now, what happens to the much-touted Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian manual on sex? It was written by the celibate sage Vatsyayana. It is considered a path-breaking work, and I suspect it has to do with it being an old text and less due to its inherent practical merits. Take this passage:
When a woman, having placed one of her feet on the foot of her lover, and the other on one of his thighs, passes one of her arms round his back, and the other on his shoulders, makes slightly the sounds of singing and cooing, and wishes, as it were, to climb up him in order to have a kiss, it is called an embrace like the 'climbing of a tree'.
Why would a woman stand on a man’s foot and place the other one on his thighs? Were all women way shorter than the men? And why must she sing and coo all to get a little hug?
Don’t ask questions. Visit any bookstore and this volume is around. Everyone has heard about this book.
The point is: Do readers give a damn? As Roth himself had once said, “When you publish a book, it's the world's book. The world edits it.”
Therefore, it depends on us. The bad sex is in our heads.