Britain's Bad Sex Award pits Philip Roth against Nick Cave

photo via the Los Angeles Times

If there’s one thing the Brits are good at, it’s laughing about sex, whether it’s lowbrow, bum-pinching humor — paging Benny Hill — or the highbrow upper echelons of London’s literary society. The cool kids in the latter category are definitely at the Literary Review magazine, with their annual Bad Sex Awards. The announcement of the selections each year leads to a flurry of bad-pun headlines in the British press — “stiff competition” being a favorite phrase (Benny Hill would be proud!). Past nominees have included such heavy hitters as Gabriel García Márquez, Norman Mailer and Salman Rushdie. This year’s shortlist is no different, including John Banville, Paul Theroux, singer-turned-writer Nick Cave, and Philip Roth. The only surprise with Roth is that it took him this long to make the cut.

Roth’s nomination is for his latest novel, The Humbling, in which an aging actor turns a lesbian straight (yeah, that old story). The scene that really caught the judges’ eyes is one in which the actor and said ex-lesbian, Pegeen (seriously), pick up a girl from a bar and convince her to take part in a threesome. Pegeen’s green dildo has a starring role:

This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. 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. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement — the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.

As Jonathan Beckman at the Literary Review told the Guardian, “Roth is very anxious about his description of sex. Why write of a scene that repeatedly features a green dildo, ‘this was not soft porn’, unless you’re worried that it might be taken as such? In this case, with sentences like ‘then she crouched above Tracy, brushing Tracy’s lips and nipples with her mouth and fondling her breasts…’, the worry seems justified. But it’s the overcompensation that qualifies this passage for the award — the totems and shamans are an attempt to convince us that Roth’s leering is actually giving some vital anthropological insight.”

Sorry, Nick Cave, looks like you don’t stand a chance. Though we’d like to give Cave our own Golden Dildo Award for the following genius mid-coital exchange that appears in The Death of Bunny Munro (thanks to the L.A. Times’ Jacket Copy blog for the heads-up on this). In the scene, Bunny has just complimented his lover River on her “muscular vagina”:

“Wow, says Bunny, from the depths of space.

“Pilates,” says River.

Carrie Bradshaw, eat your heart out.