Bad Awards

Last week the Literary Review announced its nominees for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which seems to have prompted some ritualistic mea culpas. John Banville, who’s been on the shortlist before, smirkingly suggested he ought never write about sex again; writing in the Telegraph, previous nominee Iain Hollingshead is candid about his own experience being on the list. “Writing about sex is generally more technical, and certainly a lot less fun, than having it,” he writes. “Either you descend into flowery metaphor or you indulge in the ‘naming of parts.'”

But that’s a concern with any kind of writing, no? Writers, especially fiction writers, constantly run the risk of either looking like they’re showing off or making their writing feel dead on the page. I’ve read only two of the books on the shortlist, Philip Roth‘s The Humbling and Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, enjoyed both, and didn’t feel either was a lesser work because of some howlingly bad sex scene. This may mean only that I have a tin ear for that sort of thing, but I’m comfortable figuring that the scenes worked just fine within their contexts. The Humbling is about an aging man in the midst of an unusual sexual reawakening—of course any sex scene is going to convey a feeling of awkwardness.

Among the problems with the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards is its implication that that sex is the worst thing a fiction writer could screw up. The ways a writer can screw up are legion; as I read, I tend to note badly written passages by scribbling the word “ugh.” Below, a few passages that made my heart sink from 2009 books:

Bad Attempt at Monologue Jokes by Late-Night Talk Show Hosts Award:

So science has finally discovered that happiness is mostly inherited. But just remember these are the guys who discovered that sterility may be inherited…. It’s interesting that, for some reason, the happiness genes aren’t particularly widespread. Not as widespread as, say, the obesity gene. Now the obesity gene: talk about wide spread

Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement

Bad Small Talk Award

“You know, ” Isabelle commented by way of introduction, “before you start cooking with me, I should tell you, I am losing my way, these days.”

Erica Bauermeister, The School of Essential Ingredients

Bad Union Caricature Award:

“I can get you all fixed up and install a proper system, but I can’t fix that old gal. I can even give you some heat while I’m doing it. It’ll take a little longer that way but I don’t charge union wages. And I don’t do union work neither—I do the job right.”

“How much?” Mrs. D asked.

“About sixteen grand. that’s for as sweet a boiler you ever seen included, and all the fittings. And all I charge is ten percent over cost for the materials. I don’t have my hand down everyone’s pockets, not like them union bosses with their diamond pinkie rings and their shivery smiles, all teeth.”

Marjorie Kernan, The Ballad of West Tenth Street

Bad Strategy to Build Dramatic Energy by Listing All the Ways One Might Die Award:

Death by drowning, death by snakebite, death by mortar, death by bullet would, death by wooden stake, death by tunnel rat, death by bazooka, death by poison arrow, death by pipe bomb, death by piranha, death by food poisoning, death by Kalashnikov, death by RPG, death by best friend, death by syphilis, death by sorrow, death by hypothermia, death by quicksand, death by tracer, death by thrombosis, death by water torture, death by trip wire, death by pool cure, death by Russian roulette, death by punji trap, death by opiate….

Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

Bad Journalist Award:

Sarah looked into his eyes. He was a congressman. He was a source. But not that much of a source anymore. She had already gotten into trouble twice for sleeping with the wrong men. But he felt just right, at least for now.

Leonard Downie Jr., The Rules of the Game


My review of Paul Auster‘s new novel, Invisible, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It starts this way:

Relatively early in Paul Auster’s new novel, one of its narrators says that “any writer who feels he is standing on safe ground is unlikely to produce anything of value.” True enough, Invisible (Henry Holt, $25) is a book whose value is a function of its riskiness.

Auster’s readers will be familiar with some of the chances he takes, like the deliberately confused identities and stories within stories, and here they’re so smoothly deployed they feel more like pulp-fiction reveals than metafictional gimmicks. But Auster’s real daring in Invisible is in his study of morality, which covers a lot of ugly, unsettling territory: murder, psychological abuse, physical exploitation and, not least, incest.

Downie Review in City Paper

My review of The Rules of the Game, the debut novel by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., is now up on Washington City Paper‘s Web site. Excerpt:

[C]hief among the many politicos swimming in Downie’s dense plot is Susan Cameron, a vice president who rises to the Oval Office following her running mate’s death. That subplot is engaging enough, but Downie knows that those themes aren’t enough to make for an interesting thriller. If he wanted to expound on what it’s like to play hardball with military and intelligence agencies, he’d be better off writing a memoir, and if he wanted to talk politics he could have saved himself a lot of typing and gone on C-SPAN, referring readers to books by his former staffers (“Newspaper editor turned novelist” and “special guest on Washington Journal” generate about the same celebrity wattage). So, to keep things moving as a work of fiction, he embeds a third game—inappropriate fucking.

If you’re in D.C., Downie will discuss the book Monday, Jan. 26, at Politics & Prose.

Is Barack Obama Going to Improve the Washington Novel?

Among the galleys currently taunting me on my bookshelf is The Rules of the Game, the forthcoming novel by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. I don’t exactly have high hopes for it—if the book itself has as many groaning cliches as the promotional patter—“highest levels of Washington politics,” “ripped from today’s headlines,” “dark secrets,” “network of wrongdoing”—I’m tempted to say I’ve already read it. (Somebody in Knopf’s PR department really does need a talking-to here. There are about five people living in Crystal City who are gonna get excited about a promo blurb that includes the term “no-bid Pentagon contracts.” No-bid Pentagon contracts! Seatbelts fastened!)

The blurb also slyly points out that the novel features a woman president. The female-president-in-crisis has long been a hacky film device (probably in novels too, though I can’t think of an example at the moment), but it may prove to be even less interesting now that a black president-elect is preparing to take charge. Smartly, wire service the Canadian Press Associated Press’ deployed a reporter to find out if Obama’s election marks a change for the Washington novel. (Which has a few issues.) Christopher Buckley naturally gets a lot of the story’s real estate, but I’m glad the anonymous journalist Hillel Italie thought to give Ward Just a ring:

Ward Just, a former Washington Post reporter whose novels include “Jack Gance” and “The American Ambassador,” hopes Obama will inspire a couple of trends. Just looks forward to more stories about members of Washington’s black middle class and to a more serious approach to government.

“It’s so difficult to write about Washington without satire,” Just says. “Washington is a lot like Hollywood; the city has become so outsized and so preposterous in so many ways. If an Obama administration could bring some real statecraft and is seen as interesting and intelligent, that might prepare for a reader for a straight ahead novel that happened to be in Washington.”

Update: Thanks to Sarah Weinman for letting me know that the story was an AP piece by Hillel Italie, not an unbylined piece by the Canadian Press.


I’ll be out of pocket here through the Thanksgiving weekend, catching up on some reading and writing, though I may poke my head up on Twitter on occasion. Have a good holiday, and thanks for reading.