Troil and error: bad sex should at least be funny

November 19, 2009 at 8:36 pm (Champagne Charlie, comedy, lesbian, literature, men, women)

According to today’s Grauniad, the great Philip Roth has been shortlisted for the Literary Review‘s  bad sex award. This trophy (a plaster foot) was inaugurated by the late Auberon Waugh to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”

It’s his most recent work,’ The Humbling’, that earns the great man his nomination. In one scene, an ageing actor and his lesbian friend Pegeen, pick up a girl and persuade her to join in a threesome involving a green dildo:

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.

Pretty poor stuff, I think you’ll agree. But what really struck me was the lack of any humour to be found in this description – a startling omission from the author of the hilarious sexual comedy ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’.

But troilism and voyeurism can be amusing when described by a skilled writer – especially when things do not go according to plan for at least one participant:

‘About your idea that we all ought to go to bed, you and I and Joyce.’


‘I’ve been thinking about it.’




‘Maurice, what would you get out of it exactly? I mean I can see what I’d get out of it, at least I think I can, but where would you come in? No, Maurice, you’re not to be horrid and awful. You know what I mean.’

‘I think so, yes. Well, seeing that it’s so much fun to go to bed with one beautiful girl, it ought to be twice as much fun to go to bed with two, if not more. More than twice as much fun. Worth trying, anyhow.’

‘Mm. You want to watch us at it, kind of thing, too, don’t you?’

‘Yes I do rather. I’ve never been able to see anything wrong with the idea of watching people at it, provided that’s not all you’re doing, and that won’t apply in my case, of course. And provided, as far as I’m concerned, that neither of the people is a chap, and that’s not going to apply either’… ( a few days later)…

The two girls looked communicatively at each other then at me in the same way they had done in the bar before lunch, preparatory to accusing me of interrupting their chat. I smiled at each of them while I tried to sort out priorities in my mind..

‘What do you want us to do?’ asked Diana, with just a hint of impatience in her voice and demeanour.

‘Let’s all take everything off for a start’ I said.

A woman can always beat a man to the state of nudity if she puts her mind to it, and here were two women evidently doing so. Despite earings and necklaces, Joyce and Diana were embracing naked beside the bed while I was still working urgently on my second shoe. By the time I was ready to join them, they had thrown the covers back and were lying side by side in an ever close embrace. I climbed in behind Diana and started kissing her shoulders and available ear and the back of her neck, none of which seemed to make any special difference to anybody. I found it difficult to slide my arm round under her arm, because Joyce’s arm was thereabouts too, and impossible to touch more than the outer side of Diana’s breast, because Joyce’s breast was against the remainer of it. When I tried the same sort of thing at a lower level, I came across the top of of Joyce’s thigh. After that, I tried to alter the girls’ positions with a view to setting up one of the triads of lovemaking Joyce had mentioned the previous evening in her unvarnished way. That meant her thigh would positively have to shift, but it stayed where it was. To get Diana on her back was not even worth attempting, with her inner thigh between both of Joyce’s. It is never easy to move people about bodily unless they co-operate a bit, and neither of these was doing so at all.

What were they doing? Kissing repeatedly, in fact almost continuously, pressing themselves against each other, breathing deeply, though not particularly fast. What more? I had a totally obstructed view from where I was, but both Joyce’s hands were in sight, one behind Diana’s head, the other at the small of her back, and anyway their embrace had been so tight from the beginning that neither could could have been caressing the other in any way; they would have had to draw a little apart for that, which would have afforded me an opportunity, but I doubted very much whether either of them had bothered to think of such a point. I told myself I was not going to give up, said so aloud, said a lot more things, managing to stay just this side of whining and abuse, moved round the bed to behind Joyce, and got no change there either.

There it was, then. I stood and looked at them while they went on exactly as before, neither speeding up nor slowing down, like people unable to to foresee ever doing anything else, even of the same general sort. How well I could remember that feeling! Just then Diana’s hazel eye opened, moved across the drawn curtains and me and more of the curtains without the least self-consciousness in paying the same attention to me as to the curtains, and shut again. The thought of two women making love can be an exciting one, but let me tell you that, when they are totally absorbed in each other, the actuality is sedative. Indeed, for the moment I felt calmer than at any time during the past few days. I blew them a kiss, rejecting the idea of kissing each of them on the shoulder or somewhere as more trouble and no more likely to be noticed, picked up my clothes at leisure and carried them to the bathroom.

Author? Book? No prize this time, I’m afraid.


  1. Rosie said,

    Kingsley Amis, The Green Man

  2. charliethechulo said,

    Sod it, Rosie! You’re a real spoilsport aren’t you?

  3. Rosie said,

    Kingsley Amis had some good bad and therefore funny sex scenes eg in One Fat Englishman where the nasty hero is shagging someone and reciting Chaucer to stop him climaxing too soon. In scenes where the sex is satisfying, he’s less specific about what’s going on exactly. There are plenty of good comic sex scenes in books but I don’t know if there are that many good serious sex scenes. I suppose they must be hard to write – you either start doing stuff about the stars and the earth moving and sound pretentious or you do this bit goes into that bit and sound like instructions for putting together an IKEA bookcase. In songs and poems the erotic ones (like The Song of Songs) deal with desire rather than what the lovers are actually doing as such.

  4. Bad Sex Award « Shiraz Socialist said,

    […] 29, 2009 at 11:07 am (Rosie B, literature) Further to Champagne Charlie’s post, there was more about the Bad Sex in Fiction Award on Saturday’s Today programme at 8:55am.  […]

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