Gruesome twosome: Bad Sex award won by John Harvey and Didier Decoin

Irish novelist Mary O’Connor dodges ‘Britain’s most dreaded literary prize’

In a year of two Booker prize winners and two Nobel laureates, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award has plumped for two recipients of "Britain's most dreaded literary prize": the Prix Goncourt winner Didier Decoin and the British novelist John Harvey.

Established in 1993 by the Literary Review editor Auberon Waugh and critic Rhoda Koenig, the award is for “the year’s most outstandingly awful scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel”. It is intended to draw attention to “the poorly written, redundant, or downright cringeworthy passages of sexual description in modern fiction”.

Decoin, a French author who received the Prix Goncourt in 1977 for his novel John l’Enfer, won for passages in his novel The Office of Gardens and Ponds, a fable set in Japan 1,000 years ago. It includes descriptions such as: “Katsuro moaned as a bulge formed beneath the material of his kimono, a bulge that Miyuki seized, kneaded, massaged, squashed and crushed. With the fondling, Katsuro’s penis and testicles became one single mound that rolled around beneath the grip of her hand. Miyuki felt as though she was manipulating a small monkey that was curling up its paws.”

Harvey, the author of five novels and a life fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, was nominated for his novel Pax, which featured this scene: “She was burning hot and the heat was in him. He looked down on her perfect black slenderness. Her eyes were ravenous. Like his own they were fire and desire. More than torrid, more than tropical: they two were riding the equator. They embraced as if with violent holding they could weld the two of them one.”


This is the first time either author has won the prize. The judges said: “Faced with two unpalatable contenders, we found ourselves unable to choose between them. We believe the British public will recognise our plight.”

In a clear callback to the controversial decision to award two Booker prizes this year, when chair of judges Peter Florence claimed, “We tried voting, that didn’t work… We couldn’t separate them”, the Bad sex judges said they were unable to choose even “after hours of tortuous debate”. “We tried voting, but it didn’t work,” they said. “We tried again. Ultimately, there was no separating the winners.”

The double award means that the Irish novelist Mary Costello has avoided winning the dubious title for The River Capture, which was nominated for: "She begged him to go deeper and, no longer afraid of injuring her, he went deep in mind and body, among crowded organ cavities, past the contours of her lungs and liver, and, shimmying past her heart, he felt her perfection."

The other contenders were City of Girls, by the author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert ("I screamed as though I were being run over by a train"); and Dominic Smith's The Electric Hotel ("For most of the proceedings he felt his own desire as if it were tethered to a wire, a bright red balloon floating in his peripheral vision, but eventually he burst through.").

Last year's prize was won by James Frey for the novel Katerina, which included lines such as: "One. White. God. Cum. Cum. Cum. I close my eyes let out my breath. Cum." Frey took the prize in good humour, saying he was "deeply honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious award". – Guardian