Who is the Irish author up for the 2019 Bad Sex award?

Mary Costello joins Elizabeth Gilbert on shortlist of ‘outstandingly awful’ sex scenes

Mary Costello: the Irish author has been nominated for a passage in her latest novel, The River Capture

Mary Costello: the Irish author has been nominated for a passage in her latest novel, The River Capture


The Irish author Mary Costello has been shortlisted for this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. She joins Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of Eat Pray Love, and the acclaimed French novelist Didier Decoin in the running for Britain’s most dreaded literary prize.

Dreamed up in 1993 by the Literary Review’s then editor, Auberon Waugh, and the critic American 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”.

Costello, whose nominated novel, The River Capture, was praised by The Irish Times for its “mesmeric”, free-flowing prose, was cited for a passage that included the line: “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 prize was won last year by James Frey, who took the prize in good humour, saying his fellow finalists had provided him with many hours of enjoyable reading. Tom Wolfe was less impressed when he won, in 2004

Gilbert was nominated for her novel City of Girls, which The Irish Times called “frivolous and profound in equal measure”, a “humane and remarkably generous book”. Decoin, a Prix Goncourt winner, Decoin made the cut for a selection of passages in his book The Office of Gardens and Ponds, one of which included a woman handling a man’s genitals in a way that “felt as though she was manipulating a small monkey that was curling up its paws”.

The other nominees are John Harvey, for Pax, and Dominic Smith, for The Electric Hotel.

Organisers said that Jeanette Winterson had “narrowly missed out” for her twist on Frankenstein, Frankissstein, as did the French controversialist Michel Houellebecq for his latest novel, Serotonin.

“Houellebecq came particularly close, with lines such as ‘she would have waited until we were in the water… to offer her moist parts to my triumphant phallus’, but ultimately the judges considered the sex scenes in Serotonin to be of a piece with the novel’s overall tone,” said the Literary Review.

The prize was won last year by James Frey and his novel Katerina, which included lines such as: “One. White. God. Cum. Cum. Cum. I close my eyes let out my breath. Cum.” Frey, who judges said “prevailed against a strong all-male shortlist by virtue of the sheer number and length of dubious erotic passages in his book”, took the prize in good humour, saying he was “deeply honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious award”. He offered “kudos” to his fellow finalists, saying they had all provided him with many hours of enjoyable reading.

Tom Wolfe was less impressed at the honour when he won it, in 2004. “There’s an old saying – ‘You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her sing.’ In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it,” said the American novelist, after winning for a passage in I Am Charlotte Simmons that included the line “slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns”.


From The River Capture, by Mary Costello
He clung to her, crying, and then made love to her and went far inside her and 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.

From The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin
The earthy taste surprised her. When he was alive, when it swelled inside Miyuki’s mouth, Katsuro’s penis had tasted of raw fish, of warm young bamboo shoots, and of fresh almonds when she finally released its juices. Now it was insipid and muddy to her tongue, like the pools of the temples of Heian Kyo when the Office of Gardens and Ponds had them drained for cleaning.

Miyuki had loved this man. Not that he was a very good lover – but what did she know, after all, since she had experienced no one but him? He used to upset her by the way he silently loomed up behind her and took her by the shoulders, his nails scratching her flesh, his strong breath enveloping her neck, a smell of ripe fruit and poorly tanned leather, his knee pushing against her lower back to open her tunic and expose a portion of naked flesh against which he would then rub his organ as if he were furtively making omelette rolls. He did not derive his pleasure without her, but in front of her, and differently.

From City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
There was a sensation occurring here that I didn’t even know could occur. I took the sharpest inhale of my life, and I’m not sure I let my breath out for another 10 minutes. I do feel that I lost the ability to see and hear for a while, and that something might have short-circuited in my brain – something that has probably never been fully fixed since. My whole being was astonished. I could hear myself making noises like an animal, and my legs were shaking uncontrollably (not that I was trying to control them), and my hands were gripping down so hard over my face that I left fingernail divots in my own skull.

Then it became more.

And after that, it became even more still.

Then I screamed as though I were being run over by a train, and that long arm of his was reaching up again to palm my mouth, and I bit into his hand the way a wounded soldier bites on a bullet.

And then it was the most, and I more or less died.

From Pax by John Harvey
She gave a yet deeper, moaning sigh. Like breathing in he saw the word he had said shiver and expand inside her. Her arms moved now, and flexed: out of here, Venus de Milo. He watched the death-life fill her growingly. She grabbed and caressed him with more muscle, more zest, than ever before. Her long lean arms were spider arms, while her kisses roved and dug.

“I see it,’ he said. ‘You are the female praying mantis, devouring her mate.”

“I am. You are. I shall eat every shred of you.”

“Mouthful by mouthful.”

“Exactly. Ah. But boy, you taste good.”

She licked her lips, and pulled him close, but now he was clasping too. It was a kind of slow wrestling, they were knitting each other into a loose slipping knot. He was upside down over her, loving her bush and lick-kissing like eating her inner thighs. Till at last they loved fully and later lay back. She did not chatter. Their arms stirred in a luxurious desultory twining.

From The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith
The actual lovemaking was a series of cryptic clues and concealed pleasures. A sensual treasure hunt. She asked for something, then changed her mind. He made adjustments and calibrations, awaited further instruction.

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. It was toward the end, as their breathing quickened. Her stage directions had stalled out into silence. He looked to his right and noticed the scene in the smoky lens of the mirror above the bureau, saw his own body move with the steady rhythm of a bellows blowing air at the base of a fire. It brought back the early experiments at the photographic society in Paris, the wiring of a bird’s feet to a cameragun, the mounting tension and uplift before a surge of exasperated flight. His own face looking back in the mirror – open-mouthed, flushed, euphoric – was a wild, strange thing to him. A beguiled stranger he’d never met, held in place by an infinite loop. Then his eyes locked on Sabine’s in the mirror and he could see that she was pleased with her staging, with her hair fanning across the pillow, with the way her ankles locked about his calves so that her long white feet formed a perfect V. And it was the act of looking back at the filmstrip juddering above the bureau that sent her into a final boisterous delirium. She bit his shoulder, then whispered into the mirror, Nous voilà, catching her breath, There we are. – Guardian

The winner will be announced on Monday, December 2nd