Loins are girded and members tumescent, for next Tuesday sees the presentation of this year’s Bad Sex Award. The Literary Review’s annual prize for the worst description of sex in a novel never fails to raise the spirits. (Yes, I know there’s a double entendre there, but at first I wrote ‘raise a titter’, so think yourself lucky.) Hoping not to follow in the footsteps of Melvyn Bragg, Norman Mailer and Rachel Johnson are, inter alia, Tom Wolfe and Craig Raine. Wolfe must be a strong contender, his Back to Blood containing the sentence:

‘Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw.’

But Raine is also well-placed with this from The Divine Comedy:

‘And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.’

Why do fiction writers struggle to depict the physical act of love without sounding ludicrous? John Banville, discussing Fifty Shades of Grey on the Today programme recently, cited the book as further proof that it simply can’t be done. It is literally impossible, he said, to write a detailed sex scene that moves rather than amuses the reader. (EL James’s novel is ineligible for the Bad Sex Award, incidentally, as ‘pornographic and erotic literature’ is excluded.) I think he’s right – and I also think I’ve worked out why.

It’s because we’re seeing the sexual act from the outside. And from that angle (matron) it is essentially farcical. Just think of it – all that bending and reaching and nibbling and rubbing and groaning and grunting. As for the faces people pull … It’s like a game of Twister, and look how much we laugh at people when they’re playing that. Just because the aim of sex is to swap bodily fluids rather than win a game, it doesn’t make it any more noble. In fact it makes it more absurd. This is why pornography (visual or literary) is always as funny as it is arousing, and quite often more so.

When you’re taking part, of course, it’s the complete opposite. Then sex becomes the most beautiful, intense, ecstatic experience you could imagine. Key word, that: it’s all in the imagination. And in the feeling. Sex feels sublime; it looks ridiculous. It’s into the chasm between the two that Bad Sex Award contenders plummet, with nothing to listen to on the way down except readers’ guffaws echoing off the sides.

Plenty of human activities feel better than they look. Yoga, line dancing, extreme drunkenness – in each case the participant experiences great pleasure but looks a total arse. Sex, though, outstrips them all. It is life’s defining act, the very act by which life is created. So it provides the biggest discrepancy between insider and outsider experience. There’s a Yiddish proverb that says ‘when man makes plans, God laughs’. Adults laugh at children when they pretend to do grown-up things like cook a meal or fix a car. But adults forget that God – and I think this is true whatever you understand by that word – must have much the same attitude to us. How amusing it must be for God to see how seriously we take ourselves, running our companies and making our speeches and hatching our plans. The ultimate act of planning, though, is sex, because the biological urge behind it is the planning of another human being. So it gives God – or anyone else watching it, or reading about it – the ultimate laugh.

Tags: Fiction, Sex, Society, Tom Wolfe, writing