By Dennis Abrams
It’s that time of year again. The Literary Review has awarded its 21st annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award to Manil Suri for The City of Devi. The prize was presented by actress Joan Collins, herself the author of numerous works of both fiction and autobiography, including her latest memoir Passion for Life, which was published by Constable in October.
(Suri, who lives in the United States, was not present to accept the award in person: it was accepted by a representative of his publisher on his behalf.)
According to the Literary Review, its judges were “won over” by the “climax” (as it were) of an extended sex scene involving the novel’s three main characters:
Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of her breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.
It should perhaps not come as a complete surprise that Suri, who has also been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Pen/Faulkner Award, is a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, “where his research focuses on the numerical analysis of partial differential equations.”
The Literary Review observed that The City of Devi triumphed over some seriously stiff competition, “including Susan Choi’s My Education (‘I seemed to come right away, with a hard, popping effervescence, as if her mouth had raised blisters, or an uppermost froth; but beneath, magma still heaved and groaned and was yearning to fling itself into the air’); Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth (‘And as she sucked the last drops of his blood and his seed into the folds of her innermost soul and self, she felt her whole body lift, pull, squeeze, and lift again, tremble, shake, and quiver, and in her fires of her stomach she strained and moved to bathe his blood into the rumble and the thunder of her own.’); and Eric Reinhardt’s The Victoria System (‘The zip of her skirt sputtered between her fingernails like a motorboat on a waveless sea…My erection beat time in my underwear.’)”
And to those who criticize the Review for even giving out the award, accusing them of being bullies and prudes, the Literary Review’s Jonathan Beckman defended them in the Independent, noting that:
“Prizes are just a form of criticism, arguably the most influential we have, and books rightly expose themselves to criticism – a healthy culture relies on incisive and robust critics – from the moment they are released into the world. Nomination for the Bad Sex Award is simply a different kind of book review. It acknowledges, unlike other prizes, that, miraculous and transformative though it often is, there is something fundamentally absurd about the conjuring of fictional worlds. Sex is a way in to understanding how these creations can go awry.
“And unlike other prizes, whose commendations are invariably written in the international language of vaporous publicity release – “a darkly funny coming-of-age tale”; “a profound meditation on questions of identity and belonging” (what BLOODY questions?) – the Bad Sex Awards hold up individual sentences, the basic unit of the novel, to scrutiny. When Eric Reinhardt, nominated this year for The Victoria System, writes, “Victoria was like a deep nocturnal forest that I strode through without knowing where I was going, through woodland, amid ferns, under tall shivering trees, far from any path. There were noises, puddles, odours, dampness, shapes that vanished, treetops overhanging our bodies. I thought of nothing,” you have to wonder how Victoria moved from being the forest to being sheltered by it, and why the narrator stated he “thought of nothing”, when his mind was quite obviously in pursuit of an Amazonian adventure.”
“…The Bad Sex Award is not a bear pit of contempt. It’s a prize that cares deeply about writing, that shows how it’s done badly so it may be done better in future.”