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Neither IF Comp Nor Safe For Work: The Literary Review’s Bad Sex In Fiction Nominees

November 18, 2016

It’s gonna get real sexy below the jump, kids. Quotes borrowed from The Guardian.

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

The act itself was fervent. Like a brisk tennis game or a summer track meet, something performed in daylight between competitors. The cheap mattress bounced. She liked to do it more than once, and he was usually able to comply. Bourbon was his gasoline. Between sessions, he poured it at the counter while she lay panting on the sheets. Sweat burnished her body. The lean neck. The surprisingly full breasts. He would down another glass and return.

This seems perfectly fine to me (well, still trying to decide how I feel about “Bourbon was his gasoline,”) except wouldn’t he get bourbon dick? Also is he continually surprised by her breasts being full? Is this a short-term memory issue, perhaps related to his alcoholism?

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

He closed his eyes and heard himself make a gurgling sound. And as his trousers slipped down his legs all the burdens of his life to date seemed to fall away from him; he tipped back his head and faced up into the darkness beneath the ceiling, and for one blessed moment he felt as if he could understand the things of this world in all their immeasurable beauty. How strange they are, he thought, life and all of these things. Then he felt Anezka slide down before him to the floor, felt her hands grab his naked buttocks and draw him to her. “Come, sonny boy!” he heard her whisper, and with a smile he let go.

“He closed his eyes and heard himself make a gurgling sound” is pretty terrible if what you’re trying to convey is something pleasant. I would also bet that Robert Seethaler doesn’t read his sentences with an ear for how they sound, but that’s a tiny complaint compared to how weird and gross it is for the love interest to call the protagonist “sonny boy” while demanding he orgasm. That’s not okay even if you’re doing mommy play. That’s not okay even if you’re actually fucking your son.

Men Like Air by Tom Connolly

The walkway to the terminal was all carpet, no oxygen. Dilly bundled Finn into the first restroom on offer, locked the cubicle door and pulled at his leather belt. “You’re beautiful,” she told him, going down on to her haunches and unzipping him. He watched her passport rise gradually out of the back pocket of her jeans in time with the rhythmic bobbing of her buttocks as she sucked him. He arched over her back and took hold of the passport before it landed on the pimpled floor. Despite the immediate circumstances, human nature obliged him to take a look at her passport photo.

I’m not sure this is bad per se but it was definitely written about some weird space alien and not in fact a human being. I have given one or two blowjobs in my time and not once was the recipient inclined to start casually flipping through travel documents. Honestly, this reads like a plot shoehorn, like I picture Tom Connolly pacing around a hotel room muttering “Okay, I need him to see her passport photo for this next bit, also she should probably blow him… hmm.” (I do shit like this constantly, so maybe I am projecting.)

Also I can’t decide if the title “Men Like Air” is also fascinatingly alien or simply dumb and bad.

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

When his hand goes to my breasts, my feet are envious. I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below. His finger is inside me, his thumb circling, and I spill like grain from a bucket. He is panting, still running his race. I laugh at the incongruous size of him, sticking to his stomach and escaping from the springing hair below.

This actually seems fine to me and I’m not really sure what the problem is. Next!

Leave Me by Gayle Forman

Once they were in that room, Jason had slammed the door and devoured her with his mouth, his hands, which were everywhere. As if he were ravenous.

And she remembered standing in front of him, her dress a puddle on the floor, and how she’d started to shake, her knees knocking together, like she was a virgin, like this was the first time. Because had she allowed herself to hope, this was what she would’ve hoped for. And now here it was. And that was terrifying.

Jason had taken her hand and placed it over his bare chest, to his heart, which was pounding wildly, in tandem with hers. She’d thought he was just excited, turned on.

It had not occurred to her that he might be terrified, too.

Oh, wow, where to start with this one? I guess I’ll point the spots out one by one and you can see for yourself how they add up to one really cliched sex scene.

“As if he were ravenous,” did you know you can just use “ravenous” even if you’re not talking about being hungry for food? I wouldn’t recommend it, because “ravenous” by itself is still kind of trite & lazy, but you can.

Speaking of trite & lazy, do you know how many dresses have been puddles on the floor before this one? Also I want you to think really hard about whether her knees were actually knocking together and whether their hearts actually beat in tandem, or whether you’re using those physical symptoms as shorthand for “She was super turned on and they had an amazing connection.”

Because here’s the thing about sex: all kinds of shit happens physically that does not sound all nice and romantic when you put it down in sentences. Maybe have them stare into each other’s eyes and then he asks if he can come between her ass cheeks and she says yes but then she gets a leg cramp. Put in a cat that pukes on the bed while she’s going down on him. You know, like how real people fuck.

The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca

She pushed on my hips, an order that thrust me in. I entered her. Not only my prick, but the whole of me entered her, into her guts, into her darkness, eyes wide open, seeing nothing. My whole body had gone inside her. I went in with her thrusts and stayed still. While I got used to the quiet and the pulsing of my blood in my ears and nose, she pushed me out a little, then in again. She did it again and again, holding me with force and moving me to the rhythm of the surf. She wiggled her breasts beneath my hands and intensified the pushing. I went in up to my groin and came out almost entirely. My body was her gearstick.

This one seems mostly fine to me too except the parts that are weird are real weird. What the hell does he mean, his body was her gearstick? And surely he meant she pulled on his hips and thrust him in? Does an act of physical control count as an order?

Other than that, I don’t have an issue with anything that’s happening here. I think it’s fine if he wants to go inside of her dark guts and get passively fucked to the rhythm of the surf.

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