While it was fun to do a little yawn-and-snort at V.S. Naipaul for his “I’m so much better than all those stupid girls” posturing, today Douglas Barry points something out about the Literary Review’s nominees for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award: they’re a sausagefest.
Severely underrepresented in this year’s nominations? Women. Only Jean M. Auel and Dori Ostermiller made the illustrious list and if you’re thinking, “Well, the ladies can’t get all the best awards every year,” consider that, since the ‘Bad Sex’ award’s inaugural winner Melvyn Bragg, only two women — Wendy Perriam and Rachel Johnson — have ever taken home the top prize.
From the overwhelming preponderance of male authors in the ranks of Worst Sex Writers as designated by Literary Review, Barry derives the premise of his article, which is that male authors are overwhelmingly less adept than female authors at putting sexytimes in prose form. To explain the disparity, Barry offers the following hypotheses:
A clue to the dearth of women winners might have something to do with the fact that men still outnumber women at both commercial and academic publishing houses, according to The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin. In 2010, of the 13 large houses that TNR examined, Penguin’s Riverhead imprint came the closest to closing the gender gap between male authors, who accounted for 55% of books published, and female authors (45 %). And the house with the lowest percentage of female authors? That would be Harvard University Press, with a paltry 15%.
This is the first thing that came to my mind, but perhaps the publishing gap isn’t wide enough to explain the percentage of male authors on the Bad Sex list. It could be argued that male authors dominate the Bad Sex list to a degree that far exceeds their industry presence, and I think this is the theory that Barry really wanted to articulate when he wrote the piece:
I’d like to think that the overwhelming presence of male authors on the lists of winners and nominees has more to do with the fact that, since women had (and often still have) to actively wrest control of their own sexuality away from a patriarchy that often determines how the female body is used and represented, they are able to speak with greater comfort and authority about sex when they achieve sexual autonomy.
I don’t dismiss this idea, but as much as I love to see a male writer who can theorize in those terms, I think there are other, less ambitious factors that may explain the gulf between male authors getting attention for bad sex scenes and female authors escaping scrutiny.
First, I think it’s important not to underestimate the effect of male authors’ larger numbers in publishing houses. The Literary Review isn’t looking at a gender-balanced population of creators sampled from an egalitarian industry. To the extent that literary publishing continues to marginalize women writers, there should be no surprise when any list of writers, with the unsurprising exceptions of romance and women’s fiction authors, skews heavily male.
Second, let us note that we are not really working with a broad consensus that women are better at writing sex scenes than men. It’s a list of authors compiled by the Literary Review for having written awkward sex scenes. Let’s be honest about the sample size and observation bias. Is it possible that the Literary Review simply doesn’t pay enough attention to fiction written by women to find many examples of bad sex scenes by female authors? If they buy into the Naipaul Syndrome of dismissing women’s writing as “feminine tosh,” then female authors have to overcome a much higher hurdle just to get enough attention to be found committing Bad Sex in Fiction.
Third, let us assume, for a moment, that women really do win at writing sex scenes that aren’t bad. Is it possible that our investment in “feminine tosh” gives us this advantage? For example, women tend to read more romance fiction than men, and thus have more opportunities to read sex scenes, because romance fiction is marketed pretty much entirely to women. Therefore, when women write literary novels that include explicit sex, is it possible that we have the advantage of having seen more examples of sex in fiction, and therefore a better idea of what works?
Fourth, there is also the possibility that women enjoy sex more than we let on and/or more than guys give us credit for, and so we spend more time talking about it than they realize. More time spent talking about it could translate to more competence in writing it out.
Finally, I would like to expand on Barry’s analysis of women having to work harder to achieve sexual autonomy. It is not a leap of logic to propose that women’s relationship with sex is more complicated than that of men. Because of sexual double standards, we have more to risk socially. Because reproductive freedom is not secure, we have more to risk physically and sociologically. If women writers are indeed more skilled at putting sex in prose form, it could be rooted in the pressures of living with the misogynistic double-bind of chastity and female submission.
Of course, it could also be a simple matter of the folks at Literary Review not reading fiction by women unless someone points a gun to their heads.
There are some commenters at the Jezebel article are saying that writers simply shouldn’t write sex scenes at all. I think that if you feel that way, you just haven’t seen sex in fiction done well. Sex is something that human beings do, and there are some stories in which it needs to be shown. It can be used to develop characters, and in the right place, it can advance the plot. I wrote sex in my debut novel, I don’t apologize for it, and I intend to do it again in future novels. Also, I’ve been told that my sex scenes are very good, and that alone, I take as a good reason to continue.