It’s hard out there–to coin a phrase–for a guy who’d like to quit his day job and write. You look for any advantage you can get. A few weeks ago I read about a guy two towns over from me whose first collection of short stories received a glowing, full-page review in The New York Times Book Review. He’s now wheeling his second collection around in a grocery cart, selling them at Little League weenie roasts and Elks Lodge shad bakes. He’ll read you a sample page in the hope that you’ll buy a copy.
And so it was that I fastened upon the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award as a possible promotional tool. I’d written a novel with bad sex in it–why not me? I asked myself.
The award was established by Carol Koenig, a literary critic, and Auberon Waugh, then editor of the Review, in 1993. The prize, a “semi-abstract trophy representing sex in the 1950s,” is given to the author who has written the worst description of a sex scene in a novel. Spoiler alert: my second novel, CannaCorn, includes sex between a baseball player and a cheerleader that involves the use of–and here I hesitate, for fear of bringing a blush to the cheeks of maiden readers–actual, unretouched cheers from my high school days. I know–society’s going to hell in a handbasket, and I’m not helping.
But I needed some juice, dammit! So I called up my agent and asked her what she thought.
“It’s not an award for bad sex,” she said. “It’s for bad writing about sex. Surely you don’t want to have your name associated with such a prize–do you?”
“What did Samuel Johnson say?”
“Never give a sucker an even break?”
“No that was W.C. Fields, although they look alike. He said ‘Fame is a shuttlecock. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.’”
Johnson: “This is hot stuff!”
“Suit yourself,” she said, “but you’re going to have to work at it. They’re not going to just drop it in your lap.”
“The book’s written–it is what it is.”
“Don’t go all Belichick on me. What I mean is, Tom Wolfe won it, Norman Mailer won it posthumously, and John Updike received a Lifetime Achievement award, but those guys had big reputations to start. You’re a nobody, a dark horse. You need to campaign.”
I was mildly taken aback. “That sounds . . . unseemly. Shouldn’t I wait for the judges to make their decision based on the merits–or demerits–of my bad sex scene?”
“No, you’ve got to build ‘buzz,’” she said, and I could feel the breeze from the little finger quotes she made in the air several hundred miles away. “What did Tip O’Neill say?”
I was ready for that one: “If you want people to vote for you, you’ve got to ask them,” I said. “Okay, I understand. So what’s the game plan?”
A young Tip O’Neill
“I say let’s start bright and early tomorrow morning,” she said. “We’ll hit the gates at factories when the first shift shows up, then the strip malls at noon when the moms are out shopping, then maybe a social event at night.”
It seemed like a lot of work to me. In truth, the whole process had been a slog from the get-go, to mix British and American slang. I’d had a hard time writing about bad sex because, well, sex has been okay for me. Oh sure, there was Mimi, the tri-athlete who suggested we jog, play tennis, then squash, swim and finish things off with bowling before sex in her apartment without air conditioning, but she was the exception, an outlier. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed sex, either alone or with another.
“What should I wear?” I asked.
“Always overdress,” she said.
“Well, I wasn’t going naked.”
“No, I mean you should always dress at least one level of formality above the people you’re meeting.”
“But won’t that make me look . . . stiff?”
“And won’t people assume from my clothes that means I . . . don’t know much about sex.”
“Actually,” she said, “if that’s your concern I don’t think your clothes will have anything to do with it.”