November 30, 2005

Malchow defends bad sex

Joe posted on the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards today and ended up by defending the pruriently puritanical Tom Wolfe's infamous sex scene from the lavishly lusterless I Am Charlotte Simmons.

The scene in question is a date rape scene, clinically but lasciviously described. Here's part of the actual scene:
Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns.

Oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest no, the hand was cupping her entire right - Now! She must say 'No, Hoyt' and talk to him like a dog...
Since Joe believes "the judges [...] failed to understand the writing," I presume he means one of three things:

a) the scene was well-written, in which case his sexual aesthetics are whack.
b) the scene was hot, in which case, given the context of a date rape, his sexual ethics are whack.
c) the scene was meant to be both poorly-written and sexually disgusting, in which case he must just not be able to read, given that the title of the award is "Bad Sex in Fiction." 'Poorly-written' and 'sexually disgusting,' intentional or not, are two key characteristics of bad sex in fiction. Wolfe wins.

Connor has asked this question before, but Joe justifies it on a daily basis:

"Can Joe Malchow read words?"


  1. Anonymous9:39 PM

    You had me at "slither slither slither slither went the tongue."

    Nothing attached to that can be anything but poorly written.

    The word verification this time is "goynness." interesting...

  2. The Internet Ghost of Philip Roth, perhaps?

  3. Anonymous9:31 AM

    Your option (c) minces words just a bit. "Bad Sex in fiction," it would seem, could mean two things. Either it's fictional descriptions, whether well or poorly written, of sex which is in some way bad. Or it's bad descriptions of sex, whether that sex is bad (e.g. date rape), good (e.g., blissful maritals), or anywhere in between. Based on the other winners Malchow links to, one would have to guess that the purpose of the contest is to identify the latter. Now Charlotte Simmons was one of my favorite books in a while, so that's why I'm bothering to comment at length. Let me say that the book is chock full of scenes depicting "bad sex," in the first sense where some quality of the sex is plainly immoral. There's public sodomy, there's girlfriend-swapping players, there's basketball groupies who line up for their shot at bedding a star, and yes, there's date rape. It's not screaming-"no"-from-beneath-a-pile rape, but it's clear that Charlotte is totally uncomfortable and wants out, but is too scared to resist. That's pretty foul; there's little question that it's rape. It's written disgustingly, but you don't lose a beat reading it because it's supposed to feel disgusting. In this case, "sexually disgusting" does not mean "written poorly." Rather, "sexually disgusting" writing reflects accurately the "sexually disgusting" act that's taking place. You can feel sick to your stomach reading it, and that's precisely how you know the writing is spot on. Think of movies like "The General's Daughter" or "The Usual Suspects" which have brutal rape scenes. It's not done in soft, bloomy (i.e., "good sex scene") lighting. It's harsh, and the cinematography reflects it. And in Charlotte Simmons, where the rape is less brutal and more coercive, Wolfe uses a style that conveys the foreignness and discomfort of a girl who's essentially never heard of premarital sex. It's clinical because those are the terms on which Charlotte is familiar with sexual functions. (This is obviously clearer in the book as whole than in an excerpt.) In terms of the contest, then, this book contains a lot of skillful writing about bad kinds of sex, but I certainly think the contest sponsors were looking to critique the quality of the writing, not the sex it depicts.

    Sorry for this zealous marathon of a post. I'm just quite partial to the book.

  4. I realize what Wolfe was trying to do; I read the book and, unlike you, I hated it from the very core of my being.

    But, putting that aside, all I meant to say by c) is that the scene (and many of the other scenes) are ridiculous, regardless of the author's intention. No one who uses "otorhinolaryngological caverns" in a sentence, sex scene or no, is a good writer.

    It's the diction that makes the scene poorly written and disgusting. It's poor writing to use the word "slither" four times in a row and disgusting to mix medical terms with such obvious voyeuristic glee.

    Personally, I think the award is a way of saying, "way to go sicko, you freaked the lot of us out. Run along and next time keep your perverted little fantasies to yourself."