Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Updike’s Raunchy Witches; Satanic Mailer; Paris Review Riches

The lucky winner of the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction award will be announced this week. The award was established in 1993 by the late Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn) in the quixotic hope that it would dissuade writers from introducing “unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels.” Among this year’s finalists are three Americans: Russell Banks (The Reserve), Isabel Fonseca (Attachment) and John Updike (The Widows of Eastwick). Herewith samples—in order of increasing raunchiness.

Mr. Banks’ metaphysical moment:

“[T]hey embraced and with their hands caressed each other’s breasts and backs and arms—her skin smooth and creamy and soft as fine silk, his alabaster white and tautly drawn over muscle and bone—and their separate bodies gradually lost their boundaries and merged into a third body, one that contained all their female and male differences and erased all their anatomical contrasts and inversions.”

Ms. Fonseca, taking the idea of petting literally:

“Dan held her hair back with both hands, he kissed and nibbled her throat and licked her torso, first like a cat—working his way cleanly over a small area, tasting her skin—and then like a dog, with broad-stroked abandon, bunching her breasts together to meet his flattened tongue.”

And Mr. Updike, indulging in plain old porn:

“She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin. He had wanted to cry out, sitting up as if jolted by electricity as the spurts, the deep throbs rooted in his asshole continued. … Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room. …”


LAST YEAR, THE Bad Sex prize was awarded posthumously to Norman Mailer for The Castle in the Forest, though it might as well have been for lifetime achievement: His long career of courting disaster with frank sexual content began six decades earlier with The Naked and the Dead (“Julio, like the dogs, okay?”). In The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III (Picador, $16), Andrew O’Hagan nudged an 84-year-old Mailer with a remark about the large number of Americans who think God and Satan are at work in their daily lives. “I think they are,” Mailer replied. “Not in a controlling sense—I don’t believe that the devil seizes you and you’re gone forever. But can you say that you’ve never had a fuck where you didn’t feel evil for a little while?” Good old Stormin’ Norman—the devil really did make him do it.

This latest volume from The Paris Review contains 16 interviews with an astonishing array of writers, among them Ralph Ellison, Evelyn Waugh (“I find Faulkner intolerably bad”), John Cheever (“All great men are scrupulously true to their time”), Ted Hughes, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Salman Rushdie (“Never trust a writer when he talks about the future of his writing”) and Mailer. The motley cast makes for exhilarating reading, especially when you come across a writer as effortlessly articulate as Isabel Fonseca’s husband, Martin Amis.

Here he is on the writer’s voice:

“It’s all he’s got. It’s not the flashy twist, the abrupt climax, or the seamless sequence of events that characterizes a writer and makes him unique. It’s a tone, it’s a way of looking at things. It’s a rhythm, it’s what in poetry is called a sprung rhythm. Instead of having a stress every other beat, it has stress after stress after stress. One’s a little worried about having one’s logo on every sentence. What’s that phrase about a painting consisting entirely of signatures? That obviously is something to be avoided, but it would never inhibit me. I never think, Let’s write a piece of prose that is unmistakably mine. Really, it’s an internal process, a tuning-fork process. You say the sentence or you write the sentence again and again until the tuning fork is still, until it satisfies you.” Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Updike’s Raunchy Witches; Satanic Mailer; Paris Review Riches