One-Minute Book Reviews

November 6, 2009

Is Jonathan Lethem Courting a 2009 Bad Sex Award With These Lines From ‘Chronic City’?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:23 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Later this month the Literary Review will announce the winner of its annual Bad Sex award, intended to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description … and to discourage it” in modern literary novels. Last year the judges gave the main prize to Rachel Johnson’s Shire Hell and a lifetime achievement award to John Updike.

Who will win the Bad Sex Award this year? Perhaps Jonathan Lethem for the following lines from Chronic City, a novel of New York during a financial – but not necessarily sexual — crisis. The excerpt below omits a half dozen lines, marked by ellipses, that might not cross the spam filters at libraries. You can find the missing lines by using the “Search Inside” tool on or another site to search for “Richard’s crotch throbbed.”

“At two that same morning he’d had Georgina swinging in a rope chair she’d had installed at his whimsical suggestion, hung from a bolted hook on her ceiling, her legs spilling over the sides of the mesh seat in which her splendid bottom lay helpless to his savage ministrations. The situation was wildly odd and erotic. …

“Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.”

Are these lines purple enough to win a Bad Sex Award? If you can’t decide, you may want to compare them with past winners or read some of my comments on the longlisting of Ian McEwan for the 2007 Bad Sex Award. My review of Chronic City appeared yesterday.


  1. If only he’d worked in the word “splayed” instead of “spilling over” it would have been a certain win. 😉 But it’s going to be tough to beat that second quote.

    Comment by Jon — November 7, 2009 @ 12:21 am | Reply

    • Maybe you’ve given Jonathan Lethem inspiration for his next novel? What’s startling about this passage is that there’s so little difference between it and the prose in many romance novels.

      If you removed Lethem’s name and asked a group of critics to guess who had written it, more than a few might say “Nora Roberts.”

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 7, 2009 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

  2. Maybe it’s actually good sex, though badly written. 🙂

    Comment by knightofswords — November 7, 2009 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

    • knightofswords: Right. It may have been great sex, but you get no sense of it from the writing.

      pseudoswashbuckler: And you have to wonder if sex in a hanging chair is even so “odd” by today’s standards …

      Wonder if you’ll both think Lethem’s passage is better or worse than those that make the Bad Sex shortlist (to which I’ll post a link as soon as it becomes available)? What’s disheartening about this one from Chronic City is that it isn’t even grammatically correct because of the dangling modifier (“Remembering it, Richard’s crotch”). Some Bad Sex winners have been deeply purple or awkward but at least had no obvious errors.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 7, 2009 @ 11:48 pm | Reply

  3. Good thing he clarifies how “the situation was wildly odd and erotic.” If not for that, then I would have in my innocence thought he just wanted to describe a really neat chair.

    Comment by pseudoswashbuckler — November 7, 2009 @ 8:51 pm | Reply

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