Let's write about sex ...  authors often flounder with bedroom prose.

Let's write about sex ... authors often flounder with bedroom prose.

When literary authors have to describe their characters having sex they are often taken by surprise, says John Purcell, bestselling Australian writer of erotic fiction.

"It is as though these writers wake up and become fully conscious when a sex scene needs to be written," Purcell says. "Then, they over-write and over-think something which just doesn't work like that in fiction or in life."

We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. 

It's Purcell's theory about why some of the most truly awkward sex scenes are found in modern literature, and why the judges of this year's 21st annual Bad Sex in Fiction award, run by UK's Literary Review, are spoiled for choice.

By the book ... sometimes the joy of sex doesn't survive translation to the page.

By the book ... sometimes the joy of sex doesn't survive translation to the page.

The Bad Sex prize aims to highlight the "crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it".

The prize does not include pornographic or expressly erotic literature, which is why Fifty Shades of Grey was last year ruled ineligible. But Sebastian Faulks and the American novelists Norman Mailer and David Guterson have all been previous winners.

The late American folk singer Woody Guthrie heads this year's shortlist of nominees/offenders for the posthumously published novel House of Earth and phrases such as "her body melted into a single note of music to the sky".

Helen Fielding's new Bridget Jones: Mad about The Boy, did not make the cut after an encounter between Bridget Jones and an ex-army officer — "Did they teach you this in the SAS?" — was deemed not cringeworthy enough.

Purcell's personal favourite is from The City of Devi by Manil Suri in which the author compares the experience of orgasm to a supernova: "The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands — only Karun's body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice."

The problem with the bad sex awards, says Krissy Kneen, the Brisbane-based bookseller and author of novels like Triptych, which push the boundaries of sex in fiction, is that sex scenes are taken out of context. Bad sex does not necessarily mean bad sex-writing, and cliches are often used to a writer's advantage to add humour to the prose.

"Good sex writing will often be noted as bad sex writing in these awards because we are unused to seeing the nitty gritty of a real human body naked. If it isn't airbrushed it is somehow shocking to us," says Kneen.

"Good sex writing is all about honesty, facing up to the sometimes ugly, often odorous and messy, complicated and funny aspects of sex. Sex often does not go to plan, bodies are awkward."

Purcell, who wrote three erotic novels under the pseudonym Natasha Walker, suggests simple is best when it comes to writing about sex. "Dressing up a largely physical activity with clever words, correct anatomical terms and inappropriate similes just keeps the reader at a distance. Some writers do this on purpose though and the competition doesn't often recognise this."

Bad sex writing is a consequence of writers who are not in control of their craft, says Kneen, who cites E.L. James as an obvious example of a writer who uses cliches without realising she is doing so and employs euphemisms for sexual body parts.

Some foreplay is just too purplish, like Rupert Thompson's Secrecy, which includes this passage: "Mauve and yellow flowers filled the blank screen of my eyelids, the petals loosening and drifting downwards on to smooth grey stone. I kissed the soft bristles in the hollow of her armpit."

Or this from Eric Reinhardt's The Victoria System: "I waited, tensed, tortured, for Victoria's palms to start descending once again towards the elastic of my underwear."

Kneen takes to task writers who go with gender stereotypes that "women are submissive, shy, virginal, unwilling, childlike and men are self-assured, sexual powerhouses, aggressive, always well endowed, always up for a bit of sex".

"I also have a huge problem with the majority of writers who assume a central position of heterosexuality as the norm, also that sex outside of marriage is somehow dangerous, dirty, doomed. These are the tropes of bad sex writing.

"There is also a tendency to believe that kinky or non-vanilla sex is somehow related to sexual abuse. Also, if there is a child in a story these days there are going to be at least five paedophiles lurking nearby ready to pounce.

"Old or large women are used as a joke or a cautionary option in some art. That you might have to have sex with the fat girl is often used as a humorous aside. Older women's sexuality is completely overlooked in literature altogether and older men seem to only be obsessed with teenaged virgins.

"This is not the reality and we should really look at changing our relationship to these issues in art."

The full list of nominees also features The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood, Motherland by William Nicholson, and The World Was All Before Them by Matthew Reynolds. The winner will be announced December 3.