NABOKV-L post 0026941, Sat, 9 Apr 2016 15:45:30 -0400

citing: "when Lolita was published" ...​"followed by Lolita in 1955"

"when Lolita was published"

​"followed by Lolita in 1955"

James Baldwin <>
Sexual healing: James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room voted best erotic passage

Author beats contenders including Jeanette Winterton, DH Lawrence and
Philip Roth in the Literary Hub’s contest to find the best sex writing
[image: James Baldwin]
judges said James Baldwin’s passage in Giovanni’s Room, which details the
narrator’s early homosexual encounter, was chosen ‘almost unanimously’ as
the winner. Photograph: Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images

Alison Flood <>

Friday 8 April 2016 08.59 EDTLast modified on Friday 8 April 201617.00 EDT

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A passage from James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room
<> has won a
tournament of literary sex writing launched by the Literary Hub to reward
the best erotic passages from literature.
The Henry James of Harlem: James Baldwin's struggles

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In stark contrast to the Bad Sex in Fiction prize
by the Literary Review, which seeks to single out “poorly written,
perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description”, the Lit Hub site
set out to find the best sex writing in literature. Judges including the
writers Roxane Gay, Candace Bushnell and John Ashbery considered passages
drawn from the past 200 years, with an extract from Baldwin’s novel
emerging triumphant on Friday morning over fellow finalist Jeanette

Giovanni’s Room tells of David, a young American in Paris, who has just
proposed to his girlfriend but is drawn to bartender Giovanni while she is
away on a trip. The winning extract deals with narrator David’s early
homosexual encounter with his friend Joey.

Baldwin writes: “Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as
it were, by accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really
aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms
around each other ...

To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never
for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful
stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat,
and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst.
But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other
joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough
for me to act with Joey the act of love.

Winterson’s contender, from Written on the Body
<>, describes how
“she smells of the sea. She smells of rockpools when I was a child. She
keeps a starfish in there. I crouch down to taste the salt, to run my
fingers around the rim. She opens and shuts like a sea anemone. She’s
refilled each day with fresh tides of longing.”

There is a good reason most awards given for sex writing are for bad sex
writing: it is generally a doomed undertaking

The judges said Baldwin’s passage was “almost unanimously” chosen as the
overall winner.

“There is a good reason most awards given for sex writing are for bad sex
writing: to commit to words that most intimate and personal act is
generally a doomed undertaking. For even our best writers, to describe sex
is to veer between the biological and the euphemistic, the soft-focus and
the fluorescent. It rarely works. And yet many have tried, and will
continue to do so,” said LitHub, announcing the contest last week.

The competition is designed as a tournament, with writing divided into four
groups: everything prior to the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in
1922, then writing between 1922 and 1955 when Lolita was published, then
1955 until the 1980s, and then from the 1980s until the present.

These divides were chosen for the first round “in the interest of fairness,
variety, and to reflect the literary canon without being entirely dead,
white, male, straight”, according to LitHub editor, Jonny Diamond. This was
as well as marking “shifts in mores as reflected in literary scandals. The
first era was pre-1922 Ulysses, followed by Lolita in 1955 … We did this to
avoid Kathy Acker being compared to Flaubert. After the first round, we
opened up the competition regardless of era.”

The passages selected, said Diamond, were intended to be “the more iconic
examples”. “For example, we went with a selection from Portnoy’s Complaint,
by Philip Roth <>, even though
there are probably better sex passages in Roth’s oeuvre. People have
complained about this, but that was inevitable, no matter what.”

The initial “Sexy Sixteen
contenders, which LitHub said was selected from “many, many worthy
candidates”, featured authors including Henry Miller, Annie Proulx, Erica
Jong, Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston. This list was narrowed down to “The
Erotic Eight
and “The Final Four of F*cking

Baldwin’s entry beat Jong in the first round, Bram Stoker in the second and
an extract from DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover
<>, in which
“all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamouring, like a sea anemone
under the tide, clamouring for him to come in again and make fulfilment for
her”, in the third round.
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The poet and judge John Ashbery said the Lawrence passage was “ridden with
embarrassing clichés”, but that Baldwin writes of “just things as they
happen”, ‘another person’s body, […] another person’s smell’. In other
words, chances are this really happened.”

Diamond said that the tournament coincides with the American college
basketball tournament, known as March Madness, a single elimination
tournament comprised of one massive bracket. “We were talking about doing
something fun in that format, from a literary perspective, and literary sex
writing just seemed the obvious choice. It’s easy to find bad examples, and
very hard to find good— considering this is pretty much a basic and
universal experience, we thought we’d try to figure out who’s done it well.”
​Barrie Karp​

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