Salon chose eight novel excerpts for its first Good Sex in Fiction Contest, and asked Louis Bayard, Walter Kirn, Laura Miller, and me to judge and discuss them. I ranked the Franzen highest, and also outed myself as a total pervert.
The problem with these excerpts is — and I didn’t entirely realize this until I started reading for the contest — that the sex I respond to most in fiction is really fucked-up. It’s definitely not that I want to experience the anonymous sexual assaults of Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata (though I confess, I did think that book was hot, in its autistic way), or get involved with a porn-obsessed televangelist as in A.L. Kennedy’s Original Bliss, or abduct a man and use him as my sex slave, as in Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation, but those stories stay with me because they reveal something incredibly dark and twisted and, to me, true about desire and obsession. I like fiction, whatever the subject, that exposes the surprising longings its characters harbor in their heart of hearts. Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place,” in the latest New Yorker, is a perfect example, though it’s not actually about sex at all.
You can read the contenders, the winner (from my pal James Hynes’ Next), and our discussion over at Salon. For more distorted sexuality in fiction recommendations, see The Paris Review Daily’s latest advice column. I also love my friend Alexander Chee’s fabulously disturbing and complex Edinburgh. And finally, I re-recommend James Hynes’ piece on “The Dreamlife of Rupert Thomson.”