From Bad Sex to Worse

by Norman Todd – February 2002


About a year ago I wrote complaining about the shabby treatment the literary community had afforded our favourite genus.  Despite a plea for some enrichment of rhododendron in literature (it did stimulate one of our members, Margaret de Weese, to find the muse and pen a poem and a sensitive one at that) and despite our endorsement of a collective noun for rhododendrons, I have to report that matters are now very much worse.


In the Globe and Mail on 19 January 2002 there was an article “Stallions and Rising Sap” by Sandra Martin, which set out to find the worst written sex scene in Canadian literature.  To help her with this dubious task she enlisted the prejudices of Susan Swan, an author and university professor, and she included on her jury a man – a publisher – Sam Hiyate.


In pseudo-academic fashion they began by defining their terms of reference.  The task was to “ferret out pretentious, clichéd, implausible and boring descriptions of sexual intimacy.”  I have no strong feelings on their selections – but can you believe Leonard Cohen (yes), Hugh MacLennan and Margaret Laurence as the winners? The standard by which these authors were measured was their proclivity to use “Rhodendron Language.”  This for the uninitiated is “lush, florid and pretentious.”  Notice how attracted they are to the word ‘pretentious’, which I understand to mean ‘making an excessive claim to great merit or importance’.


Well, maybe some of the sex scenes in the novels are pretentious – I suspect one or other of the copulating participants has felt the word could properly be used more often than is politic to admit – but to label my yakushimanum pretentious stretches the boundaries of any and all poetic license.  We rhododendron growers are the first to acknowledge that not all our plants can lay claim to great merit or importance and that is why we rate our plants.  We are the critics of the artistry of nature in rhododendons.  We use a standard that is subjective in the extreme but does not slight any other living group (only a few of the hybridizers would disagree with this), nor do we rate our rhodos against roses or tulips or boudoir gymnastics.


 Therefore, I suggest that the professional critics of literature develop a rating system, which has defensible terms of reference or standards.  Throwing down the gauntlet, hoping for some genuine appreciation of judicious seeding, (tennis not botany), let’s suggest that we give the first number for ‘Originality’, the second for ‘Plot’ and the third for ‘Language’ and then, acknowledging that literature is more complex than rhododendrons, we will allot them a fourth rating for ‘Sex Scenes’.  5 means ‘excellent’ and 1 means ‘not worth reading’.  Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz might get a 3/4/4/4.  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale might get a 5/4/5/3; Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient 5/4/4/4 and Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (about Joey Smallwood) 3/4/4/0.


I may now be prompted to read Susan Swan to measure her against her own use of “rhododendron language”.  My somewhat dated source of information records that she has written three novels, The Biggest Modern Woman in the World, The Last of the Golden Girls, and The Wives of Bath and published two collections of short stories Unfit for Paradise and Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With.  I do admit I am now a little prejudiced.


Pretentious and florid and lush

For sex scenes, Swan says they make mush.

She claims they’re for rhodos

Not stirring libidos.

Too bad all her taste’s in her tush.