More Bad Writing

Christopher Fowler
IMG_5071 If you hired a carpenter and he built you some shelves that subsequently collapsed when you stood books on them, you'd call him a bad carpenter. So in yesterday's article about bad writers I was interested by a number of comments (some of which I didn't publish because they were from online trolls) which argued that I was cruelly picking on a woman who was writing in good faith and I was therefore sexist. Anyone who knows me knows I'm enough of a Liberal to find this idea abhorrent. Self-delusion is very common among writers. Very often, people regard writing as a hobby that, because we've all written a postcard, anyone can - and should - be allowed to do, like painting vases of flowers. In the last few years we've been repeatedly told that we're free to be all that we can be, one of those nonsense catchphrases first coined for an advertisement that is quite patently untrue. A taxi driver once asked me what I did for a living (this was before I started lying about my profession) and when I told him, said; 'Yeah, I've been meaning to write a book but I just haven't got around to it yet', as if it was a chore like painting the ceiling. I don't happen to believe that writing can be taught, although I do believe it can be nurtured. But an innate ability has to manifest itself at the start. I have a series of questions I ask potential writers in order to weed out the hobbyists, one of which is; When did you first start to write longform for your own pleasure? I've met very few good writers who started after their age hit double figures. Bad writing has a long and illustrious history.
The archetypal rubbish poet is of course William Topaz McGonagall, whose epic doggerel 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' offers a masterclass in crap writing: 'Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!/Alas! I am very sorry to say/That ninety lives have been taken away/ On the last Sabbath day of 1879/ Which will be remember'd for a very long time.' There's something about those who, brushing against others of genius, assume they can do it too, and they're usually drawn to verse. The awkwardly-named Vyvyan Holland, second son of Oscar Wilde, turned to limericks of such dreary vacuity that I actually binned my copy (you can still pick them up for about six quid). Then there's Lord Alfred Douglas, usually described as The Tragic and Litigious, although after reading 'The Duke of Berwick and Other Rhymes' it's hard to avoid adding And Astonishingly Stupid. How about: 'I wish you may have better luck/ Than to be bitten by the Duck/ And though he looks so small and weak/ He has a very powerful beak.' Even when he tackled the story of his own life, 'Oscar Wilde and Myself' he had to have it ghost-written, but in such cases the name makes the sale. Bosie became a rabid Wilde-hating anti-Semite, and is buried in Sussex, where he puts the creepy into Crawley. Not all of Samuel Taylor Coleridge was eloquence personified, either. He wasn't averse to churning out the odd bit of Mills & Boon: 'Her bosom heaved — she stepped aside/ As conscious of my look she stepped/ Then suddenly, with timorous eye/ She fled to me and wept.'
We can only pray that EL James doesn't turn to poetry. When considering duff prose let's not leave out the master, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian baron who wrote incredibly popular bestsellers, who coined the phrases 'the pen is mightier than the sword', 'the great unwashed', and the immortal 'It was a dark and stormy night'. He influenced Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', popularised the Hollow Earth theory and died rich, to be buried in Westminster Abbey. But much of his prose stinks. His name is given to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants have to write a single opening sentence of such awfulness that it would be impossible to go on reading. Two other bad writers are worth mentioning. Georgina Weldon, a sort of reverse muse whose incoherent and self-deluding volumes of memoirs inspired Brian Thompson to pen a hilarious biography called 'A Monkey Among Crocodiles', and Amanda McKittrick Ros, who was born in Ireland in 1860, and is regarded by many critics to be the worst writer of all time - that is, until self-published chick-lit appeared online. In yesterday's comments Ramsey Campbell picks out Ros for special opprobrium and it's hard not to see why - she's unreadable, but - and here's the paradox - not unenjoyable. About Ros, the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature described her as 'Uniquely dreadful', and Aldous Huxley wrote;
In Mrs. Ros we see, as we see in the Elizabethan novelists, the result of the discovery of art by an unsophisticated mind and of its first conscious attempt to produce the artistic. This is how she tells us that (her heroine) Delina earned money by doing needlework: "She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her poor old father's slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp dart to faultless fabrics of flaxen fineness.' Clearly the crime is not necessarily being bad, but being boring, and Ros is never that. Nor is Sherry Silver.


Laura B. (not verified) Wed, 22/07/2015 - 09:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Your blogs always make me think, and both of these entries made laugh and start reading out loud ... to myself. It's hilarious to me that trolls tried to call you sexist because a bad writer happens to be a woman. I suppose they think you should give her a pass, because she's a woman? But that would be sexist! It would make me gasp and possibly saline leak from my eyes.

Mim (not verified) Wed, 22/07/2015 - 16:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I work in magazines, and have a couple of friends who are published fiction writers (not-self published). Over the years I've really seen that it takes two things to be a really good writer: talent, and serious dedication. The latter alone will take someone further than non-productive talent, because at least they'll put something on paper, but really people need both.

chris hughes (not verified) Thu, 23/07/2015 - 14:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It would be good to think that imaginative writing is encouraged in secondary schools. I can remember writing enthusiastically at primary school about all sorts of topics, some for entry in competitions. I remember especially fondly on writing about spending one whole pound in the shops in Rye Lane, Peckham, which received much appreciation from my teacher (probably in fits of laughter - one of the objects I desired was Billy Cotton's rendition of the theme from The Dambusters). I watch my five year old granddaughter rushing to put pen to paper as often as she can - yesterday she wrote a short piece on a lost rabbit - and fervently hope that she will continue to be encouraged to keep doing it. Sadly, once I arrived at secondary school it became all about grammar, punctuation and parsing sentences and all the fun went out of writing, as well as extinguishing the desire to do it.

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2015 - 21:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Surely the grammar had to come in sometime, Chris Hughes. One would hope that it was intentional so that you would have a deep seated love of writing that wouldn't be destroyed by adding the tools. I tutored a 15 year old once who was completely bemused by comments regarding tense on an essay. She didn't know what a noun was, either. How can you talk about style or anything else if you don't know what to call the various elements?

Alan Morgan (not verified) Sat, 25/07/2015 - 08:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Part of the problem is that because people can write and-then-and-then-and-then* they can believe that that is all there is too it. It's not like illustration for example where to a greater degree it is easier for one that has scribbled to determine a comparison. It is a craft like any other that takes talent, but which requires a great deal of practise.

*Or rather and-then-cautiously-creeping-forward-silently-towards-the-glittering-shine-of-the-mirrored-sun-struck-majestic-diamond...

Helen Martin (not verified) Sat, 25/07/2015 - 20:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And what happens if one assiduously practices writing such as that, Alan?

Alan Morgan (not verified) Sun, 26/07/2015 - 21:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Probably context, Helen. If you look as you read, take advice, you start to be able to self-criticise. Edit it down, less of the 'Oh no!' he exclaimed. That was kind of an extreme example but it's more of less how my daughter was being taught in school for the last couple of years. All that purple prose where twelve words is better than three, it seems. There was an awful lot of using multiple exclamation marks, where rarely one would have necessary. The teachers were very good educators, and between us we worked hard to make it seem easy for my wee girl. She's autistic, but aced her recent year seven SATs coming at the thirteen year old level in maths and SPAG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar). Her autism means she fixates, doing such as pointing out to the teacher that an ellipsis is not .........

I'm Mr. Hack, but it pays the rent (now mortgage). Years of it to customers and it feels a lot more like a craft, a skill learned and honed. That's what I meant.

Helen Martin (not verified) Sun, 26/07/2015 - 22:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I get what you're saying, Alan, and you're quite correct. I think that's where talent comes in, to make the editing part come more easily. More power to your "wee girl" too.