More Bad Writing
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.