Writing That’s So Bad It’s Good

Reading & Writing

There’s a healthy market for bad books.

Game of Thrones fans were so upset by the final series of the epic show that they started trolling the two scriptwriters. When you Googled ‘bad writers’ that month, the first thing that came up was a photograph of the pair. Viewers were upset that their invested time had not been rewarded. Yet readers who slog through long, disappointing novels would never do such a thing.

Looking back through old posts I found a controversy five years ago that arose after I criticised a hilariously bad writer (who shall this time remain nameless). I followed that article with another, and thought it might be fun to combine parts of both into a single post. Here are a few of our nameless author’s one-liners. The sentences are not technically wrong, but…you’ll see.

‘Here you go, a package from your dead cousin.” The bespectacled letter carrier leered at Susan as he talked to her breasts.

With a knot in her stomach, Susan deleted the spam. She inhaled deeply while plopping down in a chair at the table.

Here one character tries to work out the date. “Let’s see now…Melody disappeared on the fourth of July, so it must have been on the eighth that I started calling you. She went out to pick up some Chinese food and never came back.’

“Thank you. What’s the occasion?” As soon as she’d asked the question, she realized it was two years ago today that they’d found Brandon’s remains in the smoldering rubble of Tower One. “Oh, that’s right. Last Thanksgiving was much easier. It was good being around the other volunteers. But I never want to see another yam ever again.”

Elderly body builder Bicep Betty, of yellow polka dot bikini fame, reposed directly across from me snapping her black bubble gum. Every book she wrote was full of kink and husband homicide. No wonder she was an old maid and had a cult following.

It’s very hard to write badly and get it right. You must give equal weight to everything, a death, a sandwich, a hairstyle, a chair, and preferably combine them all in one sentence. Don’t research, use the thesaurus on your laptop. Anyone can write; you just put down a bunch of words. After all, why shouldn’t they write for their own pleasure? Just don’t share it. If a carpenter built you shelves that collapsed when you stood books on them, you’d accuse them of being a bad carpenter, but bad writers don’t get called out that way. There’s a healthy market for bad books.

I believe that good writing can be taught, but that the ability to comprehend and explain with concision is innate. My schooling included regular ‘comprehension essays’  that nurtured the ability to be clear and succinct. 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 brush up against a genius and assume they can do it too. Lord Alfred Douglas, the anti-Semite who brought a new meaning to the term Oscar bait, couldn’t even tackle the story of his own life. ‘Oscar Wilde and Myself’ had to be ghost-written, but in such cases the name makes the sale. Here’s a poem from him.

‘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.’

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.’ 

When considering duff prose let’s not leave out the master, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian baron who wrote incredibly popular bestsellers, who influenced Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, popularised the Hollow Earth theory and died rich, to be buried in Westminster Abbey. 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 – she’s unreadable, but 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.’

21 comments on “Writing That’s So Bad It’s Good”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I suppose these days it is easy to get bad writing published.

    In other arts, it helps if you are really good in the first place to be hilariously bad. The late comedian Les Dawson, for one of his skits, used to play the piano wonderfully badly in his weekly TV show, and the audience were rolling around laughing. In reality, he was a rather good piano player. Likewise, in the “Play that Goes Wrong”, the very professional cast are funny putting on a play in which everything goes wrong. If these plays were done by amateurs, most of the productions would be bad for the wrong reasons.

    I think we all agree that Mr F is a very good writer, so I challenge him-yes you Mr F-to purposely write a short story very badly.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    I meant to add, hilariously very badly.

  3. Nick Kirby says:

    I have a box game called Ex Libris (purchased many moons ago from Past Times), within which lies about 50 cards each bearing the details of a well or lesser known work of fiction (Author, publication year and synopsis). The aim is for players to write what they believe either the opening or closing sentence of the work to be. They are then voted on, with the genuine article thrown into the mix and points are scored for spotting the right one or successfully bluffing an opponent. The offerings I have seen playing this range from the gallant and plausible to the truly unspeakable.

  4. brooke says:

    Pity the poor reader! You pick up a work, highly recommended and/or promoted by local bookseller, read a couple of pages. It’s so poorly written you either fall down laughing or have an urge to put the author out of her misery.
    Once upon a time, editors protected readers from such; no more. Thanks to kindle try sample and library free download, at least I don’t have the expense of purchasing/returning the thing.

    Mr. Fowler once complained about on-line reviewers “using watery phrases like well written.” With a roaring market for bad books, that’s the highest compliment a reader can give.

  5. John Griffin says:

    If you think fiction can be awful, try reading some political/sociological stuff, especially post modernists.
    “Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.”
    ― Jean Baudrillard

  6. Andrew Holme says:

    I remember Martin Amis saying how difficult it is to write a ‘bad’ airport thriller. Haven’t we always had this sort of rubbish book, something we turn to after a month of ‘Finnigan’s Wake’. From the ‘pulps’ to Dan Brown, not only is there a market for this sort of stuff, but sometimes a gem will shine out from the poop.( Though obviously not Mr. B. I did try a while back, thinking, well let’s give him a go. Dearie me.) My go to author when I need to have a couple of books to charge through after reading a ‘heavy’, is Jack Higgins. Same plot, same violence, no sex, no swearing. He scratches an itch.

  7. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I used to feel guilty if I started a book and didn’t finish it. I have since realised that life is too short for that.
    Knitters sometimes say they have reached SABLE ( stash above life expectancy).
    I reached LABLE some time ago, but that doesn’t seem to stop me adding to it.

  8. Wild Edric says:

    Andrew, my ‘easy read’ after a heavy is Robert Goddard. Nothing too taxing there.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    It might be a bit meta, but writing badly might be an interestimg basis for a B&M short story. A famous writer is discovered to be on a lot of trouble, when his latest book is published, but, unlike all his previous books, this one, although it tells a good tale, is written so skilfully ‘off’, that regular readers are worried by it. Casual readers would not notice anything, which is why it’s so difficult to convince people that something is seriously wrong. It’s a bit like how secret services were able to tell if an agent had been compromised, in the manner of how they sent Morse Code messages. To the lay man, it would be dots and dashes – to an expert, it would be clear that an imposter was sending the message.

  10. Roger says:

    “You must give equal weight to everything, a death, a sandwich, a hairstyle, a chair, and preferably combine them all in one sentence. ”
    That can be an effective way of writing too: Saki’s more alarming comic characters have that habit of giving everything equal significance.

    You’re right about academics, Andrew Holme. The one I sort-of-forgive is Homi K. Babha, who justified his writing by saying he wanted to persuade people by the power of his arguments, not the power of his prose.

  11. admin says:

    LABLE, Cornelia?
    Re: ‘Off messages’ – Ben Mackintyre is good on the awkward formality of incoming fake coded messages that just seem a bit wrong.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Many years ago I read Bullwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii, a book which encouraged an interest in archaeology. I enjoyed the reading and would read it again, but then I don’t think I have a good feeling for bad writing.

  13. snowy says:

    How very dare Eddie Lytton take the nascent novel form and write it in the cultural and linguistic norms of his day, with such scant regard for the unpredictable concerns of people yet to be born in another century. [I’d go and tinkle on his grave; but that might upset the Arch-bish.]

    That Glover’s boy was no better, rehashing a tired old story, throwing in a bit of gender fluidity and a couple of old gags would have been passable, but to do it in rhyme is just showing off.

    As for that Chaucer bloke, ‘Every day tales of country folk’, [Yawn!], what on earth possessed him to do the whole thing in some sort of cod yokel accent! That’s not going to get you on the curriculum, boring the.. snot out of generations of children.

  14. David Ronaldson says:

    I recommend Nicholas T. Parsons’ “The Joy of Bad Verse” for some gloriously bad writing, including a chapter on the great McGonagall.

  15. Nick says:

    I would read LABLE as Library Above Life Expectancy.

  16. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Correct, Nick.

  17. Wayne Mook says:

    Bulwer-Lytton is responsible for the horror story “The Haunted and the Haunters” or “The House and the Brain” (1859), it is a splendid tale and greatly anthologised. He is also responsible for the phrase ‘The pen is mightier then the sword.’ Ad for quite a few others.

    To be honest he’s not that bad, part of it is that ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ was used by Snoopy in Peanuts so often, as to become a joke.

    Also what Snowy said.

    I have mentioned a favourite bad writer of mine, using the alias Curtis Steele writing the pulp series Operator 5 and an infamous ‘Heap of Doom.’

    here’s some more operator 5 has just been shot with some ‘weird weapon’.

    It lightninged uncanny power at Jimmy Christopher. A hollow report sounded. a blinding white flare flashed. through the night, he strange force struck, engulfing Jimmy Christopher. A swift paralysis seized him. Once, in a paraoxysm of shock, he pulled the trigger of his automatic and the bullet whined into empty air. One instant the world was a bursting globe of searing light. Then – Jimmy Christopher dropped. Senseless, he fell past the brink of the cliff, into the maw of the night…’

    The above paragraph is as it appears in the book.

    To be honest I do enjoy some bad writing, in the above the story is fantastic (the dead brought back to life to take over the US) and belts along. When the prose is bad it’s makes you smile f not laugh out loud. The worst writing for me is bland and boring writing – I don’t care if it’s the words that sparkle, the story grips or the ideas are wonderful, some rare books have them all, but there has to be something. I watch some z-list films and the worst thing they can do is be boring.

    Tedium is the worst thing in a book and this from someone who can happily read Asa Briggs’ history of broadcasting.


  18. Roger says:

    The trouble with Bulwer-Lytton is he doesn’t know enough to stop.
    “It was a dark and stormy night”is good, but Bulwer-Lytton doesn’t think it’s enough.

    “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which did not seem easily to be met with. ”

    That’s only half the first paragraph, after two prefaces and an epigraph.
    Bulwer-Lytton’s other feat was to inspire a change in the law. He tried to get his wife locked up in a private madhouse so he could be elected to Parliament in peace. She got out and took revenge by writing several novels about wicked husbands who try to get their wives locked up in private madhouses.

  19. snowy says:

    While I will readily concede his style is florid and rather purple, in needs to be placed in context.

    1830: Britain had a intelligent, reforming Prime Minister and an idiot Monarch whose chief preoccupations were building stupid things and fathering as many illegitimate children as possible, [how times change!]. This was still the Georgian period, literature was still heavily influenced by the Gothic, the novel as a form was still quite new, stories still tended to follow much older patterns.

    Books were still rare, and not the solitary pleasure we think them today. They would be read out aloud in the evening for the entertainment of the assembled family or guests. [The other options being: swooning, getting pregnant and coughing yourself to death.]

    Within that framework the lines are not the opening passage to a modern novel, but a Prologue in the theatrical sense, that lays out the scene of the drama about to unfold.

    [Roger, if you are game for an experiment, [I’m sure you have the acting ‘chops’]. Rise from your seat – turn to face an imagined audience and deliver the text as a Prologue, [give it a bit of oomph! obviously] and see if works more naturally as a spoken performance?]

  20. Roger says:

    Well, Snowy, imagine starting by reading that aloud and then building up to a climax!

  21. Wayne Mook says:

    It reads Ok, actually I’m currently ploughing through Paul Clifford, OK I put it down and have read several other books, but I intend to carry on regardless.

    I’ll admit he is a bit verbose, but not the worst.


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