Friday, July 3, 2009

A Remarkable Level of Badness

The wastebasket is the writer's best friend. ~ Isaac Bashevis Singer

I have been told, over the years, that I have a distinctive writing style. I think there are three reasons. First, I spell words properly and use reasonably correct grammatical methods. Both are becoming lost skills. Spell-checkers should render the former impossible, but people are very clever about either not paying attention to them or simply misspelling words so badly that the spell-checkers give up.

Second, I have a a fairly extensive vocabulary. I have found this to come in handy over the years, particularly in business writing. As the adage goes, "if you can't convince 'em, confuse 'em."

Third, I write long, involved sentences with lots of dependent clauses. As I've explained before, commas are small, cheap, and easy to use, so why not use 'em?

Sometimes, though, I fear I just might qualify for the Bulwer-Lytton competition that's held annually. The web site proudly proclaims that it is where "www means Wretched Writers Welcome." There's been more than one time I've felt over-qualified in that regard.

The competition was created as sort of an homage to Edward George Bullwer-Lytton, who is best known for two things: the novelThe Last Days of Pompeii
and for writing the most atrocious opening sentences in all of English literature. The contest uses as it's inspiration this opening sentence from Paul Clifford:


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.

Charles Schultz, of course, made the opening phrase famous.

Bulwer-Lytton was nothing if not consistent when it came to this sort of thing. For example, consider this gem from
Calderon the Courtier:

The Tragi-Comedy of Court Intrigue, which had ever found its principle theatre in Spain since the accession of the House of Austria to the throne, was represented by singular complication of incident and brilliancy of performance during the reign of Phillip the Third.

Now I don't think it's entirely fair to lay the entire blame for bad writing on Bulwer-Lytton. After all, many writers in the 19th century used similar techniques with similarly mind-numbing results. But, few if any wrote as many books as did the Earl. At any rate, each year modern would-be bad authors are invited to submit opening sentences that capture the sleep-inducing, head-spinning, eye-crossing essence of the master. This year's winner, one David McKenzie, came through:

Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.

Sort of a cross between Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, and a deranged sitcom writer.

There are even sub-categories, like Purple Prose, which has this gem as its winner:

The gutters of Manhattan teemed with the brackish slurry indicative of a significant though not incapacitating snowstorm three days prior, making it seem that God had tripped over Hoboken and spilled his smog-flavored slurpie all over the damn place.

You gotta admire the sheer awfulness of something like that.

However, I have discovered someone who wildly surpasses Bulwer-Lytton: Amanda McKittrick Ros, who is, according to one expert, the greatest bad writer who ever lived. Thanks to a husband who was willing to pay to have her books published, we have such gems as "Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!" One can imagine the besieged Irene simply staring in horror and saying, "Say what?"

In one book, Helen Huddleston, all her characters are named after fruit. There's Lord Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, and Madame Pear. One wonders if the creator of the parlor game Cluedo (better know in the U.S. as Clue) was a fan of Mrs. Ros.

I am forced to admit I'm probably not in Mrs. Ros' class, if only because I don't know enough types of fruit to populate an entire novel. This is probably a good thing.

Bulwer-Lytton is another matter though. I fear that I have moments when I sort of drift into a typographical reverie where the fingers simply float over the keyboard, releasing an outburst of verbiage that approaches the flow of the Niagara cataract following the endless rains of the typically gray and gloomy northern April, when weeks go by without the warming gaze of the sun.

Or something like that.

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