Bad writing: What is it good for?

Crappy prose is our most abundant resource, so let's put it to work

Published May 12, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

       (Justin Jonsson)
(Justin Jonsson)

One of the less trumpeted features of the Internet is the unprecedented access it provides to really, really bad writing. Of course, awful books have always been with us, but nowadays a specimen of unkempt, puffed-up prose or stumbling, lugubrious verse doesn't even need to make it past an editor or publisher to glide slimily into the awareness of the unsuspecting public.

But while bad writing may be far more common than good writing, that doesn't make it any easier to define. Earlier this year, the American Book Review published a feature in which assorted authorities (mostly academics) cited their examples of "bad books."

Some of the titles picked (on) are widely considered classics, from "The Great Gatsby" and "All the Pretty Horses" to Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road." A few readers were indignant about those choices, but the majority responded with glee; everybody feels he or she has been tricked or forced into reading an unjustly celebrated book and longs for the opportunity to rant about it.

Still other books are so universally derided that they endear themselves. The stupendously lousy poetry of Sir William Topaz MacGonagall (1825-1902) remains in print while the works of dozens of Pulitzer winners languish in obscurity. You can even subscribe to a service that will e-mail you a sample from his execrable "Poetic Gems" every day.

In the early 20th century, dinner party guests would entertain each other by reciting passages from the alliteration-heavy works of one Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939), regarded by experts as the greatest bad novelist of all time. In Oxford, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and their friends competed to see who could read aloud from Ros' books the longest before cracking up.

Inspired by these and other literary travesties, thousands of amateurs enter the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest every year (named for a crummy Victorian novelist), accepting the challenge to compose "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." The prize? A "pittance."

But I grow tired of such games -- a line that would be bad in a movie, but is (I hope) amusingly campy in a little essay about what we can learn from rotten writing. GalleyCat, a website specializing in publishing news, hopes to take the contemplation of bad prose beyond snickering and guffaws. They're asking readers to rewrite a "badly-written, meandering, and oversimplified public domain parable" by Horatio Alger, "Joe's Luck," first published in 1909.

Each participant has been awarded a single page of this typical Alger rags-to-riches saga and instructed to redraft it. A representative passage from the original: "They went up-stairs, until Joe wondered when they were going to stop. Finally the boy paused at the top floor, for the very good reason that he could get no higher, and opened the door of 161."

GalleyCat's Jason Boog, who came up with this idea, explains that it's more than just a goof. "I think my readers can learn a lot from reading Alger," he wrote in an e-mail. "His style and descriptions are so outdated that even a rookie writer can recognize the bad writing." This confirms the secret weapon of many writing workshops. Students often don't get much helpful advice from critiques of their own work, as more than one teacher has confided to me. Instead, they learn the most from identifying the mistakes made by others.

Sadly, if bad writers have one thing in common it's that they're all firmly convinced that they're good writers. Really good writers. So it's not as self-flagellating as it might at first appear for Steve Almond to devote a monthly column at the Rumpus to publishing the bad poetry of his early years and recounting how it came to be perpetrated. If he were a truly bad writer, Almond wouldn't be harshing on his own juvenilia, right? And he certainly wouldn't be so funny about it.

A particularly memorable Almond lyric, "Sartre, You're an Asshole," features the line "I've met old teabags with more hope than you." "I don't need to tell you that I'd never read any Sartre," Almond adds after explaining the genesis of this poem in a spasm of thwarted grad-school love. Steve Almond's Bad Poetry Corner also takes reader submissions, so by all means, pitch in.

Bad writing can serve as a lesson of one kind or another, but can it ever be recycled into something approximating art? That appears to be what Vernon Lott tried to do with "Bad Writing," a documentary inspired by the discovery of a cache of his old poems. Like Almond, he soon understood that you don't necessarily need more than one person to have a disagreement about what constitutes bad writing. The novel, poem or essay you write today, in full confidence of its genius, may be regarded by some later version of yourself as soul-witheringly dreadful. But was Lott able to spin the straw of poems like "Sketches of Despair" into the gold of a nifty short film featuring interviews with the likes of George Saunders and Margaret Atwood? Hard to say, as "Bad Writing" has yet to find distribution.

Perhaps the very worst kind of bad writing is entirely imaginary, the rarest kind of all. This is the "bad" or merely inadequate writing that Franz Kafka thought he was asking his friend and literary executor Max Brod to burn after his death. Brod famously disobeyed that request; otherwise, we wouldn't have "The Trial," "The Castle" or "Amerika." And that would really be terrible.

Referenced in this article: "Top 40 Bad Books" in the American Book Review; McGonagall Online, for more about William Topaz McGonagall; "Amanda McKittrick Ros and the Inklings" by Anita G. Gorman and Leslie Robertson Mateer; the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest; Galley Cat's Horatio Alger Literary Remix Contest; Steve Almond's Bad Poetry Corner at the Rumpus; Facebook fan page for "Bad Writing (The Movie)."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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