Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language
By Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras
(Penguin, 214 pages, $15.00)
In 2010, 328,259 new books were published in the United States. Most of these, one imagines, were not very good, but probably not so bad either. For all the pallets of titles demanding neither praise nor execration, there are bound to have been a few hundred genuine clunkers. Negative criticism is as fun to write as it is to read, but most reviewers end up sinking their fangs into only one or two really bad books per publishing season. This is probably a good thing: vitriol, like vegetables, is no good canned, as it tends to be when it appears with any real frequency in the books sections of newspapers and magazines. Still, it’s undeniably the case that a lot of us—not just professional reviewers but unpaid readers of taste—enjoy reading bad writing.
Before last week it had been a while since my unusually strong appetite for rotten prose had been satisfied. Now, thanks to Ross and Kathryn Petras, I am stuffed. I have gorged myself, pigged out. In a single sitting I wolfed down 214 pages of overripe adjective, wormy dangling modifier, rancid anatomic euphemism, gamy circumlocution, and sour cliché. It was quite the feast, and now, like a pot-bellied French gastronome, all I can do is write about it.
Wretched Writing is organized along quasi-encyclopedic lines, from “adjectives, excessive use of” to “zoological sexual encounters, politician-writers and” (more on this later). Other entries include “art writing, inartistic (and often incomprehensible),” “dialogue, deadly unromantic,” “impossibilities,” “legalese,” “overwrought writing about minor things,” “prose, preposterously Proustian,” “‘said’ synonyms” (enough to drive the late Elmore Leonard to despair), “thesaurus addiction,” and “words, wrong.” There are also headings under which the Petrases collect unintentionally funny snippets from writers dead and gone. I should mention that I did not much care for these. Poor Jane Austen: how could she have foreseen the changes in denotation that would make a straightforward description of her heroine, young Catherine Morland, who at age 15 “began to curl her hair and long for balls,” ridiculous? And surely Bram Stoker should not be taken to task for writing, in 1897, that “Dr. Van Helsing rushed into the room, ejaculating furiously,” nor should Jerome K. Jerome, whose meaning in the following excerpt from Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886):
The only thing I can think about now is being hard up. I suppose having my hands in my pockets has made me think of this.
is surely plain even to readers of the 21st century.
Besides, even without these anachronistic cullings there is plenty here to delight readers who enjoy seeing made plain the reasons that body parts and the sexual act should probably never be described. The editors’ heading “breasts, strange” is a bit of an understatement: under it we see these organs compared to snakes, pastries, gymnastic equipment, and eyeballs; we find them behaving like flags and speakers, lungs, and grain elevators. A related section shows us a certain biological structure common to all male higher vertebrates being referred to as a salmon, a cucumber, a lump of excrement, and, in what must surely be the silliest bit of anatomical description I have ever read, a cashew, a banana, and a sweet potato—all in the course of a single John Updike sentence.
Much, much weirder than these mere culinary and agricultural metaphors is the fixation that certain politicians, pundits, and hangers-on seem to have with animal sex. If it were only a matter of Saddam Hussein rhapsodizing about female bears and their interspecies hankerings, I would be sleeping easier than I am. But Scooter Libby, in a novel written some 11 years before he was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to federal investigators (and reissued following his indictment), also treated the subject at some length:
At age ten the madam put the child in a cage with a bear trained to couple with young girls so the girls would be frigid and not fall in love with their patrons. They fed her through the bars and aroused the bear with a stick when it seemed to lose interest.… “Is there feeling?” a bucktoothed man asked. “At least on the first night, after a bear?”
In the same novel, not long after this girl-on-bear incident, Libby apparently treats his readers to a passage—far too filthy for me to quote directly—involving hypothetical sexual congress with a deer. But Libby is arguably one-upped by David Brooks, whose (also hypothetical) description of “a man who buys a chicken from the grocery store, manages to bring himself to orgasm by penetrating it, then cooks and eats the chicken” in that 2011 New York Times bestseller The Social Animal went, so far as I recall, unquoted in numerous glowing reviews. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s involved description of equine mating seems tame by comparison.
Fortunately, most of Wretched Writing is given over to examples that are bad (“of poor quality”) without being bad (“morally depraved”). Plain old redundancy is funny (“To understand why the house makes money at the craps table, you have first to understand why”), as are bad logic (“Their range was, within limits, virtually unlimited”), absurd similes (“He stood trembling like a bladder of lard”), and hokey dialect (“We have ze Santa Claus een France / We see him when we get ze chance”). A cry that is “illegible” does not deserve to be heard, or rather read; and a “blue glow emancipating” from a basement probably should not be set free. The only fetish on display in the work of Irish Victorian novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros, author of, among others, Irene Iddesleigh, Delina Delaney, and Helen Huddleston, is one for the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds. A sentence like:
The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthy future, and form to swell the retinue of retired flights, the righteous school of the invisible and the rebellious roar of the raging nothing.
might come halfway through Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada. Which brings me to an important point, namely, that, as the Petrases rightly note, wretched writing is not the exclusive province of obscure writers like the nameless shoe leather reporters quoted here or famously bad ones like Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame). J.G. Ballard, William Safire, David Mitchell, Ian Fleming, Samuel Richardson, Camille Paglia, Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Norman Mailer, John Ruskin, and Nabokov himself number among the otherwise well-regarded wretched writers quoted in these pages. Nor are the Petrases politically motivated: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin are mocked here alongside the aforementioned Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and the anonymous Mariposa County, California bureaucrat who helpfully informed the Transportation Commission on Unmet Transit Needs that “No unmet needs exist and…current unmet needs that are being met will continue to be met.”
How any of us can possibly enjoy reading a book like Wretched Writing—to say nothing of the winning entries for the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award or the late Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contest—is a hard question to answer, but not, I think, as hard a question as how anyone could possibly write “The pain she felt was palpable” or “This was very significant and important,” which really is unanswerable. It may simply be that the worst prose, like the best prose—the Authorized Edition of the Bible, Gibbon, P.G. Wodehouse, Hugh Trevor-Roper—is exceedingly rare. Only Henry Adams could have written the final paragraph of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and only Dan Brown could refer to eyebrows on every other page of Digital Fortress. As Ros herself wrote (in a rare assonance and alliteration-free sentence), “I expect that I will be talked about at the end of 1,000 years.”