Scathing Online Schoolmarm Says: The answer to bad writing is not more bad writing.

In response to the Tom Perkins Kristallnacht letter (go here for details), a Fortune writer asks us not to judge his investment firm just because it happens to have been founded by the dude.

KPCB has been subject of numerous media brickbats over the past few years (including some from yours truly), for issues related to both its investment strategy and firm management. Depending on your perspective, most of it either has been deserved or most of it has been overkill by a media that likes to tear down those it first builds up. But no matter your general feelings toward KPCB, the firm in no way deserves to be tarred with the spuriousness sentiments of its co-founder. Hopefully it will not be.

Gevalt. Where to start?

KPCB has been subject of numerous [Use "many"; it's simpler, less pretentious.] media brickbats over the past few years [Drop "over the past few years"; it's unnecessary.] (including some from yours truly), for issues related to both its investment strategy and firm management. [Drop "both its."] Depending on your perspective, most of it either has been deserved or most of it [Get rid of the repetition of "most of it." And by the way, notice how many of the words in this short paragraph are the deadly 'it'?] has been overkill by a media that likes to tear down those it first builds up. But no matter your general feelings toward KPCB, the firm in no way deserves to be tarred with the spuriousness sentiments [Right - "spuriousness" makes no sense here. And even if he'd used "spurious," it would designate exactly the opposite of the Perkins letter. There was nothing fake in the writing - it was a model of sincerity.] of its co-founder. Hopefully it will not be. [The final sentence is classic vacuousness, the equivalent of "Only the future will tell."]

A chief academic officer who talks – writes? – like this does more damage to a school’s reputation than inflated numbers.

Here’s Tulane’s provost, commenting on Tulane’s business school having for years made up US News and World Report numbers.

In a statement, Tulane Provost Michael Bernstein, the university’s chief academic officer, said: “I sincerely regret that these events occurred and that one person could so negatively impact how others see us as a place of learning. I am, however, proud of the manner and rigor by which Dean Solomon, Tulane and Jones Day took to get to the bottom of this concern and create an even stronger framework for future reporting.”

The first sentence simply stitches cliches together – including the hideous “negatively impact.” “Negatively impact” is precisely the wordy vacuous pomposity Orwell went after so long ago in Politics and the English Language.

The second… Read it again.

I am, however, proud of the manner and rigor by which Dean Solomon, Tulane and Jones Day took to get to the bottom of this concern and create an even stronger framework for future reporting.

Basic grammar seems beyond this man, the highest-profile voice for a “place of learning.” This man has failed to write a simple, correct sentence. Tulane seems to have no one in its administration to scan official statements and edit them.

A suitably grotesque image for Halloween.

Wearing pressed prison khakis with a pale logo on the back (INMATE—NEW HANOVER COUNTY), his hair is thinning, and all white.

Atlas Wriggled

Hitch-22 was a title born of the silly word games we played, one of which was Titles That Don’t Quite Make It, among which were A Farewell to Weapons, For Whom the Bell Rings, To Kill a Hummingbird, The Catcher in the Wheat, Mr. Zhivago, and Toby-Dick

Salman Rushdie remembers a fun word game he played with Christopher Hitchens.

Over breakfast, Les UDs have started coming up with some of their own:

To Have and Not Have
The Siblings Karamazov
Pride and Prejudgment
Darkness at Eleven-Thirty
The Way of All Skin

“An evening of whisky, terrible poetry, haggis and general mayhem.”

Many thoughtful people consider Scotland’s William Topaz McGonagall the worst poet in the history of the English-speaking world. His best-known poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster (here it is in full), has achieved renown, and remains constantly read and quoted.

Readers are especially drawn to its last stanza (the 1879 poem commemorates the deaths of passengers on a train that fell into the Tay River when the bridge over it collapsed):

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Writing like this never gets old, and very much lends itself to recitation. So on January 25, in a sign of McGonagall’s yet greater reach, pubs all over Scotland will celebrate not Robert Burns (January 25 is in fact Burns Night, when everyone’s supposed to be celebrating him), but McGonagall.

This year’s winner of the Bad Writing Contest…

… has been announced.

The winning sentence:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Other goodies:

The victim was a short man, with a face full of contradictions: amalgam, composite, dental porcelain, with both precious and non-precious metals all competing for space in a mouth that was open, bloody, terrifying, gaping, exposing a clean set of asymptomatic impacted wisdom teeth, but clearly the object of some very comprehensive dental care, thought Dirk Graply, world-famous womanizer, tough guy, detective, and former dentist.

As the young officer studied the oak door, he was reminded of his girlfriend — for she was also slightly unhinged, occasionally sticky, and responded well to being stripped and given a light oiling.

Convinced that the fabled Lost Treasure of Eggsbury was concealed within the statue of the beloved Sister Mary Francis in the village square, Professor Smithee would steal away in the darkest hour of each night to try to silently chip away at her impervious granite vestments – a vain and fruitless nightly exercise, he well knew, but it was a hard habit to break.

Like a bird gliding over the surface of a Wyoming river rippled by a gentle Spring breeze, his hand passed over her stretch marks.

“They had their cynical code …

… worked out,” writes George Orwell, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, about the employees of an advertising agency.

The Independent’s Johan Hari, about to be stripped of the writing prize that bears Orwell’s name, has his own cynical code, its writerly implications described by Guy Walters, who notes

… the 42 quotes in his ‘interview’ with Malalai Joya that Hari lifted from her ghosted autobiography; the 545 words plagiarised from the Daily Mail that Hari inserted into the mouth of his interviewee Ann Leslie; the lies about his Sky appearance with Richard Littlejohn; his fabrications and distortions of quotes in his prize-winning piece on Dubai; the startling familiarity of quotes in his interview with George Michael; his copy-pasting in his interview with Antonio Negri; his outrageously fabricated quotes for his piece on the Central African Republic; his quotes pinched from the New Yorker for his interview with Hugo Chavez; his alleged posting of unpleasant and defamatory comments online under the name of David Rose; his invention of names for interviewees whose quotes he had taken from Der Spiegel …

Beyond the plagiarism, UD has been struck by Hari’s lazy writing, the sort of writing a “tired hack …mechanically repeating … familiar phrases” produces. What would Orwell make, for instance, of Hari’s pointless attack on Prince Philip for having had the gall to turn ninety? Start with his pointlessly contemptuous and juvenile title:


SPARE ME THE FAWNING OVER ‘PRINCE’ PHILIP

No one fawned. The event barely registered.

And the marks around ‘prince’! Wow!

In the piece itself, a way-random series of hits on a man Hari ends by praising, Hari calls the monarchy “a snobbery-soaked institution” – precisely the sort of verbal political hackery Orwell hated.

Johann Hari …

… learns what an interview is (“[A]n interview is not just an essayistic representation of what a person thinks; it is a report on an encounter between the interviewer and the interviewee.”).

Give that man the Orwell Prize!

Similes drawn from the animal kingdom…

… win this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

This year’s winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award…

… will be named on November 29. While we wait, here’s one of this year’s judges on the sort of thing they’re looking for.

[Christos] Tsiolkas’s Booker-longlisted novel, The Slap, was cited for a passage in which two characters “fucked for ages” …

“It’s very repetitive,” he said, “the sheer laziness of saying ‘they fucked for ages’ is just one example of slack writing.”

The creator of the film ‘Bad Writing’…

… explains to an interviewer that he was a hideously bad writer until…


What turned you around?

Going to school was the big thing for me. I read voraciously but I don’t think I understood half of what I read. Taking a simple lit analysis class was eye-opening. I was able to see the technique that went into great writing. It’s more than drinking a lot and scowling.

College – at least college as it used to be, complete with lit analysis classes – can make a difference.

The Wall Street Journal article includes a clip from the film.

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Scathing Online Schoolmarm…

… enjoys this description of a bad book. The book is Dildo Cay, and the person describing it is Jonathan P. Eburne of Penn State.

It is so earnestly bad as to call its own existence into question… [The novel is] the product less of an unsteady hand than of a resoundingly tin ear, [with prose] so categorically graceless as to supersede camp and plunge straight into ontological confusion.

Scathing Online Schoolmarm has…

… um… a bone to pick with this year’s finalists for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Most of the entries are bad, it’s true, and bad in the amusing way bad writing descriptive of sex can be — leering, embarrassing, absurdly literary and pretentious…

In fact, before I make my complaint, let’s ogle an example or two and try to be precise about why they’re bad.

The worst bad sex writer – the person who should win this year’s contest – is John Banville, a writer UD has always found, carnal or non-carnal, pretentious:

Alba has stepped out of her dress in one flowing, stylised movement, like a torero, the object of all eyes, trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull; underneath, she is naked. [Before the baffled bull -- heavy-handed alliteration here for no reason at all other than to insist Not Cheap Porn. Here You Get Assonance With Your Ass.] She looks to the side, downwards; her eyelids are so shinily pale and fine that Adam can see clearly all the tiny veins in them, blue as lapis. [Shinily, clearly, he holds you back from the hard stuff because this is literature, man. Delicate Yeatsian simile, lapis... We're not in just any motel. We're in High Art Motel.] He takes a floating step forward until his chest is barely touching the tips of her nipples, behind which he senses all the gravid tremulousness of her breasts. [Wanna get me some of that gravid tremulousness.] She puts her hands flat against his chest and leans into him in a simulacrum of a swoon, [L'Artiste makes a fuck a simulacrum.] making a mewling sound. [Pregnant bullfighter goes all kitty on us.] Her hips are goosefleshed and he can feel all the tiny hairs erect on her forearms. When he kisses her hot, soft mouth, which is bruised a little at one corner, he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently – faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of fish-slime and sawdust – for he has no doubt that this is the mouth of a busy working girl. He does not mind. [Sawdust?]

They conduct there, on that white bed, under the rubied iron cross, [I hope you're picking up here, with the fish and the sawdust and the oracular They conduct there, on that white bed, T.S. Eliot's
"Prufrock;" and, in "The Waste Land":

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;...
]

a fair imitation of a passionate dalliance, a repeated toing and froing on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light, peremptory and intense. His heart rattles in its cage, a vein beats at his temple like a slow tom-tom. When they are spent at last, and that beacon in the jungle has been turned low again, they lie together contentedly in a tangle of arms and legs and talk of this and that, in their own languages, each understanding hardly a word of what the other says.

The Paul Theroux extract is more conventionally bad.

‘Baby.’ She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. ‘Yoni puja – pray, pray at my portal.’

“She was holding my head, murmuring ‘Pray,’ and I did so, beseeching her with my mouth and tongue, my licking a primitive form of language in a simple prayer. It had always worked before, a language she had taught me herself, the warm muffled tongue.

Pray at my portal is just funny. Just funny gets you shortlisted, but lacks the philosophy in the boudoir haughtiness of Banville.

But here’s my complaint. This excerpt is not bad:

Let’s have sex, they think simultaneously, couples having strange mind-reading powers after months and months of trying to figure each other out. Panting, Georgie starts rubbing her hands round Bobby’s biological erogenous zones, turning his trousers into a tent with lots of rude organs camping underneath. Bobby sucks all the freckles and moles off her chest, pulling the GD bib wheeeeeeeeeee over her head and flicking Georgie’s turquoise bra off her shoulders then kissing her tits, and he’s got so much energy – plus he’s very impatient – Bobby tugs off his sweaty sweater himself and gives Georgie a helping hand with his zip. Then comes the enormous anticipation of someone putting their mitts on your cock and balls. Georgie smiles to herself and keeps him hanging on for a bit, which in a way is even better though it makes the Artist want to explode and after one or two tugs he moans ‘whoah’ then screams ‘whoah!’ and Georgie lets go giggling, then suddenly her face is all serious and Bobby pulls her polished pine legs apart and slithers a hand up her skirt where her fanny’s got a bit of five o’clock shadow like a pin cushion but her lips are nice and slippy, and he slides some lubricunt round and round, mixing clockwise with anticlockwise with figure 8 until Georgie’s shagging the air with pleasure bashing her feet about. Then, Bobby starts scrabbling frantically across the carpet for Mr Condom, sending five or six multicolour Durexes flying through the air, and he struggles getting the packet open and Georgie has to roll Mr Condom down Mr Penis for him and she has to help insert him into Mrs Vagina.

This frenzied amusing description conveys through their form of sex and their thoughts the world in which the characters live, the kind of people they are. Indirect discourse takes us back and forth between their heads and creates a silly, human, sweetness.

And for once, instead of ships entering harbors and storms quelling and flowers bursting into petals, we get fresh images — that camping thing; the five o’clock shadow fanny like a pin cushion…

This isn’t whatever 700-level literary seminar Banville and Theroux think they’re in. It’s the real world. Round these parts, when a man sees a woman’s breasts, he doesn’t say gravid tremulousness.

Bad Poetry Day: National Poetry Month Antidote

Today is Bad Poetry Day, an important, neglected, American holiday on which for just one day out of the year we face up to the fact that most poetry is terrible and demoralizing.

The much-touted National Poetry Month tries to make us believe that our poetry strengthens us as a nation, but in our hearts we know most American verse is demoralizing. Not merely because it’s so bad, but because we’ve got to walk around pretending it’s good.

Let us, on this day, begin by revisiting something UD wrote some time back about National Poetry Month:

“…[T]aste occasionally dies,” writes Brian Phillips, surveying our mobbed up, wheezy poetry scene. “The capabilities of taste are not present to the same degree in every art audience; they will sometimes, with regard to one medium or another, seem to weaken, to shrivel away.” And when they do, “a kind of obscurity, something felt but not quite formulated, overwhelms aesthetic judgment. It becomes difficult to say what is good or bad, and worse, what one likes or dislikes…. [T]he loss of a sense of a shared standard of value has left readers of poetry somewhat numbed in their own preferences. There is something oddly anonymous and neutral in the expressions of enthusiasm one encounters for contemporary poetry, in book-jacket blurbs, for instance; one often feels as though it is the system of poetry itself, or some aspect of the poetry culture, that is being approved of, and not any poet or poem. … [T]aste [has] dissolved until we find ourselves unable to form intuitive aesthetic judgments, unable to know the ground on which such judgments could legitimately be formed, and thus adrift in an indifference that we ritualistically pretend is something else.”

That something else is the neutral enthusiasm for verse as a sunbeam in this dark world of ours.

Phillips continues: “The problem for American poetry is really a problem of taste, the way in which the power of intuitive judgment, and the kind of aesthetic experience it makes possible, is really what is felt to have been lost. … We are living among the consequences, in other words, of what has been a profound weakening over the last two hundred years of the objective capability of taste. … There is now virtually no sense among poetry readers of a fixed and commonly accessible standard of aesthetic value, either as a set of widely accepted critical principles or as a sense functioning intuitively among readers.”

The public thing, the NPM thing, the thing about how we have to get more people to read poetry, degrades the artform, which will always be of interest to few readers. “James Longenbach,” Phillips notes, ”has written that poetry’s expanding audience ‘has by and large been purchased at the cost of poetry’s inwardness.’ And Richard Howard has urged that the only way to ’save’ poetry is to restore it ‘to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes our only authentic pleasures.’”

Real critics of poetry, like William Logan and August Kleinzahler, whip up national furies against themselves because they refuse the robotic smiling indifference Phillips describes and instead take poetry with the seriousness the form deserves. For them, every day is bad poetry day. If you read them, you will begin to understand the elements of bad poetry. Here are some of them:

emotionality / sentimentality / over-sincerity / cloying sweetness

the opposite of this also creates bad poetry: faking emotions

pretentiousness, vanity: revelling in your depression, your passion, whatever

a desperate desire to be original that makes you cutesy, weird, obtuse, unserious

formlessness — the poem is, for instance, merely disconnected fragments

******************************

Feel free to add to this list. And to the next list: Elements of good poetry:

language mastery – linguistic brilliance, beauty of expression

rewarding complexity – complexity adequate to the complexity of life, not complexity for its own sake

formal control – an understanding of the history of poetic forms, and an ability to work within, or depart intelligently from, that history

2009 Bulwer-Lytton Awards Announced

The contest in which you are asked to write the worst possible opening sentence you can think of for a story or a novel has announced this year’s winners.

I like the three winning sentences quoted here, but none of them can touch this one, a winner from an earlier year:

The widow Hasha Brown, whose agrarian husband had died from an unfortunate accident involving a hoe, leaned on the filigree railing of her balcony, overlooking her lavish, ornate Idaho estate, her dewy breasts protruding from her Pucci-print dressing gown like subterranean tubers saturated and distended from the vernal rains.

Winner and still champeen.

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