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.

“… a tear rolling slowly across his cheek…”

Read this. And then wonder no more why newspapers are folding left and right.

Some editor at the LA Times read this, thought it was great. Believed it.

A Whole Movie about Bad Writing!

And from what UD can tell, it makes Scathing Online Schoolmarm look mild.

Description and trailer here.

Media Relations Office at Rutgers…

…nothing to celibrate.

**********
Update: They fixed it.

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