January 3rd, 2024
Writing 101 and the Harvard Corporation

 … Harvard, which compels its undergraduates to master expository writing in their freshman year, cannot find the language to defend itself [in its letter about Claudine Gray’s resignation]. The corporation does not apologize or explain. Instead, it throws up its hands in prayer: “May our community, with its long history of rising through change and through storm, find new ways to meet those challenges together, and to affirm Harvard’s commitment to generating knowledge, pursuing truth and contributing through scholarship and education to a better world.”

The clouds of mystification gather early. Can a nearly 400-year-old entity that began as a seminary for young Protestant men and grew into a global educational brand with a $50 billion endowment be said in any meaningful sense to constitute a community? The sentence then succumbs to a storm of clattering prose and conceptual incoherence. It’s hard to know just what or how many things Harvard is committed to, or what new ways of affirming that commitment might be found.

December 14th, 2020
Gigot Gets Jiggy with It.

Gigot, Gigot, Gigot

Kiddo, you gotta know when to hold em, and when to fold em. You went ahead and dealt yourself and your newspaper some Joseph Epstein, knowing full well what’s in that deck, and even after the game blew up in your face, you’re still dancing around with the shards of his cards in your bloody digits.

Stick with me baby I’m the fellow you came in with… Yes, loyalty is a thing; we’ve all watched in amazement as your fellow conservatives in congress maintain their loyalty to Donald Trump. You yourself remain a fan of his. Fine.

But in your capacity as editor, monkey nipples, you have an obligation to the Wall Street Journal. It’s not like just liking Donald Trump for, you know, yourself. It’s like you publish things that reflect on a whole newspaper. Once having published a damaging opinion piece, nothing stopped you from reviewing your decision, re-reading the piece, and expressing something short of rigid rageful defense of it.

Instead, you argue that no one’s really angry about it outside of a cynical conspiracy of Bidenites. “[T]he Biden team concluded it was a chance to use the big gun of identity politics to send a message to critics as it prepares to take power.”

Paulie, Mrs Gigot, Honeychild: Your excitement over sinewy macho Jill brandishing a weapon overlooks the national and international overflow of disgust in response to Epstein’s attack on a woman who simply chooses to use the title Dr because she has a doctorate. This here’s a big story (that link is to Team Biden/Paris), and you need to reckon with it, sugarlips.

And as for your conspiracy theory: Let’s say the Biden team did all gang up on you and your boy Epsy in a coordinated effort to do damage. So what? What have you got against coordinated action? Your guys in congress are as one ganging up on Biden – you got a problem with that?

And again – instead of conceding just a tad — not taking the piece down, but conceding just a tad that there might be a small but reasonable connection between what Epstein wrote and the massive anger/disdain/disbelief it has generated, you make a number of dumb statements in its defense that have nothing to do with Epstein’s argument. “She can’t be off-limits for commentary.” Yes, and we’ve all decided Jill Biden must be TOTALLY OFF-LIMITS FOR COMMENTARY. Don’t you, Paulie, or anyone else dare say a word against her!

And finally, just like a woman, you get all teary and so there and I’m too good for this world: “[T]hese pages aren’t going to stop publishing provocative essays merely because they offend the new administration or the political censors in the media and academe.” BWAH! What dya say to that ya big bully? (Tosses hankie – er, bloody card – in face.)

Here’s what we say, bubbaleh, and we’re going to try to keep this abbreviated and monosyllabic: There’s a dif tween prov. and crp.

November 18th, 2015
This year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award finalists…

… feature the object of UD‘s sister’s affection, Morrissey. He is the front-runner.

Yet having looked at all the contenders, UD will put her money on Joshua Cohen. And she will tell you why Cohen should win.

Cohen probably won’t win, because the Bad Sex Award people will get far more attention if they give the award to Morrissey.


Here is Cohen’s passage, from his novel Book of Numbers.

Her mouth was intensely ovoid, an almond mouth, of citrus crescents. And under that sling, her breasts were like young fawns, sheep frolicking in hyssop – Psalms were about to pour out of me.

In UD‘s opinion, the best bad sex writing is pretentious (intensely ovoid), self-consciously literary (Psalms), richly figurative (like young fawns), alliterative (citrus crescents, fawns frolicking), and gamely but unsuccessfully comical (Psalms were about to pour out of me).

The problem with some of this year’s other contenders is that they’re rather simple. They lack the biblical, metaphorical, simile-tudinous, and would-be humorous, elements of this passage. I’ll show you what I mean.

She reached up and brought him to her, then rolled over on top of him and began softly to move down. When she took him, still a little flaccid, into her mouth, he moaned, ‘Oh, lover.

This isn’t bad sex writing. It’s just blah workmanlike oral sex description. Oh lover is amusing but a bit too plausible as something a person might indeed say under these circumstances. (The statement Pray at my portal in a recent Paul Theroux novel is a much better instance of bad sex dialogue.)

Glorious, he was made to do this. There was cracking all around and a blistering sunlike heat, and Gwennie was shuddering beneath him, and one-two-three, he burst within her.

Again, while this ain’t great writing, UD doesn’t see what makes it award-winning bad sex writing. The first sentence is very simple, and the second moves rather nicely from all those ing words (denoting immediate action) to the sudden bang of an ending. In no way is this notably bad.

She presses him to the ground, pins his hands to the floor. She kisses his face and licks it. She bites his lip. She bites his cheek. She pants in his ear, shouts his name in his ear, she whips his face with her hair […] she rides above him the way she’d imagined that one day she’d ride a boy, a man, a beast; she grasps his long hair with both her hands and rides him as if he were a horse…

First of all, this one’s a translation. I think this alone disqualifies it. But as writing, it simply adopts the dull as dishwater relentless present-tense of writers from Joyce Carol Oates on down, and it doesn’t even do it all that badly. Of course one doesn’t like it; but this is indeed how it’s done.

I pulled her to me. I took her band off, and her hair fell free about her shoulders. I cupped my hand around the back of her neck, and we made out standing beside my bed. It felt good to both of us, pressed together, her body lush, soft, and hot against mine. She was a good kisser; our mouths fit.

Same as above, only in past tense. Could have been written by Mickey Spillane. Neither here nor there, and certainly not a winner of anything.

Far in the back of whatever was left of his mind, the light of reason was struggling against being finally extinguished and he was aware that wearing a condom would’ve been a good idea, but there was no way that he was getting out of her, because she took him in and he was with her in every move, in every gasp, kiss, and lick.

Gasp kiss and lick sucks; but “there was no way that he was getting out of her” is rather good. And again the whole passage is very straightforward, lacking the baroque Fine Dining madness of Cohen’s.

I am swept away with waves of anticipation that blank out my mind and let me focus only on pleasure, releasing the painful past, releasing the desire to return there and be young and beautiful again. Fuck young and beautiful – this is worth everything – and I come with fierce contractions that seem to go on and on endlessly.

This (Erica Jong) is just utterly shitty prose. The sexual content disappears behind the subliteracy. This is not a subliteracy contest.

And Morrissey? Here tis.

Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.

A lot of writers take this approach to writing about sex. Sex is a silly frenzy, so you produce a long funny wild and crazy rollercoaster of a sentence. People are making special fun of bulbous salutation, but at least Morrissey has looked at the object of his descriptive efforts with care and given it a new and amusing spin.

We can, in short, discern three approaches to writing about sex in the novel.

1. The Craftsman.com approach reflects the author’s dread at having to write these passages. He or she grapples painfully with how to do the thing and ultimately, sensibly, decides to toss off a bland neutral efficient acceptable descriptive passage.

2. The Let’s Go There! approach takes sex on its own terms and chases it down on its merry zany way.

3. The This is ART, Damn You approach is, in UD‘s humble opinion, always the winner among the annual Bad Sex Award finalists. Cohen’s got that going, as did John Banville, also a recent finalist:

They conduct there, on that white bed, under the rubied iron cross, 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.

April 6th, 2015
UD remains embarrassed by her readiness…

… to believe the original Rolling Stone article on the University of Virginia rape. She simply had a confidence in that publication that she of course no longer has.

RS has now retracted the story, following a Columbia Journalism School investigation that found the article full of elementary journalistic errors.

November 27th, 2014
Scathing Online Schoolmarm Says: There’s a Kind of Bad Writing You Can Only Learn at College.

Here’s an example, from a Georgetown University senior who argues in the school paper (the piece has now been taken down) (the piece seems to have been put back up) that his recent mugging by gunpoint in Georgetown was a product of economic disparities.

Who am I to stand from my perch of privilege, surrounded by million-dollar homes and paying for a $60,000 education, to condemn these young men as ‘thugs?’ … It’s precisely this kind of ‘otherization’ that fuels the problem …

As young people, we need to devote real energy to solving what are collective challenges. Until we do so, we should get comfortable with sporadic muggings and break-ins. I can hardly blame [the muggers]. The cards are all in our hands, and we’re not playing them.

Amid this clutch of cliches, a single word really stands out – otherization.

The writer has enhanced this already lovely term by growing quotation marks for it.


The conservative press is having lots of fun with this student’s effort to understand his mugger. SOS, as always, is more concerned with the lamentable prose he has brought to his claims, the learned raid on the articulate (to mess with TS Eliot a bit) this writing represents.

Especially if you’re going to argue something unpopular (people in our cities who stick guns in our faces and force us to the ground at night in order to take all of our goods should be objects of sympathy), you need your writing to be really good. In this particular case, you somehow need your words to convey your grasp of the complexity of the problem of crime, and your understanding that most of your readers aren’t going to agree with your position on it, even as you defend your non-standard take. Instead, this writing seems to flaunt the superior morality of the writer, a person able to rise above the lowly rage and terror the rest of us are likely to have felt in his situation. SOS knows he didn’t mean to convey this, but precisely the use of super-abstract jargon like otherization suggests a weirdly disengaged, hyper-theoretical disposition …

November 23rd, 2014
Wonderful scathe of bad sex writing…


January 27th, 2014
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.”]

January 16th, 2013
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.

October 31st, 2012
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.

April 27th, 2012
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

January 16th, 2012
“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.

July 26th, 2011
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.

July 26th, 2011
“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:


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.

June 29th, 2011
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!

December 1st, 2010
Similes drawn from the animal kingdom…

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

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