The worst writer in the world?

 

Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?

So begins Amanda McKittrick Ros’s novel, Delina DelaneyI found this quote on the Goodreads site with the tag wtf-does-this-mean. And no, I haven’t a clue either.

Now, literary fashion has changed a great deal since Ros published the book in 1898. If he were writing Bleak House (1853) today, I’m not sure even Charles Dickens would have dared begin with a discussion of the grisly London weather, wonderful though that passage is, complete with mentions of fog, mud, umbrellas and a Megalosaurus. Imagine the tattoo of red pen from a modern editor.

‘Never open a story with the weather’ is one piece of writing advice often given. As is the need to trim your prose of flabby, unnecessary words  – edit, edit, edit is our current mantra – and make your writing as clear as a mountain stream to your reader.

None of which seem to have been a priority to Ros.

The writer was famed for her circumlocutory language. When she wrote in her debut novel, Irene Iddesleigh,

When on the eve of glory, whilst brooding over the prospects of a bright and happy future, whilst meditating upon the risky right of justice, there we remain, wanderers on the cloudy surface of mental woe, disappointment and danger, inhabitants of the grim sphere of anticipated imagery, partakers of the poisonous dregs of concocted injustice. Yet such is life

it probably never occurred to her that she could have said –

Why is it we always feel most fed up when something good’s about to happen?

More was … more as far as Amanda was concerned.

She may have been a self-published teacher from County Down, but that didn’t stop her from imagining “the million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen” and that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years”. One thing she never lacked was confidence in her own work: she once discussed the Nobel Prize for Literature with her publisher, asking “What think you of this prize? Do you think I should make a ‘dart’ for it?”

Some of her best words she saved for her critics, calling them variously,

“bastard donkey-headed mites”

“clay crabs of corruption”

“auctioneering agents of Satan”

“hogwashing hooligans”

“evil-minded snapshots of spleen”

She had a gift for alliteration if nothing else.

What are we, then, to think of an author who – in her last novel, Helen Huddleson – lumbered most of her characters with a fruit-based name (Lord Raspberry, Cherry Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant, the Earl of Grape, Madame Pear)?

Well, I can’t advise any modern writer to ape her writing style and it seems famous authors would support my decision: the literary group The Inklings (which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkein) held competitions where the winner was the member who could read from one of her books for longest without laughing.

But I do admire her no nonsense attitude towards critics, the absolute faith she had in her own work and the way she was prepared to defend it.

In these days when most authors are loathe to get into online arguments with readers over snippy critiques or even outright, troll-like oceans of bile, Ros reacted to a poet’s criticism of her debut novel by printing a 20 page rebuttal in her follow up novel.

No shrinking violet, our Amanda.

So if I think she was deluded in her own talents, she had more self-belief than most of us.

And that is definitely something to aspire to.


What do you think of Ros’s verbiage? Do you agree with the critics or do you long for a time when the circumlocutory phrase was en vogue? Are you tired of this demand for tough edits, long for the return of purple prose?

 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/apr/19/worst-novelist-in-history

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_McKittrick_Ros#cite_note-Words_To_Remember-6

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/01/was_amanda_mckittrick_ros_the_worst_novelist_in_history.html

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45 thoughts on “The worst writer in the world?

  1. oh Lynn – this was an unexpected read today! delightfully surprised.
    I think there is a time and place for verbose and the overuse of adjectives and tiresome descriptions. I think some writers need to embrace it if it is what they want. That originality will exude freshness to the reader (albeit maybe only a few as this might be less popular) – but that freshness is what keeps the world diverse and alive.
    I would not enjoy reading it a lot – and even now when writers seem to use so many extras – I admire it on one hand – but then my mind gets tired and I must go. It is almost like someone overdressed for the party or overset the table. At times the extras help – but whew – then you noted the day and age we live in – and I do appreciate the editing – and there is that fine line with too minimal – so it reall depends.

    lastly – and again – there is so much to ponder here and i am on my way to yoga and so I think this post will linger in my thoughts
    but my last comment is about

    ‘Never open a story with the weather’

    well – maybe true – EXCEPT…..
    except when it is this:

    “It was a dark and stormy night….”

    bring it baby

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree. I quite enjoy reading (and writing ) a well described scene, setting tone and place in the readers’ mind. BUT when you read some classic literature, they do rather labour the point. I remember reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame years ago and Victor Hugo writes PAGES of physical description of Paris. Reams and reams of words about churches and houses and streets before any plot begins. I remember reading once that writers like Hugo and Dickens walked a lot around their cities, which is why they knew their settings so well. Thing is, these days people only need the merest sketch then they fill the rest in for themselves. I agree, a writer should feel happy to be as verbose as they like , but if they do, they just shouldn’t expect to get picked up by a publisher. No point railing against it, saying we’ve lost something with our obsession with editing – that may be true, but it still won’t get you a contract! And as for ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ I don’t mind that bit, but it goes on to be a bit ropy https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2008/aug/19/2
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments and for joining the conversation. Enjoy that yoga 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I am learning so much here. esp. “when you read some classic literature, they do rather labour the point.”

        oh
        and that makes sense that the walking would lead to all those details.
        also – because they were full-time writers I bet words flowed much differently.
        I was kidding about the “dark and stormy night…”
        but need to go and check that link.
        I skipped yoga (will go tonight instead) cos I got on a rabbit trail writing a post with thoughts about OATMEAL!!
        sigh…..
        but it needed to be done.
        checking out that link now

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      2. I think readers and writers just approached things differently back then and people weren’t used to the TV and film format where a story is told in an hour or two or less. Oatmeal? Love the stuff 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating post! I like a bit of verbiage (great word!) but I like it to be brief – I realise that’s a bit of a contradiction, but while phrases like ‘hogwashing hooligans’ are brilliant alone, they can get a bit exhausting if a book is filled with them. I think it’s a mistake I made with my first book, too many interesting words piled up gets a bit much, they’re far more effective used sparingly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree. A well turned phrase is a joy to read – a writer throwing all the words they know at the page it not. It’s something we learn as we write more, isn’t it? I fear I’m still learning – many times, my alpha reader will tell me to cut something because I’ve laboured a point. I’m not sure Amanda Ros would have worried. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and for joining in with the chat 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A picture painted entirely in shades of purple has little likelihood of kindling ardent admiration in the refined intelligence of a contemporary devotee of discourse.
    Ros still doesn’t topple my front runner for worst novelist in the world. (Solzhenitsyn, in case you were interested)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, lovely 🙂 Solzhenitsyn, is a very interesting choice. I’ve never read his work, but know how well thought of he is. I’ve not read any Russian authors for years – I think Anna Karenina put me off for life! Not sure who’s the worst novelist, but I loathed The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro – no one wants to read a book that makes them feel stupid. Not the worst author though, as I loved some of his other books. Thanks you so much for joining in the conversation, Penny

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was getting ready to write my comment when I came upon this one. I LOATHED Anna Karenina!!! LIke please. Do meet the train and be quick, about it, would you? Buh-bye Anna. Ugh. Male Russian writers are the WORST in over-describing. Do you really need to tell me there are 37 buttons going along the laced with pearl overlay on top of the velvet crushed…. zzzzzz

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      2. Haha! I love that you hated Anna Karenina too! What a tedious, self obsessed woman she is. Perhaps Tolstoy was trying to be sympathetic to women’s place in a patriarchal Russian society, but I found her hard to like, self pitying. I haven’t read many other Russian books – I think I read Crime and Punishment years ago but was put off by the length of War and Peace! Oh, those Russians 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That’s exactly how I felt about her. Add simpering whine-ass. Tolstoy failed. 🤔. And really. Why Anna Karenina? There were two stories. Levin’s love story with Kitty was way more romantic and took up almost half the book.
        I did read Lolita by Nabokov. Then decided Russians in small doses only now and again😉

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      4. Yes, the title is misleading – if Tolstoy really wanted it to be her story, it should finish soon after she dies. Never had the courage to read Lolita- sounds too creepy by half

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks so. “Grand romance of all time…” pffft!

        Lolita was surprisingly good. And short. 😉

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    1. I love her fierceness too, though her self delusion wanders into mania – a Nobel prize? Seriously? Yes, to say her style is out of fashion … Was it ever in fashion? Thanks for reading Helen

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am cracking up at the idea of these distinguished writers sitting around challenging each other to read from her work the longest without laughing! Her writing is convoluted, even for the time, but I agree with you: you have to admire her confidence and moxie!

    Related: before I got into writing, I read a lot more classic books. Now I find that even books from the 1970s and 1980s feel dated to me. So much exposition! So many names of peoples and countries and groups, many of which are never mentioned again! So much description at the beginning of each chapter! So much WEATHER. And such long scenes of unrealistic dialogue. I am learning that my patience is lower now than before, now that I am recognizing the writing “errors”, which are really changes in writing style over time . But then, there’s a good reason why those styles have changed…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes to all that! Soooo much WEATHER. And if you read Dickens or Victor Hugo, so many BUILDINGS. Not sure I need the entire layout of the Paris street network described to me, Victor, just crack on with the Hunchback please 🙂 Funny that Ros being so bad was actually what ensured she was read, that some people at least bought her books. If she’d been middling as a writer, we would never have heard of her. I do like a bit of description though, as you can tell from my own prose – too bald writing leaves me cold. Thanks for the great comment Joy and for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read a lot of fantasy and (fantastical) “historical” fiction, and boy, both of those are terrible about describing the structure of kings and knights and dukes and who rules what and who is whose son and what the various kingdoms are known for, and all of the wars they’ve been in and… Jeesh, folks, I get that you did a lot of research/world-building, but please, just get on with the story!

        And good point about Ros being better known because her work was so bad. A mark in the column for “no such thing as bad publicity.”

        Like

      2. I read a medieval-set novel a good while back and I think the author must have been a scholar too, because the text was filled with passages like ‘they passed under the portcullis, which was a many pronged iron gate that could be lowered to keep out invaders if the castle was under attack.’ Err, thanks for that. If an author needs to use word which will be unfamiliar to modern readers then find a way to subtly show what it means, don’t write a dictionary definition in the middle of your prose! Yes, it’s a tricky balance alright but any details are there to support the story – if it doesn’t further that, then it had no place in the book. Must remind myself of that sometimes!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh, dear. I can’t remember seeing a blatant definition stuck into the narrative like that, but perhaps I’ve seen such a thing and am mentally blocking it. 🙂 This is the perfect example of “show don’t tell”!

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      4. To be fair, I don’t think I’ve seen it as badly done before or since. The writer wasn’t a big name, but I think he did publish a few books. You’d think his editor would have said something, wouldn’t you?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. You, dear Lynn, know exactly just how much description to give 😉
    I am presently reading “The Italian Lover” by Robert Hellenga. Why? Because it takes place in Italy and I discovered it on the cheap table at the bookstore. It’s the story of the making of a movie based on an autobiography. Descriptions unending on stage sets! Taking me forever to read it because I get bored but then go back because I like the main gist of the story.

    Is it me or are men particularly guilty of over-describing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In my experience, women writers can be just as bad as over-describing as men, but there’s a cohort bias — more male writers than female were published in earlier decades, and the problem was MUCH worse in earlier decades.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suspect that’s what it is, Joy. Perhaps it helps that readers have more experiences to draw on now. At one time an author might feel they had to fully describe, say, a Mediterranean beach to people who might not have a clue what that meant. Now through personal experience, film, TV, most readers will already be able to draw a very basic image just from that phrase. Short hand is perhaps easier when your audience has a broader catalogue of images to draw on.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a good point, that we can assume a broader range of knowledge in our readers now. I was reading somewhere (no idea where) that one of the reasons the earliest novels had so much detailed description about foreign, exotic lands was that their readers not only hadn’t been there, but experienced such books like a virtual vacation — which we get with movies and TV now.

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      3. It makes sense to me. If you were a middle class woman, say, whose life revolved around home, family, social calls and you’re only travel was to other respectable family homes, how exciting would these long, descriptive passages seem to you? Escapism indeed

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Good question. Not sure about the gender difference with description – I shall have to look out for it though! I don’t know Robert Hellenga’s novels, but it sounds like he needs a good editor 🙂 Thank you for the kind comment Dale

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      1. Its my mother who pointed it out to me once. She found men writers had a tendency to overdo it on the descriptions…

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      2. Maybe I just avoid those writers. Your mum can’t have read much Elmore Leonard – he’s known for advising very little description of people and places. Not sure he’s entirely right, but there you go

        Liked by 1 person

      3. She probably hasn’t. I’m basically the one who introduces her to stuff other than historical romance! 😉

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      4. I used to gobble them up like candy. However, now they must be spaced a good ten books apart! 😀

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  6. That opening quote had my head spinning before I was even half way through it! Here’s the deal: There is more out there to be read than ever before, yet I have less time for any of it than ever, and even less patience. If it makes my head spin, I move on and don’t look back. I prefer fewer words, but really what’s most important is clarity. Good writing can simplify complicated things, while bad writing can complicate simple ones. And though I appreciate writing that makes me think, I don’t appreciate having to puzzle out writing to make sense of it. As for those verbose chaps of yore like Dickens and Melville and such, my understanding is that they were initially published in serial format in periodicals and were paid by the word. If that’s correct, then it’s understandable that they were motivated to stretch things out. Worked well, I guess, back in the day when there was little else to do, but I wonder what they would produce if they were working today. 🙂

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    1. Such good points, Walt. I agree wholeheartedly. There are times I like to stretch my mind and work a little harder when I read, but still, if the prose is convoluted and therefore confusing and not pleasurable to read, then out the proverbial window that books goes. It’s why I’ve never read Ulysses by James Joyce – reading descriptions of his prose is hard work enough. Reading is primarily entertainment for me and I’m not saying I don’t want to think or learn while I’m being entertained, but it needs to be comprehensible and Ros is confusing almost for the sake of it.
      As you say, clarity is all. Thank you for reading and for the thoughtful comment

      Liked by 1 person

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