The Absolute Worst
It is only human nature to exult in the missteps of others—I’m not proud of it, but there it is. As a writer, I am challenged regularly by my exposure to stellar prose, beautifully written, evocative and moving. Often my tears will flow as I think, ‘Darn it! Why can’t I write this way?” This is true whether it’s a profoundly emotional essay in The Atlantic, or a comic tour-de-force in McSweeney’s. There is a gold standard of writing, against which my stuff is just dross (look it up. It’s not great).
But after a steady diet of reading the works of much better writers, my soul longs… for the opposite. I want to read complete junk! Sentences so garbled as to be meaningless! Tortured syntax, abysmal grammar, the works! After slogging through a few of these “treasures,” my ego is resuscitated and I can go on. For the world contains infinitely worse writers than myself! Hooray! I have a chance!
There is an annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest for the most ludicrously ill-conceived opening sentence of the year. For those wondering, Edward Bulwer-Lytton penned the immortal “It was a dark and stormy night” run-on sentence that became the cliché’s cliché. Every year I peruse the finalists’ entries, amazed at how many different ways nouns and verbs can go wrong.
Here is the recipient of last year’s top prize, written (tongue in cheek to be sure) by Sue Fondrie: "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." Ouch! Another gem from a few years back was penned by Rob Greer: “Contrary to popular opinion, Jehoshaphat—the 9th-century (BCE) king of Judah who reigned for twenty-five mostly peaceful years yet is best known for his defeat of the Moabites at Elin Gedi in 849 BCE—rarely jumped.” The Bible study leader in me enjoyed that one.
What terrifies me, reading these, is that I think I could probably do pretty well in this competition. It is sooooo much easier to write garbage than the good stuff. Just like it’s infinitely easier to be an intentionally bad singer or painter, or actor, than the real deal. In these cases, one can be hip and ironic (I MEANT to stink, get it?) and thus protect oneself from criticism.
I’ve read a few books lately that have been huge hits, but that I shake my head over. What is it about the bandwagon for these turkeys that is so enticing to climb on? I look back over my modest four-book oeuvre and, while clearly nothing has cracked the NYT bestseller list, I’m not ashamed of my output. The grammar and syntax are in place, and there are moments where I truly believe I connect emotionally with my readers.
I write a lot of comedy these days, and straddle the line between sincerity and farce. May I always know the difference, and never lead my faithful readers astray.