Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How NOT to write

Amanda McKittrick Ros
It’s a common sight nowadays in bookshops – guides on how to do something: how to dress up, how to organise parties, how to manage time, and of course, how to be the perfect parent or spouse or friend or whatever.

Seldom, however, do we get ever get a guide telling us how NOT to do something – for instance, in using a hairdresser, it is probably NOT a good idea to use it in the bathtub. But, after all, doesn’t a good guide pretty much tell us how to do something as how NOT to? I, for one, find this latter type of guides more useful: and nowhere is it more useful for me than in how to write good, proper English.

The best guides tell us to be clear, original, simple, and to use an economical style, when writing. They point us to literary giants – from Shakespeare to Grisham – when “guiding” us. They explain to us the cardinal sin of every aspiring writer – the tendency to (over)use clichés. Never, however, have they pointed us to a writer whose skill was so atrocious, whose prose so horrible, that they deserve the title “How NOT to write AT ALL”.

That writer is Amanda McKittrick Ros.

Before I begin, however, perhaps I better show you a sample of her “skill”. This passage is taken from her second novel, Delina Delaney

“She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her father’s slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp clout to faultless fabrics of flaxen firmness.”

If you’re like me, chances are that you are completely lost. How does one possibly keep oneself a “stranger” to an income, however slight? How does steel “produce” anything? And what on earth could “faultless fabrics of flaxen firmness” possibly mean? The answers to all this reveal much about the person who wrote them down.

Amanda McKittrick Ros was born in Ireland on December 8, 1860. She was a teacher, at a Training College, and a slightly snobbish eccentric (she cut out one “s” from her original surname, Ross, to match it with the name of an aristocratic family). Her first attempt at fiction was published in 1897, as a wedding present by her husband Andrew, who was a station master at the time.

This was Irene Iddesleigh.

If ever a book created ripples for its atrocious prose, then Irene Iddesleigh could well have caused a tsunami. It was in this that she fully revealed her “skillful talents”. She immediately showed us both her biggest strength and weakness – her prose, which was quite hazy, and at times too vague, to understand.

There are passages from the book – which remains her only to be in print today – which can give one headaches at times. What other writer, after all, could come up with a more incomparable synonym for panties than “southern necessities”? I dread to find out why panties can be “necessities”, or why they should be “southern”, of all directions!

Critics were harsh at the time. A satirist called Barry Pain mercilessly called Irene the “book of the century”, and wrote that he “shrank before it in tears and terror”. But bad reviews had as much effect on her as a beating would on a stubborn child. They just provoked her to write even more.

She followed Irene with Delina Delaney in 1898, and Helen Huddleston in 1969 (published posthumously). In between her novels she wrote Poems of Puncture and Fumes of Formation, two poetry collections. And with all those who would think her poetry any better than her prose...

Holy Moses! Take a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer.

... I beg to differ.

By now you would have guessed, even looking at the titles of her books, her one key specialty – obsession with alliteration and colourful prose. Remember “faultless fabrics of flaxen firmness”? Well apparently she was referring to cloth. Ros was quite incapable of describing something in its simplest way. One of the most useful tips reporters get is that they should present a story in its most bare, essential form. No wonder some of the simplest (and greatest) writers – Hemingway included – were once reporters.

If anything, however, Ros’ writing solidified her career. Besides Irene Iddesleigh, her other books, which are now out of print, can fetch up to $850 today: compare that with the paltry prices which a Dickens or Shakespeare is sold for today! Her stories, which were originally presented as tragedies, were read as slapstick comedies. After all, how can anyone take a husband seriously when he addresses his wife so?

"Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!"

Small wonder there are competitions, organised around the world, to see which person can read these passages the longest without laughing or smiling. Your writing would have to be of a “special kind of Bad” to achieve such a feat. And hers was nothing but.

Her literary outputs are doubtless the best guides out there on how NOT to write in English – or for that matter in any language.

Ros died in 1939, but it is safe to say her reputation as the “World’s Worst Writer” is here to stay. Perhaps I should end this with what she thought of her own career – “I expect that I will be talked about at the end of a thousand years”. Well, it has been more than 70 years since she died, and we are still talking about her. Maybe Mrs. Ros could have done a better job as a fortune teller.

I’m just saying.