Schadenfreude Alert! Inside a Collection of Wretched Writing

"You got further plucking the chicken in front of you than trying to start on one up a tree. Especially when the tree was in another country, and there might not even be another chicken"

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Don Bayley

Ross and Kathy Petras spend their days neck-deep in unfortunate words. The brother-sister team behind a new collection of “crimes against the English language”–called Wretched Writing (Perigree; 224 pages)have also compiled very bad poetry and countless anthologies of “stupidest” quotations. If you’re in need of a new back-of-the-toilet book, their latest pièce de putridity just might be for you. NewsFeed spoke to the authors about how they decided what was truly wretched, where they managed to dig it up and why readers should endure the woeful work, too.

Filed under: celebrity poets

“I draw a hot sorrow bath in my despair room.”

– Keanu Reeves, Ode to Happiness (2011)

In fairness to aspiring authors, all the entries have been published, and the Petras duo tried to find examples of terrible text crafted by well-known people where they could—to drive home the point that we all let the pen get away from us now and again, even those capable of stopping runaway buses. So what other qualifications must wretched entries have? “It’s sort of like pornography: you know it when you see it,” Ross says. “A wretched writer is bolder and more intrepid than an average writer, more freely sprinkling out bad syntax, commas, weird words, unacceptable imagery.” Kathryn adds that there’s one other important quality: “a blithe lack of self-consciousness.”

Filed under: adjectives, excessive use of

“The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. There were completely unfamiliar. There appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. Here was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic.”

– Lionel Fanthorpe, Galaxy 666 (1968)

To research the book, the Petras’ combed their previous collections of the cringe-inspiring and surveyed authors they consider infamous for poor prose, like English writer Lionel Fanthorpe. Then they moved through genres where writing is often second to plot construction. “We started off with romance novels. Then there’s science fiction and fantasy, where you get to be excessively creative because you’re writing about something that isn’t real,” Kathryn says. “Our problem, literally, was culling it down … There’s a very loamy soil of wretchedness out there. ” A few of their sources are awfully low-hanging fruit (no one expects government documents or brochures from Chinese hotels to contain exquisite prose), but even then, one has to give them some credit for actually reading through all that material.

Filed under: constructions, confusing

“He was not as old in appearance as his age might have made him appear.”

– Gordon R. Dickson, Soldier, Ask Not (1967)

Some writers, like those from Victorian times, aren’t around to see their writing included in this ignominious book. But others, like Twilight‘s Stephenie Meyer and Newt Gingrich, certainly are. At its core, they say, the collection is meant to be funny in a so-bad-it’s-good way. And they’re not the only ones into this kind of thing. Since 1982, the English Department at San Jose State University, for instance, has been hosting a contest for the worst unpublished opening sentences “wretched writers” can possibly pen. (This year’s winner included the phrase “a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle.”)

“On a very trite level, it can make you feel great,” Kathryn says of terrible writing. “But we both love words. You can’t do something like this if you don’t love good writing, too. It’s the difference between having a steak dinner and having, you know, chips and dip.”

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, “A History of Sl#tb*g,” click here.