In Search of the World's Worst Writers
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Thursday, November 15 2001, 11:45 AM
James Grainger was one of the most insensitive of poets, of the eighteenth century or any other. Once, while preoccupied with readings in Caribbean literature, I took a teacher's suggestion and read Grainger's awful four-book epic poem of Caribbean plantation agriculture, The Sugar Cane. What was of interest was not just how many interminable stanzas Grainger could crank out on crop fertilization and sugar milling technique, but how he worked African genocide into verse about the proper management of slave labor.
Among British planters, the saying was "Sugar is made of blood." An average African slave died after five or six years of brutal field labor. Whereas other minor British colonial poets of the Caribbean either looked away from this sight as unfit for verse or romanticized selective images, Grainger plowed -- literally and poetically -- straight through post-debarkation realities of the Middle Passage and saw nothing but sugar as product, not human degradation and the economy of death that lifted British fortunes. The Sugar Cane stands as a monument of racist blindness in English literature.
No surprise, then, to find Grainger among authors listed in In Search of the World's Worst Writers. Nick Page has done signal service by reading through mounds of undeserving crap deserving memorialization for their awfulness. The book is an amusing read and Page maintains a good sense of humor in his dog-work. He chooses to describe and cite selectively, rather than undertake the unappealing job of straight anthologizing. This is a humorous guide through the sewers of English and American literature, with the odd non-anglophone tossed in for multiculturalism. Wisely, Page avoids living authors, not only for the sake of libel and publishability, but "mainly for fear that I myself would suddenly become eligible."
These triumphantly bad writers have a decided attraction to the material, since they make such a hash of the abstract. Collectively they offer a warning against taking too seriously the standard advice to write about what you know. Grainger the agriculturalist finds company on the other side of the Atlantic with writers like Solyman Brown, a Connecticut dental surgeon who found time to extract a comparatively short fifty-four page long poem entitled 'The Dentologia - A Poem on Diseases of the Teeth'. An American response to The Mill on the Floss, as it were. And then there's Grainger's fellow Scottish emigre, James McIntyre, the nineteenth-century Canadian poet of cheese whose odes stunk like Limberger. McIntyre devoted himself to his cheesy theme incessantly, with offerings like 'Prophecy of a Ten Ton Cheese', 'Hints of Cheese Makers', and 'Oxford Cheese Ode' from which latter the immortal lines ---
To us it is a glorious theme
To sing of milk and curds and cream,
Were it collected it could float
On its bosom, a small boat...
Joining this pantheon is the likes of Nancy Luce, the 'Chicken Poet' of Martha's Vineyard, who devoted herself to her hens and free range verse. She sold fowl poetry at her front gate, where Victorian tourists could also purchase eggs, each inscribed with the particular mother-hen's name and date the egg had been laid.
Although there are a few English aristocrats included in this collection, many of the writers included are working people for whom the advent of mass literacy proved more than their limited skills could bear. That's one of the traps of a quasi-anthology such as this, for, even rightly laughing, Page never gets around to sympathetic identification of the effects of poor education and class frustrations. Tasteful literature is built atop pointing out alleged lack of taste and degraded aesthetics. 'Good taste' is the privilege of social cruelty. When nineteenth-century Lowell factory girls, like Lucy Larcom, wrote an admixture of insightful and tin-ear verse in the few hours they snatched from their machine looms, should we jeer at their sentimentalism compared to the streamlined twentieth-century modernism of Amy Lowell, inheritor of a fortune that emerged from mill ownership?
Too, a writing environment creates its own demand for pap from good writers. Langston Hughes was one of the best twentieth-century American poets and a terribly bad poet at the same time. Not even those who adore Hughes work, like myself, will waste time defending the knock-off crap he also wrote. Hughes was the first black man in the United States to make a full living as a professional writer, and he wrote plenty of bad verse to support himself at two dollars a poem.
'Bad' writing can be the effect of a bad society, and 'good' writing an implicit condemnation of the social world that produced authorial elegance and grace.
Perhaps Page's quasi-comic critical aloofness assumed while judging writing without social context is part of the problem that leads to him including Nicolai Chernyshevsky's 1864 novel What Is To Be Done?. The novel had an enormous impact on Russian society, was widely read in translation outside Russia, and inspired Lenin's polemic of the same name. Clearly, there was sufficient power of conviction in Chernyshevsky's narrative, although he was a radical political philosopher writing his only novel, to persuade readers that social change was vital. Page's research also goes sour here, for although he assures readers that the novel's prose was so turgid that only the 1883 Tucker translation exists, in fact at least four new English translations appeared during the 1980s, including one mass market edition by Virago. Feminists re-discovered Chernyshevsky's advocacy of gender role equality as early as Kate Millet thirty years ago.
Shifting taste is the most constant determinant of what makes writing either 'good' or 'bad'. Small wonder, then, that the vast majority of Page's selections are nineteenth-century writers, since so many of us have consigned that century to the loathsomeness of pre-modernism. Rejection of the nineteenth-century was the foundation stone of modernism, although Dave Eggers is doing a wonderful job of re-making Victorian prose into postmodern fashion. Since the nineteenth century had no special claim on bad writing, especially as it never produced a software manual, the period bias of the choices speaks to a general and not-too-thoughtful prejudice.
There is a smile in learning of Keith Odo Newman's 1944 book The 250 Times I Saw a Play, a book on precisely that experience by the author watching a never-named play, yet we remain unsatisfied at the end of this anthology of botches. Page tries some brief lists of qualities that might help identify 'bad writing' but gives up the question as a poor job: it's all personal taste, he suggests, a true but trivial observation. Relativism be damned: bad writing does exist. One friend told me that after years of resisting the idea of 'bad writing', a Mickey Spillane novel where the author couldn't even keep his characters straight finally moved him to this realization.
What moves me is 'When the Frost is on the Punkin' by James Whitmore Riley, the Hoosier poet whom Page includes as a single-star bad writer. The best that American writing has to offer has all been called 'bad', either when it was written or today, without exception. So choose your own badness.
Me, I'll hoist my McGuffey's high to recite 'When the Frost is on the Punkin'.
In Search of the World's Worst Writers is available from Harper Collins