Sunday, July 06, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #186: Wretched Writing by Ross and Kathryn Petras

There have been plenty of books about bad writing in the past, but they've tended to focus on specific genres -- Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman scoured the SF and Fantasy fields to compile Ghastly Beyond Belief, Bill Pronzini did similar work in the mystery field with Gun in Cheek and its sequels, and poetry got its due with The Stuffed Owl by D.B. Wyndham-Lewis and Charles Lee. But bad writing cannot be confined to any particular area: it spreads, like a fungus, over all available surfaces until some part of this metaphor I haven't completely thought through scours it like bleach to leave the literary world clean and slightly smelling of pine.

Wretched Writing -- compiled by the brother-and-sister team of Ross and Kathryn Petras, most famous for their 365 Stupidest Things Ever Said empire -- means to steamroll over the bad writing of all genres, anatomize it all, and eliminate it entirely. Well, not that last part -- the Petrases aren't that naive. They know bad writing can never be eliminated -- only mocked mercilessly in hopes that it will slink back into its hole and avoid the light for a while. (Though they don't mention that among the worst offenders are some extremely popular writers -- Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer both come in for multiple hits here -- so being bad can sometimes be extremely lucrative.)

The book is arranged alphabetically into headings, from "adjectives, excessive use of" all the way to "zoological sexual encounters, politician-writers and," with dozens of stops along the way, each of them illustrated with at least one choice quotation. (And, yes, that last heading is very specific -- but the Petrases have five quotes to back it up, so it may be frighteningly more common than expected.) There is a lot of bad writing here, from misplaced modifiers to badly chosen comparisons to words used entirely incorrectly to simple massive incompetence. Nearly all of it is highly entertaining and delightful when put into context by the Petrases.

(The few bits that aren't are cases where the original clearly works in context -- generally in a specifically genre context, as the Petrases in particular have no ear for the flashing slip-sticks side of SF, for one example -- and so the Petrases are mostly showing that they don't understand what it's trying to do. But those are rare.)

This book is inevitably somewhat elitist: a reader have to be able to perceive bad writing and differentiate it from good writing to enjoy it. But elitism based on learning and discernment is really the only acceptable form of elitism to begin with, so that's just a limitation of the audience, not a criticism of the book. Wretched Writing is very funny, in itself and in the hundreds of horrible nuggets of abominable writing that it dredges up, and it serves as an important cautionary example to all of us who string words together in public.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment