Miles Kington: Wooden characters, thin plots and other horror stories

'She was as dead as a stuffed mongoose. I don't like dames to be rubbed out when I'm flinging woo at them'
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The Independent Online

I once wrote a story about cricket in Hemingway style (just for the title, really - "For Whom The Bail Falls") but I don't think people do Hemingway parodies anymore. I didn't think anyone did Raymond Chandler parodies anymore either, so I was surprised to find definite overtones of the Chandler school of toughness in the top entry in this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. (This is a contest organised by San Jose University in which entrants have to provide a hilariously bad opening to an imaginary novel.) Care to try a bit? Here we go:

"Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean."

Well, that's not a bit. That's all of it. That's the entire winning entry. I was a bit taken aback, partly because it's not hilarious, partly because I wasn't at all sure what a burrito was, and partly because it's not that bad and not that good. Mediocre, but not bad.

Certainly not as bad as the genuine pre-war crime fiction which S J Perelman used to dig out of pulp magazines such as Spicy Detective and hold up gingerly for the reader's inspection. I'm thinking of pieces like "Somewhere a Roscoe...", in which Perelman quoted a sample from the July 1938 issue:

"From the doorway a roscoe said 'Kachow!' and a slug creased the side of my noggin. Neon lights exploded inside my think-tank ... She was as dead as a stuffed mongoose ... I wasn't badly hurt. But I don't like to be shot at. I don't like dames to be rubbed out when I'm flinging woo at them."

Now THAT'S bad.

Actually, it is easy to write badly over a short period. It takes a special sort of talent to maintain badness throughout a whole book. Many years ago, I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book edited by Brian Redhead (The Anti-Book List) in which we were all asked to pour scorn on one writer or book we hated, and I chose a children's book by Lady Antonia Fraser. It was a retelling of Arthurian stories, and a very bad retelling, too. I knew it was bad because I had been reading it to my own children, and the whole style was so convoluted and fake-medieval that I had had to rephrase almost every sentence as I read it out. (I can remember to this day that one of the characters stood "legs akimbo". Sorry, lady, but only arms can be akimbo.)

Now, Fraser is not a bad writer, and I think looking back that she had simply settled on the wrong narrative style, which was too ye olde worlde and touristy to work. It certainly was not as bad as a book I bought for the train the other day, a new detective story set in Victorian times, and which was so bad on so many levels that I still sweat at the thought of it.

The characters were wooden; the dialogue was made of cheap DIY phrases; the research was indigestible; the baddies and goodies were so emphasised that they might have been wearing lapel badges marked Baddy and Goody ... at any rate, after waiting for 80 pages for the thing to steady itself and get going, I suddenly realised it was never going to get any better, and I could give up.

That's a lovely feeling. It's like being in a theatre interval, after suffering a horrendous first act, and knowing you can leave the theatre now. It's like loudly walking out of a film. It's like instinctively walking out of a restaurant BEFORE you have ordered...

The upshot being that I took great pleasure in stuffing that book in a litter bin. Normally I hate doing any damage to books, and find it hard to part with a book even if I am not going to read it again, but this one was so bad that I even smeared mayonnaise from my sandwich on it to make sure that no one else would want to read it...

Yes, there is a pleasure to be got from bad writing which Proust himself could never begin to supply.

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