It could be said that brother and sister team Ross and Kathryn Petras are scholars of stupidity. Their Stupidest series is a chronicle of idiocy. In Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language, the duo turn their attention to literary horrors, from unwieldy sentences to brazen homophonilia, the flip-flop of words. PW had the opportunity to talk to the siblings about the archaeology of bad writing.
Did you start with examples of bad writing or with themes of bad writing?
We started with examples—and then, in reading them, began to wonder, what is it specifically here that makes this writing so wretched? That led to classifications of wretched writing (everything from the expected “purple prose” to the more unusual “peripatetic body parts and bodily fluids”).
Was there one passage that set you on this path?
One passage? Make it dozens! We collect malapropisms, stupid quotes, and the like for our "Stupidest" calendar and book series, and along the way we’ve come across many, many examples of bad prose, such as this gem from the Badische Press: “I’s very happy,” said Olga in perfect English.” Almost a haiku of bad prose. What could we do but propose an entire book?
What's your favorite example of bad writing?
It’s hard to pin down, but we have to tip our hats to Lionel Fanthorpe -- a (happily for us) prolific science fiction writer who is a motherlode of wretchedness. Who else could take lengthy paragraph to describe a rock as gray, concluding that it was “neither black nor white, but something between the two”? Or expound on blackness so eloquently: “Everywhere was dark, dark darkness. Blackness. Black. Black blackness.”
We also love (in a negative way …) this truly amazing (for all the wrong reasons) opening line from Amanda McKittrick Ros’s novel Delina Delaney:
Have you ever visited that portion of Erin's plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?
How did you find all the examples?
This was a rather easy task. We had our favorite wretched writers in mind when we began -- Fanthorpe and McKittrick Ros, as above, and the famously terrible detective novel writer Harry S. Keeler (creator of the Flying Strangler-Baby), among others.
Our editor forced us to limit examples from these writers in our book to give other authors a fighting chance. We also pulled examples for a number of other famous names in what we call the Hallowed (or Hollowed) Halls of Wretched Writing and we read their best worst works. We asked friends and readers to give us examples they came across as well. As we mention in the preface, there are a number of websites that sometimes include awful examples of writing—we used some of their finds as well.
What's the most common error writers make?
Trying to sound smart and ever-so-intellectual and instead sounding the opposite. So in their zeal to sound erudite, many writers either mangle the rules of grammar because they don’t know them or they toss large words and complicated syntax into their writing. They are committed to the one important rule that so many wretched writers follow -- more is always better.
How many Americans are currently struggling with homophonilia? Is there a cure or at least hope for them?
We can’t give you an exact number, but we are sure it affects a large percentage of the population. As with the “I use I because it sounds smarter than me” people, these homophonilia sufferers usually fall victim to the disease due to a desire to strut their intellectual stuff. The cure? Calm down! Don’t try to impress everyone with using words you’re not sure about! Take it easy! Have a drink! Of course, you can also just hope that no one knows you’re wrong…something that we fear is becoming more and more common.