Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Last night I did a talk at our monthly literary cabaret, Homework, about bad writing. I thought I’d adapt it for Death Of 1000 Cuts, because it’s on topic and people found it interesting and also then I can get two uses out of one piece of work. Recycling, yo.
The theme of the night was ‘Sitcom’, and my current hilarious situation is that I’ve spent the last few months in a small room, alone, feeling sad.
I’m writing my second novel, and if I do it well enough, I earn the right to stay in that room, alone, for another few years and write a third, then a fourth, then a fifth, and so on, through the numbers – you know them – until I die. And, um, I always wanted to be a writer because I didn’t really know what it would be like, and I find it really difficult and not very enjoyable, but what makes it all worthwhile, the real joy of being a writer, is when someone else, someone you’ve never met, is shit at it.
This is Steven Patrick Morrissey’s debut novel, List Of The Lost.
Before it came out, I wasn’t sure if it would be very good. But then, a lot of novels aren’t very good, celebrity-written or otherwise. It might even be true to say that most novels aren’t very good. It’s a complicated form, and we humans are just these fallible spam golems with a brief window of sentience in which we try to accrue, interpret then spurt out information in a medium that can survive our deaths. It’s not surprising we do novels badly. It’s like trying to wrap an awkward present while piloting a three-foot raft over a waterfall.
Still, even with these considerations in mind, List Of The Lost is special. You’ve probably read some of the reviews by now, and – to be honest – I thought they were likely being mean because Morrissey doesn’t play the game of English self-deprecation, he speaks his mind, and he’s not in awe of the artistic establishment. Then I read it.
This is an extract from early on in the novel, when he’s talking about the four-boy relay team who compromise the central characters.
‘It may be quite true that we unwisely reduce others in order to make them ours, yet here was a foursome to whom no outward event could dent flesh or expression. It should be said that they were indeed contracting parties, since their combined aim was to dispose of every other half-mile relay team across the land, and this they must do, biological chance providing all the damn-straight confirmation they would ever need. It is certainly something to dwell excitedly within a body that fully and proudly shows whatever a person is, since we all, for the most part…’
And it continues in this vein for the entire novel, or rather, novella, because it’s not very long. It’s just, Morrissey has a prose style where a single page feels like rowing through swarfega. For every sentence of action there are several paragraphs of general reflections on the human condition. And as I read, this weird sensation started to come over me. I thought – I’ve read this before.
Something about Morrissey’s prose felt eerily familiar to me:
‘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?’
This is the opening line of Delina Delaney, written at the dawn of the 20th century by Amanda McKittrick Ros who is widely regarded as the worst novelist who ever lived.
A lot has been made of Morrissey’s apparent attempts to ape the high, lyrical literary styles of writers like Joyce, but I think his true influence was Ros.
Amanda McKittrick Ros was born in Drumaness, County Down, on December 8, 1860. She trained as a teacher, but towards the end of the century she began to write, inspired in part by the author Marie Corelli, whose works during the period sold better than the combined efforts of authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and HG Wells. My favourite fact about Corelli is that her novel, The Sorrows of Satan, invented the name ‘Mavis’.
But unlike Corelli, Amanda McKittrick Ros did not sell well. Her books were self-published. But in 1898 a copy of her first, Irene Iddlesleigh, was sent to the humourist Barry Pain, from whom it reached people like Mark Twain, and JRR Tolkien, and CS Lewis, and Aldous Huxley. Twain called Irene Iddlesleigh ‘one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time’. In Oxford, the literary group the Inklings, which comprised people like Tolkien, Lewis and writers like Neville Coghill, would have competitions to see who could read sections of her work for longest without laughing.
Here’s the opening to her first novel:
‘Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn.
Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected. Sympathy can wound the breast of trodden patience,—it hath no rival to insure the feelings we possess, save that of sorrow.’
Much has been made of Morrissey’s apparent attempts to ape the limber, lyrical prose of authors like Nabokov and Joyce, but I think the real tradition he’s writing in, the person he most closely resembles, is Ros.
So, I’ve compiled some points of concordance between the two authors.
MOZ V ROS – A CRITICAL COMPARISON
1. Alliteration, really long sentences and philosophy:
‘Age sets its own terms, with its growing servitude catching that haunted reflection – one of no distinction because your frown now belongs to time. The wide-eyed girls were many, offering their conscious will as the running boys turned into overlords – strangers to the crowd yet well known in its imagination as the erotic reality of the deltoid deities who have no inhibitions in bodies fully occupied and enjoyed. The crowds look on with a lascivious dependency that a knife to the throat would never force them to admit. In servitude is the watcher, asking of the do-er that he assumes all aspects of the watcher’s desire…
Heatedly the four gather daily, minus boos and taboos, free of the prohibitions that dishonour us all should we dare remark upon each other’s physical good fortune (and lucky are those who might be remarked upon).’
‘As the earth revolves on its axis exhibiting its ephemeral revolutions, so families revolve round the world’s wicked wheel, at one time close to its nave, at another climbing down its spokes, and lastly becoming imbedded in its iniquitous axle crushing out their existence forever, thus leaving their offspring to mourn beaten to a shadow like me with the mallet of sorrow and remorse, then death ends the hunt. Such–is–life.’
2. Obsession with bad names:
Morrissey gives all his characters improbable names, then immediately stops to point out how improbable and interesting these names are. Here’s the first two lines:
‘Ezra, Nails, Harri, Justy. You’d dig hard and deep to excavate four names quite so unusual.’
The main character, Ezra, has the full name ‘Ezra Pound’. Which is a clever reference to the poet, ‘Ezra Pound’.
Ros had a similar obsession with linked names. All her protagonists had alliterative names: Helen Huddleson, Irene Iddlesleigh, Delina Delaney, and her work of arch satire against those who had mocked her – Donald Dudley: The Bastard Critic.
In Helen Huddleson, all the main characters are named, completely po-facedly, after fruits: Lord Raspberry, his sister Cherry Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant, the Earl of Grape and Madame Pear. No one in the story notices this.
3. Shoehorning digs at the legal profession into their work:
Morrissey has fought a few court battles in his career, and it’s obviously left him a little disenchanted with the law. Here’s a character in List of the Lost, a hearty American boy of 20, pausing on the verge of death to deliver a disquisition about the state of contemporary jurisprudence:
‘Judges don’t live in the ghetto … they are exclusively verbal beings. What can they understand about the way life moves? … Would judges even recognize dog shit if they saw it? … Judges have to live in secrecy, don’t they, because they’ve done so much harm to society.’
Ros inherited a lime kiln from a neighbour and got into legal wrangles with locals over how she ran it. This led to several lengthy legal battles in which she came to loathe lawyers. She wrote a revenge piece about a lawyer in her poetry collection, Poems Of Puncture – see if you can detect the subtle note of criticism in her choice of name:
‘Readers, did you ever hear
Of Mickey Monkeyface McBlear?
His snout is long with a flattish top,
Lined inside with a slimy crop:
His mouth like a slit in a money box,
Portrays his kindred to a fox.’
4. Bad At Dialogue:
Here’s one of Morrissey’s 20-year-old, hearty, sports-loving American boys, talking, in the 1970s:
‘I suffer greatly in painful silence and I speak to you, now, with servitude whilst also pleading for your understanding. I am alone and I agonize in an exasperated state.’
In Ros’ second novel, Delina Delaney, the heroine’s mother’s dialogue is all rendered phonetically, the better to convey the true living language of the Irish working poor. And when I say ‘phonetically’, I mean, not phonetically at all, just random consonants thrown into the middle of words to make them more or less unpronounceable:
‘Raising her hands above her head, Mrs. Delaney first looked at her daughter, then at Lord Gifford, saying, “Fadther ive saints! is it thrue dthat mac poor choild has tuk lave ive hur sinses buy pramisin’ ta be dthe woife ive our koind an’ good landlady’s son, an’ hur jist dthe offspring ive poor Joe Delaney-a poor old fisherman?”’
So. Time for the late-essay volte face.
I think a lot of Amanda McKittrick Ros’ work was mocked because of snobbery and sexism (two things which I find unacceptable – sorry capitalist patriarchy!). Which isn’t to say it isn’t bad. To pretend her novels are brilliant would just be a different flavour of condescension.
But the Inklings were a group of upper-middle-class men, sneering at a Northern Irish housewife who had dared to attempt to write. Much is made of the fact she was self-published, but the publication of her first novel was a gift from her husband on her tenth wedding anniversary. Which I think is really nice, and not stupid or arrogant at all. He died soon after, and she kept on writing.
She kept on writing even as some of the most high profile authors of the age, Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sassoon and C S Lewis, wrote sarcastic, mocking reviews of her work, inviting the well-read round the country to laugh at the presumption of this woman, who had dared believe she was allowed to write. And actually it’s not as if Lewis and Tolkien aren’t to a certain extent renowned for their propensity towards overblown, sentimental, self-important prose – and I say that as an admirer. But what they were mocking her for is, I think, something that they subconsciously recognised in themselves. That they maybe feared.
British humour and sitcom have this history of revolving around class. One of the most common comic characters in plays, musicals and TV shows, be they Shakespearean, Wodehousean, whatever, is the lower class character with ideas above his or her station. So you have Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, you have the tyrannical housekeeper who bosses people about below stairs, you have the pompous, angry French chef who speaks the language of Proust and knows his way around the wine cellar, and yet is reduced to cutting pastry. You have Captain Mainwaring, a bank manager whose deputy, Wilson, is upper-middle class and so constantly undermines him. You’ve got Basil Fawlty, bowing and scraping to ingratiate himself with guests he perceives as higher class than him, sneering at those he sees as lower, desperately trying to climb the social ladder and always being punished for it. You’ve got Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. You’ve got Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. You’ve got Freddy Frinton’s butler in Dinner For One, which is a sketch shown every New Year in Germany, across Scandinavia and across the old Eastern bloc countries, where this butler has to play the parts of various dead upper-class friends of a rich, elderly widow at an annual dinner, looking, of course, like a buffoon as he does so.
You know, I’d say even with David Brent, part of the joke is class-based – especially in the second series of The Office, where Neil becomes his boss, this clearly higher-class guy, who wears the right fashions, to whom authority comes effortlessly. David struggles to mingle with upper management, who look down on him, and he struggles to bond with the working class men in the warehouse. Brent’s mate Finchy, is a working class guy who we’re invited to mock when he claims to be cultured because he reads ‘a book a week’. Dawn’s boyfriend is implicitly wrong for her because he’s working class – and so makes all sorts of gauche, crass statements – whereas she and Tim are middle-class.
And that, I think, was the big joke with Amanda McKittrick Ros. She didn’t apologise for not having a PhD like Tolkien or Neville Coghill. She didn’t humbly present her work as the little folly of a scribbling housewife but frankly, as the thing she felt she had been called in her heart to do. She acted ‘above her station’. And she worked hard. All that alliteration, all those extended metaphors – those are her attempts to saturate every line with quality, with richness, with value to the reader.
And, in a sense, it absolutely works. Her lines are memorable, even as a lot of them are incomprehensible and a bit silly.
And to bring it back to Morrissey, that’s what I think’s going on with his novel. I don’t think he’s got all those sinuating, complicated sentences because he’s arrogant. I genuinely think he’s trying to give value to the reader. He’s working hard to make every single line memorable and interesting, to make it original and resonant and to give it a sonorous kick.
And he fails. Completely fails. It doesn’t work. The effect is like being cornered by a pissed Treguard out of Knightmare, who starts going ‘Come, adventurer, step into my dank dungeons of doom and despair…’ for six hours but never actually lets you start your quest.
But I think he tried his best. And contemporary literature certainly has its fair share of anaemic, ‘readable’ book club picks which risk and challenge not at all.
Far more laudable, I think, to fail so explosively, in the pursuit of giving readers a genuinely amazing experience, than to trot out more of the same, piss-weak blandishments because you know they will sell.
I find writing really hard and I know that doesn’t illicit much sympathy because, seriously Tim, your life could be much worse, but I do recognise the desire to mock a writer with ambition, who publicly, spectacularly fails. Because in the writing of Morrissey and Ros, I recognise myself. I recognise mistakes I’ve made, and I recognise that desire to do something big and interesting and sweet and rich and memorable. And it’s scary admitting that to yourself, because you know you’re probably not up to the task. That the beautiful butterflies flitting around your head will probably die beneath the killing jar of your own incompetence.
That people will see you’re trying your best, and laugh.
Full text of her first novel, Irene Iddlesleigh
My first novel, The Honours – please support my career by buying a copy!