The Bard of Bad Writing

Last night, in my perusal of literary news, I stumbled across an article on The Guardian website, Is this a pint I see before me? The title, of course, is an allusion to one of the more famous lines from Macbeth (replace “pint” with “dagger”), and has to do with the fact that sometimes Shakespeare wrote some crap:

“Crap lines can be found in even the most revered places. When, for example, pondering whether to be or not to be, Hamlet fantasises about “taking arms against a sea of troubles”, what does Shakespeare expect us to see in our mind’s eye? Some mad idiot firing a blunderbuss into the waves from the end of Brighton pier?”

Indeed. They write that like that’s not what I’m supposed to see. Pfft.

Now, it’s so easy to argue that Shakespeare is the most-revered writer in the entire history of English letters that there’s no point in even arguing it, and as such, I suppose it stands to reason that there are people in the world who think that every word the hallowed William S. wrote is 24-karat gold perfection. Yet it seems to me that pointing out the fact that out of the thousands of lines Shakespeare churned out over his career, not every one of them was shiny genius doesn’t really seem like all that much of a revelation. (Nevermind the fact that when the article says “Following Dromgoole and Hall’s allegations, ‘Crap Shakespeare’ will probably be a fashionable parlour game over the next few weeks,” I’m glad I don’t have to party with any of those people.)

Did Shakespeare do his bad writing on mornings when he was hungover? That’s the hypothesis. Unfortunately, The Bard didn’t have a page on MySpace complete with a blog containing posts like “I got so wasted last night after play practice, and my hangover doth rage mightily. Duuuuuuude,” so we’ll never know for sure. But if the supposedly bad writing was the result of hangovers or if it’s simply probability at work, the truth is that even though we tend to put writers we admire on pedestals, everybody’s entitled to write dreck once in awhile. Hungover or not, everyone has an off day now and then.

Shakespeare often gets all of the attention, but certainly there are other writers out there who have penned less than stellar work, even despite a general reputation for being good. So, in the interest of fairness — let’s not let Shakespeare get all the credit — can you think of any works by generally well-respected writers that weren’t that great? Perhaps a passage or two in a novel (or maybe the whole novel itself) or a poem that just doesn’t work? I’m not talking about overrated writers, since we’ve pretty much covered that topic already, but good writers who just happened to have dropped the ball once or twice.

9 Responses

  1. John UpdikeJamelah, the first
    John Updike

    Jamelah, the first example that comes to mind for me is John Updike. At his best — “Couples”, “Marry Me”, “Gertrude and Claudius”, the Maples Stories, the Bech novels — he is beyond parallel. But he has a habit of experimenting with ethnic voices and exotic settings that almost always backfires on him. The most famous example is his novel “Brazil”, in which a young native South American male narrator keeps referring to his personal anatomy as his “yam”. To quite laughable effect.

    I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard his latest novel “Terrorist” is another example of this fatal flaw. Interestingly, I think he does fine writing in the voice of a female (“Gertrude”) or as a Judaic-American (“Bech: A Book”). He should just stay away from Brazil and yams.

  2. Burroughs in
    Burroughs in Tangier

    Burroughs: Gysin! This stuff I just wrote is crap. I need a fix! (ed. note – this would be a literary as well as a more substance-specific remedy)

    (Brion) Gysin: Let me see that. (Takes paper from Burroughs’ typewriter.) Hmm… (Takes scissors from desk drawer. Cuts up Burroughs’ text, changes the order of the words, pastes them back in a new sequence.) Here — how’s this?

    Burroughs: Hmm… Not bad. Not bad at all.

  3. in generalI find that most
    in general

    I find that most “classics” are not as profound as I expected them to be, but I can’t think of a particular author who has disappointed me.

    I remember vaguely that in one of the Hunter S. Thompson books, he seemed to be trying too hard, but I can’t remember which one. Something about sticking his arm into a freezer full of ice to make his pulse slow down to freak out some kids. That may have been my mood and no fault of Thompson’s.

  4. bukBukowski wrote lots of

    Bukowski wrote lots of ‘crap’. Meaning had no meaning outside itself. He simply created things to stand on their own two feet. The end.

    His epitaph in L.A. reads: ‘don’t try’.

  5. MoiI suck.I can understand

    I suck.

    I can understand the suck part of it. I can certainly understand the confrontation with the blank page. What I do NOT get though is when readers and, god knows, Other Writers (don’t get me off on bloggers) want to focus on the writer’s life who sucks.

    — Oh, his life sucked, and he especially sucked personally because he-or-she was so fucked up he just sucked so we can thusly surmise this is why the work sucked, and beyond that the guy was immoral and had a truly perverted sex life. —

    I don’t get it.

    Most writing sucks. I have no idea why.

    What is curious (to me) is the mindset we don’t say: Oh, this just sucks. And then move on.

    It’s the not moving on part I find absolutely unfathomable.

    Who CARES. It’s a piece of writing.

    There is so much focus in the consumption of literature on WHY writing sucks (I know, it’s just me) that it’s quite breathtaking.

    I don’t get the role of the critic either.

    I’m not saying there is not a role to play. I’m saying I don’t get it.

    It sucks or it doesn’t suck.

    I know. I know. Writing is a life and death proposition.

    It’s serious.

    I have actually been putting a lot of thought to this.

    I feel strongly that it’s this grim thing we have about the act of someone else’s writing that has made the act of publishing utterly joyless.

    I know. I know. It’s just me. That being said…

    Ever go to one of those “publishing events” where a book is launched.

    These are truly awful affairs.

    A lot of writers, a lot of people who want to be writers, and a lot of alcohol.

    Horrible idea. I can just see the publicist who dreamt it up.

    No one celebrates a book coming out. We are all ready to pounce on it and kick it.

    Having a book come out is not unlike waking up from major surgery. It hurts and someone has stuck a tube in your yam and you’re ready for the bad news.

    Well, it always comes.

    “I’m sorry, Mr. Yam, but your book sucks, and you are going to die.”

    That’s the fun part.

    The not fun part has to do with dealing with the people in publishing. I am constantly being kicked for screaming about publishing but I present no serious analysis as to why I think it sucks.

    I have pondered this.

    You won’t like it but here it is.

    I honestly believe that publishing is evil. There’s my analysis.

    The people in it are not just joyless, they’re evil.

    I think about concepts like good and evil a lot.

    And have arrived at the conclusion that the problem with writing (that sucks) has to do with joylessness.

    There is no joy in it.

    It’s picked to death at every bump in the road. And then the writer’s life and who he sleeps with and how much she drinks and how her Aunt Sylvia put her head in an oven and how his Auntie Virginia filled her pocket with stones and threw herself into the River Ouse is rehashed for the next twenty million years. And, oh, yes, the drugs they took.

    Writing is joyless. Publishing is evil. The people in it are demons and monsters and devils and trolls and aliens from the planet Grimtoid.

    I never kid. I mean it.

    Being around these people is like having a root canal.

    Writing itself is affected because you’re writing (the notion that writers write for readers is absurd) for people in publishing who are evil. Period.

    I suck. And it’s all their fault.

    But who I sleep with, what drugs I take, who I served in the Army with in 1907, the kind of underwear I wear (I don’t wear underwear), who my ex-wife was, what stupid town I live in (they always make you live in a town like if we kiss the reader’s ass hard enough), who I’ve been reading, what school I went to, what I said on the Internet in 1865, is stupid and ephemeral and irrelevant.

    What is germane.

    Publishing is evil and the people in it are evil is germane.

    Chew on something BIG.

    Personally, I think Virginia Woolf had it dead on.

    Stones, pockets, and to the river.

  6. Oh, man, you kill me.”Having
    Oh, man, you kill me.

    “Having a book come out is not unlike waking up from major surgery. It hurts and someone has stuck a tube in your yam and you’re ready for the bad news.”

    I know you aren’t necessarily trying to be funny, but I laugh because it’s true. At least, to some extent.

    If, in fact, the love of money is the root of all evil, then it follows that writing for money carries a potential risk – the horned flaming skull of damnation searing thru the page and into our soul!

    On the other hand, I don’t make much money from writing. I believe you and I write because we feel compelled to, whether or not we make much money at it. Either way, we both will die someday. And so will the critics; let them deal with that flat characterization.

    One thing I do believe in: I only write reviews of books that I like. The way I look at it, someone put a lot of work into their book, and just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean other people won’t. Let someone who likes it write a review. If nobody likes it enough to review it, well…that speaks for itself.

    I always like reading the things you post here, Nasdijj. Keep the stones out of your pockets.

  7. all of them…there’s no such
    all of them…

    there’s no such thing as the perfect book. It’s all subjective anyway. Hell, Hemingway blew his brains out, I believe, because he came to the realiztion of it and was tired of searching. That being said, Town and the City was a letdown for me, everything but Kaddish and Howl by Ginsberg, everything other than Junky by Burroughs. Even the greats only hit periods where their voices are flawless AND they have something to say. Sooner or later they just keep writing with nothing new to add.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!