Commentary, Criticism, Snark

THE WORST SENTENCE EVER PUBLISHED – A Special Rotting Post Competition

worst sentences

A make-believe reader recently sent in the following make-believe query:

Dear Rotting Post Guy,
You seem to know a lot about bad writing.  What’s the worst sentence ever written?
Sincerely,
Heironymus T. Spamfilter

P.S.  You seem really smart.

Dear Mr. Spamfilter,

We must say, you do appear to be a perceptive reader.   We’re glad you asked this question.   Is it not the role of important literary critics like ourselves to help the public with our keener discernment?    To help separate the merely mediocre from the truly horrible?

Of course there are many excellent candidates for worst sentence ever, as any reader of “Great House” by Nicole Krauss surely knows.  Yet what is the very worst?   Through tireless minutes of painstaking research, we have narrowed the field to three choices we are nominating for this coveted prize – and letting you, the reader, decide!

Our quest begins, as it must, with “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the spectacularly successfully erotic romance series by EL James.   Here is the first nominee:

  • “Now I know what all the fuss is about. Two orgasms – coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow.”

Okay, we get that way about washing machines too.  Whenever they hit the spin cycle we’re like, “Yes! Don’t Stop! Yes!”  We also would note the sentence structure is quite interesting, wow.   And that washing machines generally don’t come apart at the seams.   Even when they orgasm .

We could say more about this series, but much has already been written about it, and our Inner Goddess is telling us to move on.

Our next selection is from – yes, you guessed it, “Great House” by author Nicole Krauss.   This book was nominated for the National Book Award in 2010, presumably because (a) nobody on the nominating committee had read it, and (b) she had already been declared “one of America’s most important writers” by the New York Times, and (c) she was married to Jonathan Safran Foer, star student of Joyce Carol Oates,  wunderkind, and the New York literary world’s mad crush.

Here is a sampling from “Great House”, just to give you the flavor (and no, this is not the nominated sentence, and yes, this really is exactly how it reads):  “But once the light had gone on (Aha! Of course! Sorry! It’s all waiting right here for you) his voice softened and became louder at the same time, giving way to an expansiveness I came to associate with Daniel Varsky and, by extension, anyone who hails from that dagger pointing at the heart of Antartica, as Kissinger once called it.”

Suffice it to say, we found this book more the ‘Heavy Duty’ cycle than the ‘Spin’ cycle.   Or perhaps the ‘Dry’ cycle.   But then what do we know?  We hail from that great fish swimming straight into the heart of Manhattan, as my third grade teacher once called it.

The plot of this book revolves around a writing desk.  Granted, it is a well-drawn desk, complex and full of drawers and knobs and stuff.   But if you think it is going to meet a girl-desk, or possibly a bureau, and have torrid furniture sex (like the spin cycle of a washing machine!)…you’re reading about the wrong desk.  Not much happens here.  It moves around from writer to writer, and wherever it goes, it casts a spell – like the pants in “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants” or the lamp in, “I Dream of Genie”.   The desk gets written on and stuff.  People think serious thoughts, while in the presence of the desk.  That’s pretty much it.

But without further ado, here is our actual nomination from “Great House” (okay, this is actually two sentences):

  • “The poem was good, not great but very good, or maybe it was even better than very good, it was hard to tell without being able to read it myself.  It seemed to be about a girl who had broken his heart, though it could just as easily have been about a dog; halfway through I got lost, and started to think about how R always used to wash his narrow feet before he got into bed because the floor of our apartment was dirty, and though he never told me to wash mine, it was implicit, since if I hadn’t then the sheets would have gotten dirty, making his own washing pointless.”

Halfway through this sentence we got lost, and started wondering, is it about a poem, or feet, and started thinking about whether Jonathan Safran Foer had smelly feet, and whether this was really autobiographical, and it was what led to Nicole Krauss divorcing him, and whether we should wash our toes more carefully, and how well Picasso drew people’s toes in Guernica, and how often Picasso washed his toes.

One more thing about this sentence:  Small point here perhaps, but if you cannot tell if a poem is about a girl or a dog, you cannot judge it.  Period.  Consider  these well-known lines:

A hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;

Now, are these lines about a dog?  Or a girl?  If you think they are about a girl, they could be good.  Not great but good.  Possibly very good.   Or very fairly good.    If, on the other hand, you think they are about a dog, they might seem bad.  Possibly very bad.   Or rather very fairly bad.

Our third selection comes from the award-winning winner of the Man Booker Prize, The God Of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy.  Many readers seemed to genuinely like this book.  For ourselves, we are not sure what the folks over at Man Booker were drinking or smoking.    The NY Times described this book as an ‘anti-Bildungsroman”, which possibly means something.  We don’t know.  We were sleeping during the first fours years of college, and awoke shortly before the commencement address to discover we had somehow managed to graduate.   Anyway, the main thing about this book  was it was very overwrought.  Every sentence was pregnant with meaning.  The weight of the world.  Import.   Here is our nomination from, “The God of Small Things”:

  • “Though, on the one hand, he was taken by surprise, on the other, he knew, had known, with an ancient instinct, that one day History’s twisted chickens would come home to roost.” 

Okay, this made it past the editor?  History’s twisted chickens????

Here’s what the New York Times review said of this anti-Bildungsroman:  “What sustains us…is the exuberant, almost acrobatic nature of the writing itself.”   Perhaps there is something acrobatic in the twisting chickens.    Perhaps they did a triple Axel.  We cannot say.  We got lost halfway through, and started wondering why people don’t use deodorant on their feet.   Perhaps it could have saved Nicole Krauss’s marriage.

 So there are your nominees.   All really incredible –  like the puree setting on my blender, wow!

Readers are encouraged to vote on their favorite.  Or, if they so choose, nominate other sentences.   

The winner will be declared in a future post, and will receive a free washing machine!  Mmmmm!

 

 

Advertisements

61 replies »

  1. Every now and then, or maybe just once, one stumbles across an article about bad sentences. And in this article one discovers a bad sentence, other than the worst sentence nominees,that is.

    “Many readers seemed to genuinely this book.”

    Perhaps it isn’t really a bad sentence, but rather, an erroneous one. A bit of judicious editing could fix it up nicely, Hey, we could do that – insert the apparently missing word from context. We get into a love-hate relationship with this sentence. There’s the rub. Do readers genuinely love or hate this book. Perhaps we’ll never know. But we do know that we genuinely this article.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Excellent as always, and I speak as one who has published some bad sentences, such as one that contained the phrase “her lips in an angry purse.” In that case, my only defense is that the friend who said I should change just annoyed me–why, I can’t recall–so I got my back up and left it there, and there it remains. No editor stepped in to save me. So maybe the twisted chickens writer is seriously brilliant and just wrote an awful sentence? I dunno. But you’re right to call them out. Good snark is an honorable thing, and also funny. (Have you read Tom Scocca’s “On Smarm” snark defense? It’s good.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • thanks. We all screw up from time to time. that’s why we have friends (and theoretically editors) to tell us, “Umm…that part doesn’t work.”

      I read the defensive of smarm (just now) and i’m going to be non-snarky for a moment and offer a few thoughts. it seems to me like we need to distinguish between a certain kind of “ethos of cool”, that looks down on everything, that is not necessarily a wonderful cultural trend, and criticism (whether serious or snarky) that is specific and deserving. i get the feeling that the “never criticize” movement described in the piece have failed to see this distinction. The reality is, writing a good serious novel is not easy. So on the one hand you can say we should heap praise those who come close, etc. but on the other hand, if that means that novelists feel that “pretty good” is okay, that it is okay if nothing much happens in the first 80 pages, that there is more pretension than real emotion, then it is clearly doing a disservice to literature.

      thanks for the comment.

      Like

  3. I recall hooting over “history’s twisted chickens” when I first encountered the phrase and widely expressing my disgust with the book, only to be met with incredulity. Apparently everyone else in the inhabited universe considered The God of Small Things a masterpiece.

    But if you want to select the worst sentence ever written, you may need to narrow the field. Bad sentences penned by professional writers and approved by editors represent only a small portion of the field; bad sentences penned by amateurs inhabit a whole different circle of Horrible Sentence Hell, and if you want to venture into bad academic writing, you’ll really need to invest in a HazMat suit.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very funny and spot-on. My personal favorite bad sentence–read it somewhere and as I recall it was from a writing student–is, “They had never met before; they were like two hummingbirds who had also never met before.”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Oh, forgot to vote. My vote is for #2, (Great House). #3 at least has some wacky energy going on, and voting for #1 is kinda like making fun of the slow kid in class.

    By the way, here’s another favorite bad sentence, this one from a comedy film from the 60’s, forget which one. It purports to be a line from a detective novel in progress.

    “Her eyes were as blue as the summer sky, but her soul was as scarred as the cheek of a Heidelberg cadet.”

    Like

  6. “History’s twisted chickens” . . . Laughed so hard that it left me scrambling to find my inhaler! All of the nominees were simply God-awful. I’ll vote for the elegant simplicity of the third nominee.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Well. Reminds me very much of the Bulwer Lytton contest http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

    Since I laughed out loud at history’s twisted chickens my vote has got to be that one. I am not sure if it was brilliant, mildly brilliant, mediocre genius or completely awful, somewhat awful, borderline awful or passably bad. Maybe it was one of those good bad lines. I don’t know. Maybe if I could have read it in a book setting, I’d think differently.

    I am less inclined toward the washing machine, having, I confess, used underpants dancing in a washing machine in a metaphor describing a relationship gone bad. I shall revisit that poem to reconsider whether I genuinely…

    Like

  8. Your posts are laugh-out-loud funny! Where have you been all my life when I was in need of laughter to bring me out of the depths of depression? I’m crushing on your posts big time. Usually I crush only on actors that I find attractive–George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges. Downloaded Lisa33 after tasting a sample. Too too funny as well!!!

    Like

      • I am loving LISA33. Had to put it aside to work on my entry for your contest. I think mine is prize-worthy. Toot! Toot! (That’s me tooting my horn.)
        Since my depression of several months has passed, I’m now in manic mode–crocheting far into the wee hours of the night (by the by, why are the hours of the night “wee”? Do they not contain 60 minutes as [notice I used “as” instead of “like” because I know that old Winston cigarette commercial was grammatically incorrect] the non-wee hours of the day?) I will be completely heart-broken and devastated (but not to the point falling into a depression) if you are unimpressed with my nimble use of the parentheses and brackets. I am totally enamored of parenthetical statements. I am the princess of parenthetical statements. I abdicated as queen because “queen of parenthetical statements” lacks alliterative density.
        Are you accepting only one entry per person for the contest or can we submit more than one if they total no more than 1000 words?

        Like

        • If you were a fan of popular music, or perhaps a certain age, Eileen, you’d recognize it as a Frank Sinatra song, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” I.e. very early hours after midnight, and album title (“In the Wee Small Hours”).

          Like

          • Hafå Adai (Hello) Carl,
            I am of a certain age and I believe that song was in the movie “Sleepless in Seattle.”
            Searched iTunes for Frank Sinatra’s version but only found one by Gary Crosby. I never knew that he recorded an entire album. He sounds like his father Bing. Who would name their child Bing, a name sure to bring on bullying if bestowed upon a child in this contemporary age of bullying. I was a victim of bullying as a first-grader at Hendley Elementary School in Wash., DC., when a 6th grader came up to me during recess and said, “You have gum in your hair” then stuck a wad of gum in my hair. Miss Spor, my teacher, had to cut it out after recess as there was no jar of peanut butter handy. The gum had a minty smell. That bully had a receding chin and looked like a turtle.
            Well, thanks for clearing up the confusion about the “wee” hours of the night. I conclude that the opposite of the “‘wee’ hours of the night” is “broad daylight.”

            Like

            • The tip-off was Google. Perhaps the opposite of “the wee small hours of the morning” would in fact be where you are – i.e. your time zone – or is that just another day? Otherwise, high noon to early afternoon.

              Like

  9. I’d love to vote for “Fifty Shades” washing machine line, I mean who compares orgasms to washing machines? I can honestly say I’ve never thought of laundry, or any household chores, when thinking about sex. However, History’s twisted chickens is just too great and too bad to not vote for. My vote’s definitely for “The God of Small Things” and I definitely need to read that book and see how bad it really is. One of these days when I feel like swearing I’m definitely going to try and work in History’s twisted chickens. In fact I must say that in reading all these bad sentences of published works makes me think that if I really wanted to write a book (which I’ve seriously thought of doing) then there’s a great chance it will be a success… if books with these sentences are not only published, but on the best sellers list, then there’s hope for anyone who wants to be published.

    Like

    • A lot of people seemed to genuinely like, “God of Small Things”. I didn’t, but it wasn’t generally horrible like that sentence is. i would say the odds of success in publishing are still vanishing small. Don’t know if you got to my post on publishing LISA33, or the one about NY Times Book Review. They cover this topic some.

      Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s