Reprinted The Sydney Morning Herald by Jane Sullivan 02/23/13
ATTENTION all novelists, published and unpublished: you are creatures of fragile ego, notoriously plagued by self-doubt. There might be dark moments when you convince yourself you are so bad you might be the worst novelist ever.
Cheer up. You aren’t. Apart from those who lived and died in obscurity, that honour goes to Amanda McKittrick Ros, an Irish school teacher born in 1860 who wrote several novels (one, Irene Iddesleigh, was a bestseller) and a number of poems, all of staggering awfulness.
Photographs of Ros show a woman who looks a bit like Margaret Dumont, the perennial society matron and butt of jokes in the Marx brothers films, who never quite understood they were meant to be funny. Perhaps Dumont and Ros had something in common there.
Ros had a bit of trouble starting her brilliant career when no one would publish her work. But her first husband, Andrew, came to the rescue and put up the money for Irene Iddesleigh to be published. From then on, there was no stopping her.
It was not the plots of her novels that were so bad: they were romantic melodramas of the kind popular then, though much harder to follow than most. It was her prose that defied belief. Here’s a typical speech from Irene’s outraged husband: ”Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!”
As Mark O’Connell explains in his book Epic Fail, Ros knew enough to make ”a lunge in the general direction of the literary” but not enough to understand how such things as metaphor and syntax work. Nothing gets called by its name. Eyes are ”globes of glare”, trousers are ”the southern necessary”. O’Connell suspects ”she may have inadvertently invented postmodernism”.
After a critic brought her work to wider attention, Ros acquired what every writer craves: a wildly enthusiastic cult following that persists to this day. She became the subject of a biography, and a literary festival was held in her honour. Mark Twain praised her and Aldous Huxley analysed her. The Inklings, the club of Oxford dons that included Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, held regular Ros readings at their local pub (they gave prizes to the readers who could last the longest without laughing).
Ros appreciated her fans, but she never grew to love her critics. Even though she was blessed with a complete lack of humour, she seemed to detect some mockery at work in the review that declared Irene Iddesleigh ”titanic, gigantic, awe-inspiring … I shrank before it in tears and terror”. She never lost an opportunity to attack her critics, even devoting two pages of her novel Delina Delaney to an entirely irrelevant diatribe against such ”hogwashing hooligans”.