Amanda McKittrick Ros, the Worst Novelist in History
… Maybe. An excerpt from Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail.
Despite the fact that she effectively owed her entire career to Pain’s review, Ros never forgave him for it. When she published Delina Delaney the following year, she included a foreword entitled “Criticism of Barry Pain on Irene Iddesleigh.” This is a 20-page harangue in which she mercilessly attacks “this so-called Barry Pain” for taking it upon himself “to criticise a work the depth of which fails to reach the solving power of his borrowed, and, he’d have you believe, varied talent.” She goes on to announce that she cares nothing “for the opinion of half-starved upstarts, who don the garb of a shabby-genteel, and fain would feed the mind of the people with the worthless scraps of stolen fancies.” It marked the beginning of an extraordinarily sour relationship with the entire literary-critical profession, which, along with the legal profession (she was a prolific and highly eclectic litigant), formed the two points of her personal axis of evil. Here’s a small selection of the many colorful epithets she flung at critics over the years: “auctioneering agents of Satan”; “bands of assumptionists”; “bastard donkey-headed mites”; “clay crabs of corruption”; “denouncing Arabs”; “evil-minded snapshots of spleen”; “genius scathers”; “hogwashing hooligans”; “rodents of state”; “street Arabs”; and “vicious vandals.” Ros might not have been up to much as a novelist, but she would have been excellent at coming up with names for punk bands.
She didn’t restrict herself, either, to attacking critics in the paratextual addenda of her work. In Delina Delaney, an aristocratic dreamboat named Lord Gifford explains to the title character, an Irish peasant girl with whom he is in love, that his mother is hell-bent on forcing him into a more socioeconomically viable match with his evil cousin, Lady Mattie Maynard. Gifford insists that he has no intention of acquiescing. He is, in fact, planning to propose to Delina there and then. But before getting down on one knee, he for some reason decides to pick up a magazine that happens to be lying around in the drawing room and opens it to an unfavorable review of a novel recently published by May Marchmont, another, less evil—but equally alliterative—cousin. “There can be no harm having a peep at this,” Lord Gifford incorrectly presumes. This May Marchmont is a pretty obvious stand-in for Ros herself; she is admiringly described as Gifford’s “clever cousin, who has won the praises of all nations—yea, the congratulations of crown heads—by her talented pen.” For two whole pages, Lord Gifford rages inwardly against the “self-opinionated mortals” of the book-review racket before flinging the magazine into a bush, “to be picked up and deposited in the drossy handbarrow next day by the gardener’s son.” Once unburdened of the magazine, and of his thoughts on the current state of literary criticism in the popular press, Lord Gifford gives the matter “no further thought” and gets back to the business at hand: asking for Delina’s dainty digits in marriage.
In O Rare Amanda!, his 1954 biography of Ros, Jack Loudan mentions that she considered it an act of bad manners to write about a book without having been invited to do so by its author. Criticism, in her view, was a form of meddling in other people’s business. She seems genuinely not to have understood (or at least never come near to acknowledging) that her fame was due to the fact that almost all her readers were essentially critics, in that their harsh judgment of her work was a prerequisite for their reading it. She imagined a division between her publishers and the general readership of her novels on one side and, on the other, those critics like Pain who were openly amused by those novels’ failings. Such a division never really existed. The success that she never tired of bragging about (“the congratulations of crown heads”) was due entirely to the majestic scale of her artistic failure. There were Amanda McKittrick Ros societies at Oxford and Cambridge. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings were largely responsible for this enthusiasm: the informal Oxford literary group held sporadic Ros reading competitions, in which the winner was the member who could read from one of her novels for the longest without breaking into laughter. Delina Delaney dinners became a fad on the London social scene, and there was an Amanda Game, made popular by the members of the London Amanda Ros Club, in which one diner would put a question to another, who then had to answer it in the style and spirit of Ros’ writing. Lines from her books were commonly quoted in the hallways of the House of Commons. She was a sort of Bizarro World Oscar Wilde: an Irish author who became a London cause célèbre for the complete witlessness of her writing. Her fame even reached the shores of the New World, with no less a figure than Mark Twain crowning her “Queen & Empress of the Hogwash Guild.”
But could she really have been so naive? Could she have entirely failed to suspect that she was the victim of a vast conspiracy of ridicule? Her readers were unusually invested in their own attachment to her work, and knowledge of the Ros oeuvre became a badge of identification, an ironic signifier of cultural sophistication. She received vast quantities of mail from her “fans,” for whom a written response from the great Amanda was a considerable trophy, the deeper its shade of purple the better. She once received a letter from the writer Donagh MacDonagh (a close friend of Brian O’Nolan, who would later become known to the literary world as Flann O’Brien) asking her to come to Dublin to appear on a panel discussing “The Trend of Modern Literature.” Perhaps sensing that the correspondent might not have been entirely in earnest, she never replied, thereby denying posterity a possible meeting of the authors of Irene Iddesleigh and At Swim-Two-Birds. But such suspicions were rarely allowed to surface. As Pain had pointed out, one of the crucial features of her magisterially dreadful work is its total absence of anything even approaching a sense of humor: “One thought before one read this book that one knew what the absence of that sense meant, but one didn’t. Mists rolled away, snowy peaks, never before scaled by human foot, of the very existence of which one never dreamt, stretched themselves heavenwards. Never was any absence so essentially and intrinsically absential, as the absence of the sense of humour in this book.”
And so, for the most part, she took her readers’ unusual investment in her work as a token of admiration. She was steadfastly convinced that it was of the highest standard, that Irene Iddesleigh and Delina Delaney were classics to stand alongside the work of Defoe, Eliot, and Dickens. There was, for her, nothing the least bit funny about, say, the fact that most of the characters in her last novel, Helen Huddleson, were named after fruits and vegetables (from aristocrats like Lord Raspberry and Sir Christopher Currant right down the social scale to Madam Pear and Lily Lentil the servant girl). Readers like Lewis and Tolkien who found this kind of stuff a source of amusement were, in her view, essentially unserious and motivated by jealousy of her talent. If they had been her students, she would have caned their frivolous arses to Narnia and back.
It’s a quality common to many contemporary incarnations of the Epic Fail (Tommy Wiseau, the actor-auteur behind the cult film The Room, being perhaps the most prominent example): a refusal to be dissuaded from the belief in her own greatness by the Greek chorus of ridicule that was the perennial backdrop of her career. Ros’ humorlessness was matched by an almost miraculous immunity to self-doubt—that Dutch elm disease of literary careers. This was due at least in part to her never reading the aforementioned Defoe, Eliot, Dickens, or really much of anything by anyone but herself. In 1930, she wrote to her publisher Stanley T. Mercer, asking him what he thought about her chances of winning the Nobel Prize for literature. “What think you of this prize?” she asked. “Do you think I should make a ‘dart’ for it?”
There is something captivatingly comic, of course, about the idea of the writer who owes her career to being terrible at her job, and the intellectual slapstick of Ros’ various scuffles is first-rate stuff. But—and I don’t say this in any way ironically—there’s also something paradoxically inspiring about her complete (and completely misplaced) confidence in the magnitude of her own talent. Writers are famously egotistical people, but they are also typically tormented by self-doubt. Ros’ supreme self-confidence was the reason for her producing such seductively mockable work, but it made her largely impervious to the mockery it provoked. She may have been a complete failure at the task she set for herself, but there was a certain greatness in her character.
Mark O'Connell is a staff writer for the Millions and an IRCHSS postdoctoral research fellow in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.