Who was the worst novelist in history? A definitive answer is probably impossible, given that total artistic failure traditionally results in total obscurity. But it would be foolish to even consider the question without taking into account a very notable exception to that rule—a schoolmistress from Northern Ireland whose novels were so uniquely and thrillingly terrible that, in the early years of the last century, she became an ironic cause célèbre among the cultural luminaries of her time. Her story gives us some perspective on what we tend to think of as a uniquely contemporary phenomenon: the ironic appreciation of bad art—of monkey-faced frescos and multichapter R&B melodramas. This terrible novelist was a sort of early avatar of the spirit of the Epic Fail.
She was born Anna McKittrick in the village of Drumaness in 1860 and became Anna Ross when, after taking up a teaching position in Larne, she married the town’s stationmaster, Andrew Ross. When she began to write novels, she did so under the pseudonym Amanda McKittrick Ros, taking the name Amanda from an Irish romantic novel and dropping the second S in her husband’s surname in order to imply a connection with the noble de Ros family of County Down. For their 10th wedding anniversary, she convinced Andrew to put up the cash to have her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, printed in Dublin.
The novel isn’t, in any conventional sense, a page-turner. Over 189 pages, Irene Iddesleigh tells the story of a young Canterbury lady who marries an older man, realizes she doesn’t love him, and then elopes to America with her tutor. The tutor in question, Oscar Otwell, turns out to be a total boozehound and gets sacked for being oiled up on the job. That night, he comes home drunk and either rapes Irene or just says a lot of horrible things to her. (It’s not clear from Ros’ narration, which is nominally omniscient but still frequently leaves the reader unenlightened.) He then drowns himself, and Irene decides to cut her losses and return to England. At least, I think that’s what happens; I wouldn’t want to fully commit to that interpretation. But it hardly matters either way. It isn’t for their plots that people read Ros’ novels. They read them for their rigorously terrible sentences and for the masochistic pleasures of translating them into something like sense.
In a way, Ros’ prose amounts to a sort of accidental surrealism. There is an intention toward metaphor—a lunge in the general direction of the literary—but an obvious misunderstanding of how such things work (and often, for that matter, how syntax works). One of the more illuminating pieces of criticism on Ros’ work is Aldous Huxley’s essay “Euphues Redivivus,” which he published in his collection On the Margin in 1923. Here, he discusses her prose style in relation to Euphuism, a form of writing that takes its name from John Lyly’s elaborately mannered 1578 didactic romance Euphues: The Anatomy of Wyt. Huxley acknowledges the extreme unlikelihood of Ros ever having read Lyly but is nonetheless struck by the strange resemblance in their approaches to language. “In Mrs. Ros,” he writes, “we see, as we see in the Elizabethan novelists, the result of the discovery of art by an unsophisticated mind and of its first conscious attempt to produce the artistic. It is remarkable how late in the history of every literature simplicity is invented. The first attempts of any people to be consciously literary are always productive of the most elaborate artificiality.” (Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” identifies Euphuism as an early forerunner of Camp culture. “All Camp objects, and persons,” as she puts it, “contain a large element of artifice.”)
One thing that is clear about Ros’ prose is its aversion to calling a thing by its name. Eyes are “globes of glare.” When their owners are unhappy, these globes are “stuffed with sorrow.” Trousers are not trousers; they are “the southern necessary.” It’s as if, for Ros, circumlocution and literature are essentially synonymous. When a near-destitute Oscar is forced to take up work as a schoolteacher in America, he is quickly “compelled to resign through courting too great love for the all-powerful monster of mangled might”—by which she means, naturally, “Intemperance.” And then there’s this extraordinary sentence about the eponymous heroine of her second novel, Delina Delaney: “She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her poor old father's slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp dart to faultless fabrics of flaxen fineness.” (That is, Delina did some work as a seamstress so she wouldn’t have to live off her father.) Near the end of Irene Iddesleigh, Ros contrives to have her heroine bump into Lord Dilworth, her adoptive father, at the harbor where she is about to get on the boat home from New York. She tells him about the grim situation she’s found herself in (what with Oscar’s waywardness unto death), but, “misery having likewise carpeted Lord Dilworth’s floors of fate so much of late, he consequently [does] not seem so astonished as imagined.”
This stuff is, in lowish doses, quite entertaining, but if you read enough of it, its absurdity seems to spread outward to the whole of literature, like a particularly contagious airborne virus. Read a few chapters of one of her books and then pick up a book by, say, Marilynne Robinson (one of contemporary literature’s truly great prose stylists), and even Robinson’s flawless sentences start to seem slightly contrived. Ros’ writing is not just bad, in other words; its badness is so potent that it seems to undermine the very idea of literature, to expose the whole endeavor of making art out of language as essentially and irredeemably fraudulent—and, even worse, silly. And there’s a link here to the other sense in which she was ahead of her time. The standard reactions to her artistic defectiveness were masochistic joy and a perverse desire to share the spectacularly failed artwork with others. Just as “Trapped in the Closet”—the ridiculous specter of which even now haunts the entire R&B genre—caused the world to huddle together in the guttering glow of its laptop screens, Ros’ novels brought people together in strange observances of ridicule. Despite Huxley’s persuasive linking of her to a literary past, it’s sometimes difficult to avoid the suspicion that she may have inadvertently invented postmodernism.
The point at which Ros became a viral underground phenomenon—what we might refer to nowadays as the tipping point—came when a copy of Irene Iddesleigh found its way into the hands of the critic and poet Barry Pain. In 1898, he wrote a review of it for the London journal Black & White, the mock-reverential spirit of which more or less set the tone for Ros’ entire career. He begins the review by saying that the book was sent to him by some friends in Ireland who assumed that he would be amused by it. “The book,” he writes, “has not amused. It began by doing that. Then, as its enormities went on getting more and more enormous in every line, the book seemed something titanic, gigantic, awe-inspiring. The world was full of Irene Iddesleigh, by Mrs. Amanda McKittrick Ros, and I shrank before it in tears and in terror.”