Who Was the Worst Novelist In History? Maybe Amanda McKittrick Ros

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Jan. 23 2013 7:18 AM

Amanda McKittrick Ros, the Worst Novelist in History

… Maybe. An excerpt from Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail.

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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

This is an excerpt from Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, an original e-book published by The Millions.

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

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.”

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.