Archive for May 23rd, 2012

Nitpick, lightning.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
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April 12: I said it was bad, and I meant it.

A gentle reader took issue with last month’s post on Library Porn: fabulous places for booklovers everywhere:  “I relished the Rabelaisian (would that it were Menippean and broke forth into verse!) satire in Ex vero portu librorum pars quattuor de bibliotheca erotica (From the Veritable Haven of Books, Installment the Fourth Concerning the Pornographic Library).”

But then he cut loose:

Placing weather first and foremost is a sine qua non of wretched writing, but rather than opening with “It is a rainy night with thunder and lightning,” introduce the porn theme immediately with learned literary allusion to Bulwer-Lytton and library classification systems: “It was a dark and STEAMY night in the PA-PN stacks.”

But is Edward Bulwer-Lytton‘s “It was a dark and stormy night” really the sine qua non of wretched writing? (We’ve written about the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing contest here and here.)  Coincidentally, about the same time I was scribbling the sentence-in-question, blogger Levi Stahl over at I’ve Been Reading Lately was wondering:

Like nearly everyone alive today, I’ve not read Bulwer-Lytton. I’ve long thought, however, that he didn’t deserve his infamy–at least not if the sole piece of evidence against him is, as it usually seems to be, the above sentence. Oh, it’s not a good sentence. Yes, it would likely have made Nabokov or Updike shudder. But is it really that bad? If we can pretend briefly that the opening phrase hasn’t yet become a cliché, then the ground for complaint are two:

Crummy father.

1 The unnecessary, interpolated elaboration of the gusts of wind
2 The poorly positioned parenthetical that locates the book in London.

Both are clumsy and could easily have been improved by the casting over them of even a weak editorial eye–but is the sentence as it now stands all that bad? Worse than what our best-selling, low-grade thriller writers turn out on page after page? Worse than James Frey‘s Hemingway-cum-Fight Club masochismo? I just don’t see it.

When did the opening line of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford become a cliché?  A Google’s Ngram viewer is inconclusive. The phrase was repeated a lot in the first three decades, but then faded over the subsequent century.

Stahl is convinced that Bulwer-Lytton has been damned for the wrong sin? Has he been consigned to the wrong circle of literary hell?

According to John Sutherland‘s Lives of the Novelists (Yale University Press) he was the world’s worst husband and father.  He abandoned his daughter to die of typhus in a London lodging house.  His wife eventually accused him of hiring an assassin to kill her. What’s a little rain compared with that?

Oh read it for yourself, over here.  Meanwhile, here’s the blogger’s Ngram: