Wednesday, January 23, 2013

“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."

A sentence from Amanda McKittrick Ros' novel Delina Delaney as quoted by Mark O'Connell in his book Epic Fail, excerpted at Slate.  Can you tell what it means without reading the story first?

According to O'Connell, Ros was a favorite among literary types:

There were Amanda McKittric [sic] 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.”

Notwithstanding the distance of history, what makes this kind of poking fun morally acceptable when poking fun at a traditionally incompetent novelist might be seen as bullying or in bad taste?  Is it that Ros, like Dan Brown, profited handsomely from her poor prose?  Or the fact that she probably wouldn't have profited at all without the fandom of those poking fun at her?  Or is it her irascibility and delusions of grandeur, which would have made her seem like a deserving target?

On the other hand, the sentence above hardly displays a lack of intelligence or control--rather, the fascinating thing about it is that, with its highly structured, ornate circuitousness, it seems like the product of someone who knows exactly what they're doing but chooses to do something so bizarre it's outside of our realm of appreciation.  Once you look at it that way, doesn't it open up the possibility that Ros wrote terrible prose on purpose?  Maybe we ought to be thinking about Delina Delaney as an epic success.

Final thought: If Amanda McKittrick Ros were writing and receiving attention in the same way today, would the New York Times use it as an illustration of the perfidy of irony?


Helen Rittelmeyer said...

David Bentley Hart is a "fan," too. He figures he's in the clear morally speaking, but he did have to think about it.

The answer to the final question is definitely yes.

R.M. Fiedler said...

I don't care how intentional the terrible prose is, I'm still not going to read Twilight.