Bad writing

I’m team teaching a class this semester with my colleague Patrick. We had to be a little creative about it because there’s no recent history or administrative mechanism for team teaching here at MU. So what we did is cross-schedule two courses with complementary descriptions, the introductory historiography seminar (which needs a content to go with the procedures anyway) and the European Social/Cultural History class. Then we just folded them together into one room.

Our topic is bad writing. It’s a topic Patrick has wanted to teach around for a long time, prompted by his observation as a historian who works with a lot of literature that bad literature can make good sources. But then, of course, it turns out that what seems bad to us seemed good to the historical audience. So actually the class is a history of judgment. Here’s the syllabus if you’re interested in the particulars.

Today we opened the class with the above explanation and then dived right into short excerpts of bad writing we had selected. Our basic categories of badness are crappy, skanky and evil. For crappy we went with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) – “It was a dark and stormy night,” now famous as the inspiration for the eponymous bad writing competition. For skanky, a scene from John Cleland’s Memoirs of Fanny Hill (1749). And for evil, a concluding section of Arthur comte de Gobineau’s The Inequality of Human Races (1853-55).

In the day section (50 minutes) we only got to Bulwer-Lytton. The students did not know how to handle the multiclausal prolixity of the descriptive narration, nor could they make sense of the vernacular dialogue. We encouraged them to read a second time, and as usual that helped a lot. We were lucky to have several students in the class who know our m.o., and several more who were willing to talk. It might have helped that we authorized their negative first reaction to the unfamiliar by introducing it as possibly the world’s most famous piece of bad writing. But we kept poking at what made it bad, and the students came up with unfamiliarity, disorder, wordiness, ‘trying too hard’. Then we told them that it was considered very good when it was published. What changed? Here is the puzzle. I think quite a few are hooked. We started to talk about audience, but didn’t get very far.

In the evening section (2.5 hours) it took longer to get the concept of the analysis across. The idea of reading literature critically seemed new, and started out for this group as a matter of subjective taste and preference. “It’s not something I would read.” Patrick and I were patient with these first gestures and gradually this group also got into the puzzle of audience and standards. After awhile we thought we saw the energy fading for Bulwer-Lytton and passed around Fanny Hill. As expected, nobody could figure out what was bad about it, and they were baffled when we told them that Cleland had been jailed over it. They tried the ‘well in those days talk of sex was forbidden’ move, the usual progress narrative in which the past is dark and the present enlightened. But no, we told them, lots of writing about sex, and lots of sex, was perfectly alright then – but not this. Why? Eventually we were able to tease out hypotheses about religion, patriarchy, and nebulous audience fractions; again, we have a puzzle and research to be done.

Interestingly, the wordiness that seemed so overdone about Bulwer-Lytton seemed appropriate to them about Fanny Hill – it classed up the sex and made it tasteful, by the students’ standards. They allowed as how big words and lots of them are signs of quality. We’ll see if we can pick that dropped thread up as we go.

So far Patrick and I have shared the lead pretty well – we’re both inclined to take over discussions that interest us, and we both know it about ourselves, so as teachers we’ve learned to ask questions and let them hang for awhile, dropping bits of information or followups when the discussion slows down. We’re both comfortable with the silence of thought. And we’re on board with a recursive process that gets to answers eventually by gradual elaboration, which is what most of our students need because they know so little to start with about this stuff.



  1. This sounds really cool, especially as a version of a “lit course” that doesn’t really seem to resemble a course that a literature person would organize and teach. What I’m really interested in here is the degree to which the categories of “critic” and “criticism” are implicit within this frame. These would be very important categories in a lit crit class like this, and I wonder how students would manage without it. (I understand that this is being done inquiry-style, with students discovering those contexts in their research-phase) The mystery of “why people in past thought this was good” seems to me much easier to figure out when reading past criticism, reviews etc. The other dimension to this that is interestingly absent here is a set of readings in “theories of value” that could lead students to organize their perceptions. This, I expect, is supposed to be generated by students themselves in class, right?

    Please let us know how this goes. I’m wondering where the students will take this, and where the students will feel like they need further elaboration, direction.

  2. Yeah, exactly. In an earlier version of the class, Patrick was supplying the literature and I was supplying the critical traditions. But as I was reading through Gramsci on bad literature, common sense and philosophy, it struck me (and this had been Patrick’s idea all along) that treating the students like apprentice organic intellectuals and guiding them through critical formation by leveraging the otherness of the past would be more satisfying. That way they can come to critical theories as tools they need rather than lenses that are slapped over their eyes before they begin seeing. There’s also a sort of conceptual Stockholm Syndrome that can happen with dogmatized high theory if one is not careful.

    Ideally, once we get to the second phase it will start to make sense to answer particular students’ perplexities with specific suggestions of critical resources. By the third phase they should all be thinking both critically and meta-critically. We’ll see!

  3. It is I, Patrick, CarlD’s partner in crime(s of taste), chiming in.

    What intrigued me most about the night class was its discussion of Fanny Hill. I think you’re right, Carl, that students were flummoxed by it, but I wonder if that was partly my fault: I chose Fanny’s first sexual encounter for its narrative thrust, ha ha, but I wonder if that helped flummox them: as a lesbian scene, it may have seemed paradoxically less “dangerous” to students than the heterosexual and homosexual encounters that follow, and therefore have struck them as less problematic. (Lesbian sex, especially that between two explicitly feminine characters like Fanny and Phoebe, risks less reprisal in America today than gay male sex, and less pregnancy than straight sex.) The night class seemed reluctant to explain its judgments, but I wonder if that is because they actually had none, or so little as to be negligible. They had to strain to invent problems for past readers, a useful exercise (as you describe it), but perhaps an arbitrary one: they might have strained in other directions if they had read another passage. Either way, it felt a little like spoon-feeding.

    What this does is suggest a tentative, or at least a one-time, answer to the question of whether students *need* to judge work on its aesthetic or moral (or whatever) merits before stepping past that judgment and into historical analysis. Maybe it’s not as causative as I think it might be, but it felt like because their judgments were less impassioned, their eventual retreat from those judgments and return into analysis was less inspired. (The day class from which we just returned, having caught up with Fanny Hill, might have disproved that a little bit.)

    I am excited to see how adding racism to the mix affects the class’s early failure to judge. If they were uncomfortable explaining why they thought Paul Clifford’s writing was bad, and why they thought Fanny Hill’s sex was good, I imagine they will have less trouble explaining their aversion to Gobineau. My hope is that the added friction between their own ideas and the ideas of the past will make it easier to analyze both.

    One last thing–I really thought John Cleland had been jailed for Fanny Hill; instead, if Wikipedia can be trusted, he wrote it while in jail and then was merely charged for writing Fanny Hill. Stupid facts.

  4. From the ODNB entry:

    After William Cleland’s death his wife was granted control of the family estate, and during the 1740s Cleland’s fortunes began to decline. His protracted attempts to interest Portuguese officials in the creation of a Portuguese East India Company proved fruitless. In February 1748 he was arrested for non-payment of debts of £840, on the charges of two creditors, and detained for more than a year in the Fleet prison. Here he completed his famous erotic novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in two instalments, in November 1748 and February 1749. He later claimed, in a conversation with Boswell, to have written most of the novel in Bombay, in his early twenties, in order to show his colleague at the East India Company, Charles Carmichael, that it was possible to write about a prostitute without using vulgar language. In this he was remarkably successful: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is a stylistic tour de force, employing a dazzling variety of metaphors for parts of the body and for sexual acts, with a series of sly comic puns animating the delicately periphrastic prose.

    Released from prison in March 1749, Cleland was briefly detained again in November that year, when a warrant was issued to seize the author, printer (Thomas Parker), and publishers (Ralph Griffiths and his brother Fenton Griffiths) of Memoirs. It seems that Fenton Griffiths was not found at the time, but the other three appeared in court, charged with producing an obscene work, and were found guilty. Cleland himself renounced the novel as ‘a Book I disdain to defend, and wish, from my Soul, buried and forgot’ (Foxon, Libertine Literature, 54). Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was withdrawn, at least officially, from circulation, and remained an illicit, although best-selling, work until the 1970s. In response to a request by Ralph Griffiths, Cleland prepared a heavily expurgated version, Memoirs of Fanny Hill, published in March 1750. It too, however, became the object of government prosecution, although Cleland had taken pains to make the abridgement as anodyne as possible. The prosecution seems to have been eventually dismissed or withdrawn, since Griffiths continued to advertise the abridged Fanny Hill openly in the Monthly Review. In his obituary notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine, John Nichols claims that Cleland was ‘rescued from the like temptation’ of writing other obscene works by a government pension of ‘£100 per year, which he enjoyed to his death’ (Nichols, 180).

    So the ODNB’s answer (which contains its own judgments) is that JC wrote it to make the money to escape debtor’s prison, and then found himself defending successive, and ever-more censored, abridgements for the rest of his life, though without getting imprisoned. And perhaps he was pensioned off, either for not writing more obscenity, or for writing other kinds of things.

  5. Awesome. Patrick and I were talking about the pensioning, and we find it implausible that he would have been bought off when he could have just been thrown in jail. The suggestion is basically a kind of blackmail or ransom, and although states sometimes respond to crime that way, it’s not really a preferred or sustainable model since it encourages bad action. Or was there some reason that Cleland in particular would get the kid glove treatment? Perhaps a public opinion angle?

  6. Pingback: Knowing | Attention Surplus

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