In Slate, Mark O’Connell has a must-read piece on Amanda McKittrick Ros, a 19th century writer whom he suggests was the worst novelist of all time.
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.)
Mocked in her day by Aldous Huxley, Mark Twain, and nearly every other person who could read, Ros rolled merrily along, not only immune but apparently entirely unaware that her popularity was due to the fact that she was terrible.
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.
Or as Yeats put it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Below, the best version of Sweet Jane ever recorded, with a coked-up Lou quoting Yeats and riffing endlessly on whatever enters his head.