Amanda McKittrick Ros: Can writing be so bad that it’s good?

We often hear how self publishing and ebooks will overwhelm defenseless readers with a sea of slush. Those who say this may not know of Amanda McKittrick Ros. She self published long before it was fashionable, well, technically her husband financed the publication of her first novel. Irene Iddesleigh was introduced to the world in 1897 as a tenth anniversary present. It has ever since been a source of inspiration for all the wrong reasons.

An Amanda Ros society sprung up in Oxford in 1907, where dinner party guests had much fun mocking the book. Mark Twain called it “one of the greatest unin­tentionally humorous novels of all time.” Aldous Huxley wrote an essay about the novel’s bizarre style in 1928. And shortly after World War II, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussed the novel in their literary group, the Inklings. The task was to see who could read aloud the longest without breaking into “helpless laughter.” Apparently beer was also involved.

Ros demonstrates a penchant for overwriting. As has often been quoted, in her prose, eyes become “globes of glare,” legs are referenced as “bony supports,” pants are a “southern necessary,” and sweat is rendered as “globules of liquid lava.” As her title shows, alliteration was one of her favorite devices. From Irene Iddesleigh:

The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthy future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible and the rebellious roar of the raging nothing.

Dialogue fares no better:

“Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!”

But what’s most interesting about Ros is not her writing itself, it’s the continued interest in her for more than a century. Ros was the subject of a 1964 biography, aptly titled O Rare Amanda! Her third novel, Helen Huddleston, which she left incomplete was published posthumously in 1969. In 1988, her work was collected in an Amanda Ros reader, Thine in Storm and Calm. In 2001 she was featured in Nick Page’s In Search of the World’s Worst Writers. She was the subject of a fresh “read aloud” contest at the Celebrate Literary Belfast festival in 2006. Demand for her books, which are all sadly out of print, is strong. Prices range from $200 to $500. It seems only a matter of time before some enlightened publisher introduces her in ebook form. How many writers of more talent have published celebrated tomes since, yet today are forgotten?

I reviewed Fannie Hurst in an earlier post. She was at one time the highest paid writer in America, but today is nearly out of print. Her writing is similarly amazing for all the wrong reasons. That post on Hurst is one of the most trafficked pages on this blog. People seem to love bad writing, or perhaps just bad art in all its forms. What else explains the attention paid to those unknowing contestants at the beginning of each season of American Idol?

And what happens when vanity and notoriety collide? Is it better to be forgotten or laughed at and remembered? If Ros were alive–she died in 1939–she could take solace in the fact that she has brought much joy to the literary world. She’s also frequently reported as saying: “I expect that I will be talked about at the end of 1,000 years.” Amanda McKittrick Ros may well be right.

Further reading on Ros: Amanda McKittrick Ros and the Inklings, Wikipedia: Amanda McKittrick Ros


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One response to “Amanda McKittrick Ros: Can writing be so bad that it’s good?

  1. Jack Totton

    I am the grandson of Annie Ross the daughter of Andrew and stepdaughter of Amanda Iunderstand Amanda was the original Stepmother since my grandmother left home in Larne for an unplanned life in Belfast As a young boy I visited Amanda at the Spa Ballynahinch Around1932 Iwas 5 years. I think my grandmother was still in awe of her at thatvisit