All-Time Worst Lines


Last week we introduced you (and introduced ourselves) to John McIntyre, the veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor who writes the language and grammar blog You Don’t Say. This week we were pleased to be informed by Mr. McIntyre that he had been inspired by our “All-Time Worst Titles” post to create a contest called “The Worst Line You Ever Read.” The ground rules he’s laid out mirror ours in that he is uninterested in skewering ordinary, mediocre authors, or revisiting such cult heroes of literary badness as Edward Bulwer-Lytton or Amanda McKittrick Ros. Instead, he’d like to see authors and works “of some literary standing” taken down a peg. To get things going he’s cited Emerson’s famous line about the “transparent eyeball,” which is pretty funny out of context (although Harold Bloom would no doubt be miffed—he’s argued that it’s one of the central metaphors in American literature), and a truly bad quotation from Shelley that is also a lesson in the perils of the misplaced modifier.

We’ve added a couple suggestions of our own in the Comments section of the YDS post, and we invite you to go do the same. Our chosen piñatas, as you’ll see, were Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery—the former always an easy target, the latter a fun one because he sends contemporary critics into such reverent swoons. Another obvious gold mine to be tapped is Faulkner, the worst of whose interminable whiskeyfueled highmodernist sentences have made generations of editors gnash their teeth and draw their red pens in fury:

“There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.”

Absalom, Absalom!

That’s about five more adjectives than we ever wanted to read in our lives. Don’t let us take all the good lines, though; head over to You Don’t Say and leave a comment of your own. Thanks again to John McIntyre for letting us know about the contest.


Filed under Books and Publishing

2 responses to “All-Time Worst Lines

  1. John McIntyre

    Let Professor Bloom be miffed. It wouldn’t astonish me to see some of his riper sentences entered into competition.

    By the way, I like the Faulkner. But I’m as much from the South as a Kentuckian is entitled to be. You may be making the mistake of reading him while sober.

  2. abbeville

    No, no, we always make a point of reading hard-drinking authors while drinking hard. We aren’t legally able to tell you how we read Coleridge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s