Bad writing awards...

The Very Best of Bad Writing:


The entries for the second run of the Bad Writing Contest have now been tabulated, and we are pleased to announce winners. But first a few tedious words. There is no question that we have better--if that's how to put it--entries than the last time we ran the contest. Some of the entries are stunning, and we think almost all of them deserve a prize of some sort.

This is not to say that much of the writing we would consider "bad" is necessarily incompetent. Graduate students and young scholars please note: many of the writers represented have worked years to attain their styles and they have been rewarded with publication in books and journal articles. In fact, if they weren't published, we wouldn't have them for our contest. That these passages constitute bad writing is merely our opinion; it is arguable that for anyone wanting to pursue an academic career should assiduously imitate such styles as are represented here. These are your role models.


First prize goes to David Spurrett of the University of Natal in South Africa. He found this marvelous sentence--yes, it's but one sentence--from Roy Bhaskar's Plato etc: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution (Verso, 1994):

"Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal--of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard."

It's a splendid bit of prose and I'm certain many of us will now attempt to read it aloud without taking a breath. The jacket blurb, incidentally, informs us that this is the author's "most accessible book to date."


Second Prize is won by Jennifer Harris of the University of Toronto. She found a grand sentence in an essay by Stephen T. Tyman called "Ricoeur and the Problem of Evil," in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, edited, it says, by Lewis Edwin Hahn (Open Court, 1995):

"With the last gasp of Romanticism, the quelling of its florid uprising against the vapid formalism of one strain of the Enlightenment, the dimming of its yearning for the imagined grandeur of the archaic, and the dashing of its too sanguine hopes for a revitalized, fulfilled humanity, the horror of its more lasting, more Gothic legacy has settled in, distributed and diffused enough, to be sure, that lugubriousness is recognizable only as languor, or as a certain sardonic laconicism disguising itself in a new sanctification of the destructive instincts, a new genius for displacing cultural reifications in the interminable shell game of the analysis of the human psyche, where nothing remains sacred."

Speaking of shell games, see if you can figure out the subject of that sentence.


Third prize was such a problem that we decided to award more than one. Exactly what the prizes will be is uncertain (the first three prizes were to be books), but something nice will be found. (Perhaps: third prize, an old copy of Glyph; fourth prize two old copies of Glyph.)

Jack Kolb of UCLA found this sentence in Paul Fry's A Defense of Poetry (Stanford University Press, 1995). Together with the previous winners, it proves that 1995 was to bad prose what 1685 was to good music. Fry writes,

"It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness--rather than the will to power--of its fall into conceptuality."

Incidentally, Kolb is reviewing Fry's book for Philosophy and Literature, and believe it or not he generally respects it.

Arthur J. Weitzman of Northeastern University has noted for us two helpful sentences from The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (JHUP, 1994). It is from Donald E. Pease's entry on Harold Bloom:

"Previous exercises in influence study depended upon a topographical model of reallocatable poetic images, distributed more or less equally within 'canonical' poems, each part of which expressively totalized the entelechy of the entire tradition. But Bloom now understood this cognitive map of interchangeable organic wholes to be criticism's repression of poetry's will to overcome time's anteriority."

What can we add to that?

William Dolphin of San Francisco State University located for us this elegant sentence in John Guillory's Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (University of Chicago Press, 1993):

"A politics presuming the ontological indifference of all minority social identities as defining oppressed or dominated groups, a politics in which differences are sublimated in the constitution of a minority identity (the identity politics which is increasingly being questioned within feminism itself) can recover the differences between social identities only on the basis of common and therefore commensurable experiences of marginalization, which experiences in turn yield a political practice that consists largely of affirming the identities specific to those experiences."

And speaking of marginalization, where, you may ask, are women in this? Aren't we being exclusionary? Indeed, it's frankly unfair that men should have all the fun, but the gallant Canadian David Savory found this lucid sentence in the essay "Tonya's Bad Boot," in Women on Ice, edited by Cynthia Baughman:

"This melodrama parsed the transgressive hybridity of un-narrativized representative bodies back into recognizable heterovisual codes."

Thanks to these and all the other entrants. If you didn't this time, the next round of the Bad Writing Contest, prizes to be announced, is now open with a deadline of September 30, 1996. So you've plenty of time to find examples from the turgid new world of academic prose. Details of the new contest will appear on PHIL-LIT. Winners of this contest, watch for your prizes in the mail.

Thanks to all.

Denis Dutton, Editor, Philosophy and Literature


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