A few weeks ago I wrote a little about the Bulwer-Lytton contest for the worst opening line of a fictional work. Recently, my freelance work as a copyeditor has given me access to some of the worst written non-fiction sentences I’ve read since I stopped reading philosophy and literary theory a few years ago. I’ve been complaining a bit about particular instances here (yesterday’s post on the verb “use” being underused…) and on Twitter (@ericamena, if anyone cares). So it occurred to me today that I would get a kick out of a twitter feed that was entirely composed of terrible sentences, but that likely most of them would be over 140 characters, so wouldn’t work out so well for Twitter. Maybe a Facebook page…
Anyway, I realized also that I probably wasn’t the only one who had this reaction to academic writing, and came across the now-defunct Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. In 1998 the winner was Judith Butler for a sentence in a scholarly journal article, and the runner up was Homi K. Bhabha for a sentence in the book The Location of Culture which I struggled through while writing my undergraduate thesis in post-colonial literature. The Bhabha sentence reads:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.
Yeah, that’s right, “enunciatory modality.” My author has nothing on that. Previous years winners include Frederic Jameson and Paul Fry. Ah lit. crit. Home to the world’s worst writers.
The contest only ran for a few years, and I wonder if that’s because the editors of the journal pissed off some of these ‘brilliant writers’ – all submissions were nominated by third parties (readers, other academics, students, reviewers, etc.). So here’s an open plea for someone to re-start this contest.