patron saint of terrible,
There are all kinds of bad writers. Some can’t string simple sentences together; others spew thick clouds of incomprehensible jargon. But in some ways the most annoying bad writers of all are those who are bad writers because they think they are great writers.
Paul Elam is one of those. An influential blogger, at least within the marginal mini-world of the Men’s Rights Movement, Elam writes polemics for The Spearhead and his own web site, A Voice For Men. His topics range from the evils of chivalry to “Death Row and The Pussy Pass.” And they’re full of sentences like this:
Or this, from an essay about the dilemmas of young men today:
[T]hey are suffering from the loss of things never held, from things missing but never known. They are, quite literally, a lost generation of the walking wounded, wandering blindly from a battlefield on which they never knew they stood.
Yeah, except that the only battlefields most of these guys have seen have been the multiplayer maps of Halo or Modern Warfare 2.
As you may have already gathered, Elam’s flights of literary fancy are invariably hokey and melodramatic. And they’re essentially meaningless. They say absolutely nothing, while giving the impression that they say an awful lot. Indeed, when you try to nail down the meaning of any of his not-so-fine phrases, they simply fall apart.
In the first quote above, he attempts to smoosh together the KKK and the world of George Orwell’s 1984 into some strange symbol of feminist awfulness. Huh? The KKK is a vigilante group; the villain in 1984 was a totalitarian government. They’re both bad, to be sure, but different kinds of bad. Big Brother wasn’t a Grand Kleagle. It’s a sloppy mix of metaphors that represents some pretty sloppy thinking.
So why am I picking on Elam’s writing style? Shouldn’t I be focusing on the substance of his argument? My point is that you can’t separate the two. Elam’s style is designed to conceal his lack of substance.
Ironically, the person who provides the most insight into what Elam is trying to accomplish with his purportedly elevated prose is none other than Orwell. In his classic essay on “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell took a look at some typically terrible political prose of his day. The two qualities that united all his examples in awfulness were a certain “staleness of imagery” and a “lack of precision.” His analysis fits Elam’s essays to a T:
As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.
|George Orwell, being Orwellian|
And why is this? Orwell concluded that the airy abstractions, the mixed metaphors, the grand prefabricated phrases all worked together to conceal the true meanings of what was being said, to offer “a defence of the indefensible,” whether one was a Communist defending the Russian purges or an American politician defending the atom bomb.
With Elam, though, we see something slightly different. He’s not defending the indefensible so much as trying to disguise the sheer insubstantiality of some of his central arguments, which would be simply laughable if he hadn’t gussied them up with ponderously “fancy” prose. Consider this passage, describing Elam’s thoughts after discovering that his spellchecker didn’t recognize the word “misandry”:
A culture that refuses to acknowledge that a perfectly legitimate word exists on paper, is in effect denying its existence to the collective consciousness. … It is like trying to describe a cloud without being able to use the word itself- to a world that does not believe in clouds. We are limited to talking around the subject; we present our meanings in metaphors and similes and anecdotes.
Reduced to its essence, though, Elam’s claim here is simply absurd: Because “misandry” isn’t a common enough term to include in his computer’s dictionary, our culture has no way of expressing the notion that certain people and ideas are man hating.
Really, Paul? We’re “limited to talking around the subject?” I really haven’t noticed much of that. The term “man-hating” gets the idea across fairly bluntly, and has long been popular with a certain sort of man, often in conjunction with words like “bitch,” “cunt,” or “feminazi.”
In the crowd you hang with, I imagine you hear this kind of talk all the time. Surely you’ve noticed it.
Elam doesn’t always write in such a stilted, evasive style. Sometimes he butches it up a bit, launching crude tirades against “mangina morons,” or telling a woman who was sexually harassed as a tween and an early teen that “guess what, cupcake, when you start growing tits, men start looking at them.” In a recent piece about the impending execution of a female murder-plotter with an IQ of 72, he wrote of his desire to “throw some burgers on the grill, crack open a few cold ones, and watch them ice this murdering bitch on pay-per-view.” (This despite the fact that he actually opposes the death penalty.)
Stick with this style, Paul. It may not be pretty, but at least it’s true to your nature. You’re not a grand philosopher; you’re not a literary lion. There is nothing smart or sophisticated about anything you ever write or think. Basically, you’re a dick. So write like one.