Contest goes from bad to worst

May 30, 1997

A Professor of comparative literature at Duke University in the United States is the winner of the third Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the journal Philosophy and Literature and its Internet discussion group PHIL-LIT.

The competition attempts to find the ugliest, most stylistically awful passage in a scholarly book or article published in the past few years. The prize goes to Fredric Jameson for the first sentence in his 1990 book, Signatures of the Invisible. It reads: "The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer)."

It was spotted by Dave Roden of Central Queensland University in Australia.

If reading Professor Jameson is like swimming through cold porridge, journal editor Denis Dutton says, there are writers who strive for incoherence of a more bombastic kind.

Rob Wilson, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, wins second prize with this passage from The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism and the Public Sphere (1994). He writes: "If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the 'now-all-but-unreadable DNA' of a fast deindustrialising Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially heteroglossic wilds and others of the inner city."

Dr Dutton says of the gem, spotted by the University of Houston's Cynthia Freeland: "Precisely what are 'racially heteroglossic wilds and others'?" Proof that incomprehensibility need not be long-winded is demonstrated by the third-place winner, found by Richard Collier from Mount Royal College in Canada.

The sentence, by Fred Botting - a lecturer in English at Lancaster University - appeared in Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory (1991). "The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains."

Dr Dutton says the contest is for bad writing, rather than bad writers, and it is possible that the winners were caught on a bad day.

The next round of the Bad Writing Contest is now open and winners will be announced next year. Entries can be submitted until December 31 to: D.Dutton@fina.canterbury.ac.nz

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