Essay on Bad Writing

Diana Hamilton


This is a bad poem
by a lady poet.

It’s called “Essay on Bad Writing,”
but I’m actually only going to quote and talk directly about writing that’s good.

Initially, this was a bad essay
called “Bad Poems by Lady Poets,”

after George Eliot, who wrote “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” as if she were a man, but she wasn’t:

Silly novels by lady novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these—a composite order of feminine fatuity, that produces the largest class of such novels, which we shall distinguish as the mind-and-millinery species.

I’ll make a claim
grounded on an impression, rather than on history,
here: that Eliot’s criticism relies on a reasonable, and yet false,

—hope that women will be taken seriously as writers if they write about more serious things,

—assumption that they’re writing themselves into irrelevance by limiting themselves to what subjects and syntaxes and heroines they think the world already permits them, and

—belief that to be “not silly,” they have to write like writers who have been taken Seriously, to show that to write well is not Manly, but something any writer can do.

To the contrary:

—women are taken more seriously as writers right now, I think, if they start from what seems “silly” and “feminine”—fashion, sex, confession, gossip—and insist on the seriousness of this silliness;

—and then to present as “silly” more “serious” feminine woes, like rape or abortion;

—and then to show that none of this is silly, that representations of women—even “silly,” rich women, rendered comical by the tragedy of their lack of purpose—are serious representations.

—and that it’s good that women have various strategies for writing, of course.


I’ve been uncomfortable, lately.

I bet you have been too.

It feels like, lately, to be a lady poet, you have to act a little silly: you pretend to be dumber than you are, to fake upspeak and self-doubt, to refer to Serious Theorists while flipping your hair, all

“I swear I didn’t read this Adorno too closely; I promise I was too busy starving myself.”

I get it:

It’s sexist that High Rising Intonation (HRI) is associated with stupidity.

It’s anti-intellectual to presume self-doubt means one hasn’t thought hard enough;

—everyone who’s ever been smart at all—just like anyone who has ever really had faith, in God or in Love—is completed plagued by doubt.

But still.

I’m not sure the men watching know this,
and I like to watch women
be fucking masters of discourse.

Unfortunately, or fortunately—I don’t know how to say this part—I have to return to the part of that phrase that troubled you, if you read it carefully, and has troubled me the most since I was a child, in love with women, in hate with myself:

I like to watch women.

Whether they’re mastering their discourse or not, honestly.

But mastery isn’t an escape from the question of sexiness; it pairs really well, in fact, with tousled hair.

The question of “whether” to be sexy, or to bring up the question of your own sexiness, while being a writer, is an impossible one:

—it’s a really fucking difficultly specific gender performance to get on stage, as a woman, and give the impression you don’t give a fuck whether you look good.

I would love to give this impression, personally.

I definitely don’t: it’s obvious that my poems, like many poets’, and despite my best efforts, are accidentally in the service of a larger desire to be desirable.

Silly poems, by a silly lady poet, i.e., me.

Unlike Eliot, though, I know better: you can eschew this silliness, and write really well, about more “universal” things like Men or Alcoholism or Going to Work—things men believe books ought to be about—and no one will read your work.

If they do read your work—because they are your friend, or because they actively struggle against sexism, or both—

they’ll be sure to find out it’s about Women. They won’t let women’s writing touch them.

They may even have gone to too much grad school to remember that books can touch them, that writing is inextricably tied to subjectivity, and to the body, no matter how many times a computer writes a poem.

And unlike Eliot, I don’t think there’s anything actually Silly
about the super-serious violence of gender expectations, or about meeting them head on.

I’ll say a thing I should definitely edit out:

—that strangers’ interest in my writing has increased in inverse proportion to my weight.

I’m getting off-topic, and I’m getting sad.
And OK: the title here is “bad,” not “silly.”

But I want to stick with silliness a bit:

with the performance of comfort with being positioned as interested in appearance, in luxury, with no pretense to a “neutral” performance under capitalism, and patriarchy.

Because men and women aren’t so different, you know. It’s a “false construct,” I hear.

Men are silly too.


Recently, there have been at least three men taking luxury baths in their poems.

What does this mean?

When I started writing this, I wanted to make a joke:

That when a straight man takes a luxurious bath in his poem, it’s a signifier for a more interesting relationship to gender.

That when a woman, straight or gay, takes a luxurious bath in her poem, it’s a suicide note, or it’s just her getting clean.


Perhaps the problem wasn’t that ladies were writing the “mind and millinery species” of novels, but that not enough male novelists were admitting that their heroes spent time picking out hats.

Or taking baths
in lavender and salt,
or with iced coffees in their hands,
or as part of an elaborate morning toilette.

As in D.A. Miller’s description of Jane Austen’s
mockery of Robert Ferrar’s “will to style”
in Sense and Sensibility,  
where Robert’s ridiculous dandy-ness, while he tries
to pick out a toothpick case, “reveals the Woman in him.”

But Miller sees a darker move at work
in Austen’s mockery:
            this Woman’s “blatant presence fails to rid him of the smallest bit of male entitlement.”

I think this is related to what Trisha Low was saying
when she reviewed Brandon Brown and Steven Zultanski’s recent books.

She hoped that both would “interrupt our conception of the subject to make eloquent critiques of their gendered positions as straight white men,”

but found instead

that they failed to sufficiently harm themselves in the process to truly fuck with that position.

Whatever critique of masculinity they both offer,
I think she’s saying,
they can’t use the form of the confession
the way women can—as a kind of a performative risking of the self—
“until men are accused of actually possessing essential character flaws because of the kinds of work they are making.”

I don’t agree with Low here, entirely

—perhaps because I have fewer stakes in the question of confession, and because I do think that men are accused of possessing essential character flaws because of the kinds of work they are making (although her longer comments about the risk of harm are different in kind). And because I don’t think the history of confession as a laying-bare of the self can be uncomplicatedly tied to femininity—perhaps these male poets are just putting themselves in a line from Augustine to Montaigne to Rousseau.

But I do want to think through this critique.

One thing Low suggests, which I keep coming back to:

That these poems fail to give up the position of male privilege because they’re too good!

They’re too well written to seem seriously engaged in risking the self.

This is a great argument to me:
that men need to try to write worse.

This is one way I got to the question of “bad writing.”


Here’s another way I got to that question:

A few years ago, I started writing another essay as a joke; in fact, I was riffing off a joke another poet made to me: that women aren’t allowed to write bad poems: 

Lately, I have read some bad poems by ladies. Every poem by Louise Glück in the December issue of Poetry, for example, is virtually unreadable, although it is unclear whether this level of badness can be blamed on Women: “the phone rang. It rang and rang/as though the world needed me,/though really it was the reverse.” I would quote it at greater length, but I don’t want to make you so miserable as it makes me. The point is that she wrote a terrible poem, something for which she is very famous.

But do women have the right to write bad poetry?

But I’m leaving out a backstory I want to provide, without making this essay about that context.

Last year, an editor of an online magazine wrote to me requesting a specifically negative review of a specific poem:

“dear diana,” it began, announcing its informality early on,  and continued, a bit further down:

“we're wondering if you'd like to write a negative review of patricia lockwood's "rape joke"? i still sit up straighter when i think of ‘triggers.’”

The email contained little else, other than the identifying information, which I leave out, even though, to a certain scene, the reference would be obvious. 

What is the issue, though?
When I first received this email, I found it
confusing, but innocuous (this is obviously wrong);
to the extent that I was offended, it was for my own sake:

the implication was that the (male) editors of the magazine wanted to criticize Lockwood’s much-circulated and much-loved poem, but felt that they needed a woman to do it. Even better, a woman could write it who had also written a poem about rape (“triggers,” referred to in the email) and previously published it in their journal.

To be honest, I was not nearly as bothered by this request then as I am now. My response to the editors was very friendly—I thanked them for thinking of me.

I would feel bad publishing this correspondence at all, but the editors of this magazine opened themselves up to this kind of thing when they published a ranting (sexist, ageist, tone-deaf, all kinds of adjectives) critique of a number of contemporary poets in their final issue, for which the negative review was actually intended.

I rehash the existence of this bullshit
essay only to talk about one common response I heard

—all, I should say, from writers who regretted saying so once we had more time to think about the issue—


“Sure, it’s fucked up, but what’s really offensive is how badly written it is.”

I remember saying a version of this myself.

I had found the writing so annoying that I had stopped reading too early to even find out it was offensive;

          the prose gave the impression it was saying something so exciting and damning, but
          it didn’t seem to be saying anything at all;
          it was all tone without meaning, as far as I could see.

Only later that night, drunkenly arguing with a friend, did I hear my own retort:

“How could a lack of stylistic clarity be “more offensive” than threatening statutory rape?”

Which that essay did.

I frequently hear writers observe the priority of “bad writing” over other offences, though.

It seems like one way of redirecting attention,

however sloppily, to the issue of writing
itself, I imagine,
and it comes from the recognition that lots of art
has justified its offensiveness
by way of some other merit.

But if “bad writing” is a description that can cover up the offensiveness of someone else’s writing, it is more often used to cover up one’s own shittiness:

—In the comments section to “The Rape Joke,” as well as to Lockwood’s follow-up post, you can read all kinds of people pretending to be more worried about quality poetry than about rape.

By which I mean that their pretense to concern
          —surely, they don’t roam the internet telling every poem they dislike it, or their
          personal lives would suffer—
        seems like a thinly-veiled way of voicing their anger that someone made them think
          about her rape.

These circumstances share the hope of replacing
a more difficult explanation of offense
with the idea of good or bad writing.

In the context of this poem, it means finding another, more “intellectual” way
          to tell a woman she should not have spoken, which women are often told not to do,
          but especially when they
          1. Intend to tell a story that implicates men’s role in the horrifying normalcy of sexual                    
          violence, on which much has been written recently, or
          2. Put themselves in the position of Speaker, of Writer, of an authority not first given to                  
          them by someone else.

I wrote this part last year, during a context of another moment of everyone-on-my-internet talking about rape, when I was binge-reading women’s stories of assault and hating myself for the fact that it meant I wasn’t getting my work done. I have never heard of a male friend failing to get his work done because he read about rape all day long, but maybe they do, too. I quit writing this for a while.

Then, I came back to this essay a few months later, in a week full of people describing being raped by men in the alt-lit community.

And again, what’s really offensive,
according to people all over the internet,
          is how bad the sentences are in these men’s novels.

And these are the people on the right side, the side who believe the accusers!

They’re equally happy to have an aesthetic they hate connected to assault as they are supportive of the victims.

(You don’t even want to read the shitheads on the “other side,”
          the side that uses phrases like “grey area” and “witch hunt” and “ruining a young
          man’s life with a Serious accusation;”
the people on the wrong side are seriously concerned that these accusations might hurt the writing scene:
          “Perhaps the end of HTMLGiant spells the end of the sentence.”

While the latter is far worse—at least the first only hopes to find evidence of shittiness in the prose quality, rather than excusing shittiness for prose quality’s sake—they are both stupid.


So I’m writing this essay after all, to say:

Fuck you if you think bad writing is more offensive than rape.


And so—what about bad poems? Should we care about them, when there are more important things to care about?

Of course, I think we can care about all the aesthetic descriptions that add up to an individual justification of a “good poem” while caring about whether the poem is offensive, and while caring about the fact that the place to fight violence is largely outside of poems, as it requires a more violent strategy than poetry normally offers. 

But let’s return to Low’s point: that bad poems might be good.

—That men need to write worse poems if they want to take on the position of femininity.

(She doesn’t say that, but that’s how I’m reading the end of her essay.)

—That we need silly poems by male poets, that is, as a larger struggle towards changing women’s relationship to silliness, or badness, in poetry.

And that the move from “bad” to “good” happens in small ways; the “badness” of feminine content providing a way to think through a poem’s critical relationship to constructions of gender.

But also:

that we can’t determine, in advance, what aesthetic will produce a “good poem,”

that we can’t determine, in advance, what “content” or “form” will advance “the cause”

that to think through any of these questions,
                       is this a good poem?
                       is this writer performing gender in a way I find interesting?
                       what is the relationship between this poem and bigotry?
                       what formal strategies is the writer using?
                       have these formal strategies historically been complicit with things the writer                                   
                       doesn’t want to be complicit with?
                       if so, is it fair to say these strategies might function differently in the context of
                       this specific text than in others?
                       why is s/he/they writing about this subject?

it’s possible to think through them in relationship to each other.


So the men can start writing worse poems

          —and not “worse” as a replacement for “offensive;”
          don’t forget, we’re going to quit worrying about “bad writing”
          when people are writing sexist garbage

          —and not “bad writing” in the sense of
          “needs to be workshopped by jerks”

          —but “worse” in the sense of “less serious.”

and I’ll be happy for them, and I’ll read them.

But “then” “after” “men” “start” “writing” “bad” “poems”

(that are “bad,” in this case, in a “good” way, i.e. they somehow resemble “women’s writing.”)


Someone has to write  “good” “ones.”

“Good ones,” that is, that engage
the recurrent and often painful need to exaggerate
or reject outright or caricature or ignore
or sexualize or otherwise modify
the poem’s performance of gender,
without recourse to a dumb “natural” way-of-being
from which this exaggeration could be said to emerge.


Serious Poems By