Monday, 21 June 2010

The worst sentence in world literature

I recently wrote my first negative review in a national newspaper. It was a for a book that I didn’t exactly hold out much hope for – it concerned the problems of a white, middle-class writer on the verge of turning forty – but I was determined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Within the first fifteen lines, however, the author had used a sentence that to me remains a kind of literary bête noir; a turn of phrase which without fail causes me to shudder. What upsets me about it is its prevalence, despite its utter redundancy: a sequence of words easily found in airport pulp novels, aspirational literature and everything in between. The book was bad enough, thank you all the same, without this abhorrant sentence, and its close cousins, being repeated several times.

Now I do have some bugbears when it comes to literary fiction. I groan if rivers are brackish, I wince if sunlight slants through a window, and harrumph loudly at salt and pepper hair. These are words and descriptions that exist only in one medium, in much the same way that the words pooch, bonk and fury are only used in tabloid newspapers. But I can forgive these for many authors, but what I can’t accept is the following sentence, and it should be struck from any script ever. Okay. Loud exhalation of breath . . .

“I can remember it just like it was yesterday.”

It makes my arm itch just looking at it.

You see, the problem with it is that one of redundancy. This sentence is normally either appended to the end of a description, or prefixes one. Either way it is unnecessary. In a first-person narrative, one can only narrate what you remember: so what is the point in telling the reader that they remember it like it was yesterday? What is gained by this? Apart from a sense of over-arching importance, obviously. It means nothing, it’s just marking time: authors surely should have a bit more confidence in the reader's ability to work out that the narrator remembers something pretty well, considering they fucking wrote about it.

Perhaps it’s a device to ensure that readers aren’t panicked into thinking half way through that the narrator might just stop and say “Actually, I can’t really remember where I was going with this. A young girl? Picnic, lightening? It rings a bell. Have I told you the one about the university professor?” In sales, they call these dog words; the things you say while you’re working out what to say next to close the deal. In literature it’s the most empty way of feeding the page.

Not only that, it’s misleading. We understand that remembering something as though it was yesterday, is to suggest that it is still livid in the mind. Except, this is complete balls and piss. I can recall things from fifteen years ago with far greater clarity than the events of yesterday (pub? Football? I can’t even remembered who scored). Ask any old giffer what they had for dinner yesterday and the quality of life during rationing and you’ll get chapter and verse on using chipfat for Brylcream and the delights of powdered egg along with a shrug and a guess that they had pie and mash for dinner the night before.

I propose the phrase be outlawed in literature. Is there anything worse? I mean, really?


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  2. (Above deleted due to shocking typos)


    I wonder what you'd make of Scarlett Thomas' latest book? It, um asks questions of story and gives you no lead in to each reminiscence/recollection, so that notions of the here and now and memory tend to get blurred... You wish she could remember it like yesterday...

    You reminded me of a line I hated TV dramatists always resorting to: "You know, you're really much cleverer that you let on"... at which point everyone emits a huge sigh of relief and the teenage delinquent under dramatic scrutiny is now empowered to speak (and emote) just like the Oxbridge screenplay writer himself, because it was far too uncomfortable an assignment to try and script his dialogue like it was Wayne Rooney speaking...

  3. 向著星球長驅直進的人,反比踟躕在峽路上的人,更容易達到目的。............................................................