Before his death, Timothy Dexter was hailed as the worst writer of all time.
Born in 1748 to a poor working family in the British colony of Massachusetts, Dexter took to the fields around age 8 and never received much of an education. By chance, he married a wealthy widow whose equally wealthy friends liked to make fun of him for being a “plain-spoken man” — which is to say, a man lacking refinement: a wide-mouthed asshole.
And he was. Timothy Dexter had opinions on everything, usually quite awful, and his wife’s friends, being narrow-mouthed assholes, liked to tease him with terrible business advice on the hopes that it might “teach him a lesson.”
They told him to ship coal to Newcastle, for example, which was a major coal producer. So he did. It arrived shortly before a coal miner’s strike, and he sold it at a profit.
They told him to ship winter gloves to the Caribbean islands. So he did, where he sold them to Asian sailors on their way to Siberia.
He sold bed-warmers as molasses ladles, Bibles to missionaries, and invested foolishly in a near-worthless “Continental currency” — which expanded his fortune again when, against everyone’s best predictions, the American colonists defeated the most powerful empire in the world.
Dexter built a mansion, which later became a hotel, and filled the grounds with statues of great men of the age: George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and himself. But try as he might, he could never win the respect of the upper class, who found his arrogance and vulgar opinions distasteful.
At one point, he faked his own death just to see who would show up at his funeral. When he noted his wife wasn’t crying, he leapt forth immediately, revealing the hoax, and took a cane to her.
At the age of 50, after amassing a fortune, Timothy Dexter decided he would write a book — about himself. “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress” ran to a mere 8,000-and-some words, an essay by modern standards, and was nothing but one long gripe: about politicians, about the clergy, about foreigners, and about his wife, without whose fortune he would have stayed a very poor man.
But the little book’s most notable quality, that for which it is best remembered, was that through all 33,864 letters, there was not a single punctuation mark. No periods. No commas. Nothing. There wasn’t even regular capitalization.
Dexter paid for the printing himself and handed the book out for free, just like any good indie author today. But following the same ridiculous luck he’d experienced his entire life, the damned thing took off, and Timothy Dexter’s tiny monstrosity ran through eight separate printings, despite widespread criticism from the literati that the lack of punctuation made it a grade-school farce.
Alas, the great public beast eats what it wants.
Dexter responded to his critics in typical style in the second edition. He appended an extra page to the book filled with nothing but punctuation — 13 lines of it, in fact — along with instructions that his readers should “peper and solt” the text as they pleased.
We all like what we like. Sometimes we even have reasons for it. I often pick on Neal Stephenson (not that he would give a shit) because I don’t particularly enjoy his books but the people who do REALLY do, and I enjoy poking them.
He lumbers. There’s action, of course, but his plots read like slow-motion recordings of a baseball pitcher in windup, which makes me think he’s the kind of guy who’s so proud of the delicious strike he’s about to deliver that he wants to make sure you see it in all its glorious detail.
Of course, if in your estimation he really does deliver a delicious strike, then all of that will seem worth it.
But, you say, just because I don’t like his stories doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate his writing ability, right?
Sure, especially versus someone like Stephenie Meyer. But then, as popular as Stephenson is, the Twilight series has pretty much blown him away, commercially. It even spawned a whole second series that ALSO blew him away — 50 Shades started its career as Twilight fan fiction.
I know people who enjoyed both. In each case, the writing, as a vehicle, for better or worse, delivered something they loved.
The problem is that, in fiction as in art, there is no sensical definition of “better.” Any criteria we choose will inevitably be a reflection of our own tastes. Does “better” mean “more technically proficient,” as Meyer’s critics often claim? If so, then the “best” writers are poets and authors of literature you don’t know and may never read, some of them quite astounding — people like Nayyirah Waheed, who self-published a book of her Instagram poetry:
you broke the ocean
in half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you.
For a lot of people, “better” seems to mean more enjoyable, regardless of diction or style. But then, how would we measure total enjoyment if not by sales? Fans of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling like this definition because it validates their tastes, but on that measure, Stephenie Meyer is also a great writer — much better, in fact, than Neal Stephenson or N.K. Jemisin, or the author of that one book you really liked.
The truth is, we don’t expect the same things from different books. What I want when I open a pulpy thriller is different than what I want from an erotic gay romance, or a book of poetry, or the latest Hugo Award winner, or whatever, and none of us judges any one of those on the same criteria as another even across our own tastes. How could we possibly reconcile our view with everyone else’s?
Some hundred years after Timothy Dexter died, James Joyce played the same trick with punctuation, to widespread critical acclaim, in his book Ulysses, which is often hailed as the greatest English-language novel of the 20th century. Which is the “better” punctuationless tome: the one the critics loved or the one that made lots of money?
I’ll end with this. In all the world, there is only one writer worse than me: the writer I was yesterday.
cover image: René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967) “The Art of Conversation,” 1963