“That Sentence Should Be Taken Out and Shot”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of sentences, improperly executed.

You already know exactly what kinds of sentences the “taken out and shot” quip refers to: long, drawn-out constructs of mixed metaphors and tortured simile (“A riveting wit that commands a commotion like gasoline on an ant-hill”), gigantic leaps of logical absurdity (“construction of the pyramids must have been directed from a spaceship from 10,000 feet”) … “It was a dark and stormy night.” Exactly: Bulwer-Lytton fodder.

But where did the “taken out and shot” quip originally come from?

I first read that great quip somewhere in the early 1990’s. I never forgot it. I did forget where I read it. It could be that I read in in one of the Bulwer-Lytton prizewinners.

As other searchers have already noted, Google is cloudy (dark and stormy) on the subject. I ran into a December 2009 newsgroup thread at derkeiler.com where my question had already been posed.

As you might expect, usage of the quote would be popular in academic and publishing circles. Think English 101 and Creative Writing. I get the sense that the quote is part of the idiom: it seems to have been around a lot longer than we have.

I don’t have an answer to the question of origin. As I am incapable of figuring out how to reply to the derkeiler.com thread, I’m adding these recollections to the clues database. Hopefully a better scholar than I will pick up on it and prove or refute it.

I believe I once read the “taken out and shot” quote in correspondence, somewhere, between Wallace Stegner and Bernard DeVoto. As I recall Stegner’s accounting, DeVoto was despondent about the developing complexity of his draft work on the history of the American West. Stegner egged him on and the work was completed. DeVoto was also a scholar of Mark Twain and had published three Twain compendiums before I was even born. If either writer used the “taken out and shot” remark, I’d put my money on DeVoto.

If so, in which work might Stegner have repeated this comment? I don’t own either of the Stegner works referenced in the Wikipedia DeVoto article, so my first guess would be Stegner’s short Q&A collection “On the Teaching of Creative Writing.”

Not having this thin paperback at my disposal for my post, I’ll be content to leave these speculative musings for others who, struggling to get a life, may finally resolve this thread for us before invading alien life forces transmogrify my post into lignified custard tarts.

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