Mark O’Connell, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever

Epic Fail was the sort of book that sparked off so many thoughts in different directions that I barely scratched the surface of what I wanted to talk about in last weekend’s column. This is a bit unfair for a book this short, but I found myself involved and implicated and prone to go off on tangents. But perhaps that is best avoided.

It’s also a very, very funny book.



William McGonagall was a Scottish poet who never really gained the kind of critical success he would have liked. This is true of many writers, and it doesn’t explain McGonagall’s fame. And he is famous; Spike Milligan wrote and starred in a movie about him (also starring Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria), J.K. Rowling named one of her more competent professors after him. An unpublished poem by him is to be auctioned off this summer and is expected to fetch thousands of pounds. Terry Pratchett’s fictional Nac Mac Feegle clans feature a “gonnagle”, a bard whose battle tactic is to drive away his enemies with the sheer force of bad poetry. Because McGonagall wasn’t just so bad that no one but he himself could fail to see it; he was persistent. This is a man who walked across the country to Balmoral to read his work to Queen Victoria (he was turned away at the gates). He would recite his work in public undeterred by the crowds who came to throw things at him. And the crowds came, because it is so entertaining to watch people fail.

In Epic Fail, Mark O’Connell discusses the phenomenon of people gaining viral fame simply by being very bad at what they do. It’s a phenomenon those of us who use the internet a lot know well. We’ve all seen Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video, or the artistic efforts of an elderly Spanish lady whose attempt to restore a church fresco produced something more simian than saintlike. But this isn’t limited to the internet; as anyone knows who has watched the audition stages of a reality TV show, or attended a dramatic reading of Fifty Shades of Grey. O’Connell traces the history of this kind of mocking of bad art, and explores why other people’s public failures continue to fascinate us.

One source of this fascination is the fact that sufficiently bad art may not only expose itself, but also lay bare the pretensions of good art. In a chapter on the Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros, O’Connell describes the writers prose as so bad as to “expose the whole endeavour of making art out of language as essentially and irredeemably fraudulent—and, even worse, silly”. Likewise Tommy Wiseau’s legendarily awful film The Room might be considered to subvert (inadvertently) the conventions of cinema, and the hilarious (intentionally) “Pyramus & Thisbe” meta-play in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be said to make the plot of Romeo & Juliet ridiculous.

But far more crucial to our interest is the figure of the artist herself; the presence of a misguided person whose understanding of their own competence is so tragically wrong. It’s this “paradoxically humanistic and cruel constitution of the Epic Fail” that Epic Fail is really interested in. What are we doing when we participate in this form of humour; how important is it to the spectacle that the artist be unaware of her own failings; how much of our laughter is based in the knowledge that this could be us; at what point does it tip over into cruelty and bullying?

And it’s this that makes Epic Fail such a familiar, uncomfortable read. What we laugh at and why is about as personal a subject as there is. This makes it a hard book to discuss in isolation, when the experience of reading it is so closely tied up in the ways one is oneself implicated. O’Connell’s willing to make it personal for himself as well—the last chapter is in part an account of a cruel joke in which he participated. He’s also willing (with the kind of self-reflexiveness that makes it unlikely that we will ever be the subject of such viral fame) to (over-)examine that response; is it self-flagellation, is it overcompensation? Epic Fail manages to be introspective and uncomfortable while all the while remaining fully aware of the inherent funniness of the art objects whose fetishisation it questions.


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