Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dark and stormy - the Bulwer-Lytton competition

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Yesterday, I blogged about Elmore Leonard's rules for good writing. Today, it seems only fair that I give equal time to the other side of the coin, so to speak.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an early 19th century English novelist, has the reputation of having composed some of the worst fiction in English ever, as the above example of his first sentence to his novel Paul Clifford may serve to illustrate. In fact, his beginning, "It was a dark and stormy night," has become a well-worn cliche, conferring on Bulwer-Lytton a kind of immortality which perhaps his writing does not really deserve.   


(Full disclosure: When I was a teenager, one summer, I read Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii and I actually quite enjoyed it.  I also read Tolstoy's War and Peace and enjoyed it so much that I turned around and read the whole thing again. All of which probably tells you more than you want or need to know about my teenage summers.)


Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. Each year, they are flooded with examples of awful, terrible, no-good prose from enthusiastic entrants from around the world. This year's winners have now been announced and I would say they are definitely up to Bulwer-Lytton standards.


Here are a few of my personal favorites from the 2013 competition.


  • When the slinky redhead slunk into the throbbing, strobe-lit nightclub, Elwood’s eyes fastened on her the way a toilet plunger will fasten onto a hard surface if you shove it down just right, but her returning glance, while smoldering, was actually more caustic and burned his tender ego the way liquid Drano can burn your hand if you spill some on it, having disregarded the manufacturer’s warning. — Jeff Treder, Springfield, OR
  • Mildred, sitting under the hair dryer at The Curl & Go and thumbing through a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, felt a shudder and a fleeting moment of commiseration when she saw those tiny thongs the models were sporting in the name of underwear because, as it happened, her own butt cheeks tended to gobble up her Fruit of the Loom For Mature Women white cotton panties like a pair of starving wolverines fighting over a flatfish. — Helen Grainge, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Before they met, his heart was a frozen block of ice, scarred by the skate blades of broken relationships, then she came along and like a beautiful Zamboni flooded his heart with warmth, scraped away the ugly slushy bits, and dumped them in the empty parking lot of his soul. — Howie McLennon, Ottawa, ON

The Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered around the feast, a veritable cornucopia of harvest and game, a gastronomic monument to the bountiful biodiversity of the land, and while Mrs. Standish’s cranberry sauce was a far cry from the homogeneous gelatinous can-imprinted sacrosanct blob which has become the holiday’s sine qua non, the rest of the food was good. — Jordan Kaderli, Dallas, TX 
  • Seeing Mrs. Kohler sink, Detective Moen flushed as he plugged the burglary as the unmistakable work of Cap Fawcet, the Mad Plumber, for not only had her pool of assets been drained, but her clogs were now missing, and the toilet had been removed, leaving them with absolutely nothing to go on.— Eric J. Hildeman, Greenfield, WI
But this is 2013's Grand Prize winner. I think you will agree with me that even Edward Bulwer-Lytton could not have written a worse first sentence for a novel.

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. — Chris Wieloch, Brookfield, WI 

Click on this link to see all the winners and many of the runners-up in this year's competition. Fair warning: You might want to invest in some nose plugs first.

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