Wednesday, July 3, 2013


The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is a tongue-in-cheek contest that takes place annually and is sponsored by the English Department of San Jose State University in San Jose, California. Entrants are invited "to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels" – that is, deliberately bad.
The contest was started in 1982 by Professor Scott E. Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University and is named for English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, author of the much-quoted first line "It was a dark and stormy night", which is also quoted by Snoopy in the cartoon strip Peanuts.  Here is the opening, from the 1830 novel Paul Clifford:

“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.”

The first year of the competition attracted just three entries, but it went public the next year, received media attention, and attracted 10,000 entries. There are now several subcategories, such as detective fiction, romance novels, Western novels, and purple prose. Sentences that are notable but not quite bad enough to merit the Grand Prize or a category prize are awarded Dishonorable Mentions.
Here are some examples --

“Your eyes are like deep blue pools that I would like to drown in,” he had told Kimberly when she had asked him what he was thinking; but what he was actually thinking was that sometimes when he recharges his phone he forgets to put a little plug back in but he wasn’t going to tell her that.

Tucked in a dim corner of The Ample Bounty Bar & Grille, Alice welcomed the fervent touch of the mysterious stranger’s experienced hands because she had not been this close with a man in an achingly long time and, quivering breathlessly, began to think that this could be the beginning of something real, something forever, and not just a one-time encounter with a good Samaritan who was skilled at the Heimlich Maneuver.

They still talk about that fateful afternoon in Abilene, when Dancing Dan DuPre moonwalked through the doors of Fat Suzy’s saloon, made a passable reverse-turn, pirouetted twice followed by a double box-step, somersaulted onto the bar, drew his twin silver-plated Colt-45s and put twelve bullets through the eyes of the McLuskey sextuplets, on account of them varmints burning down his ranch and lynching his prize steer.

He got down from his horse, which seemed strange to him as he had always believed that you got down from a duck or a goose.

Her skin was like flocked wallpaper and her eyes had seen better days, but when her bloodless lips murmured “Hi, Sailor,” my  heart melted from the inside out like one of those chocolate-covered ice cream bars on a summer day that runs down your arm and gets all over your new shirt.

The highlight of a weekend in the nation’s capital was unwrapping that weirdly light packet, revealing the tri-colored brick within.  It had the consistency of Styrofoam and left a strange slick film on the back of your teeth; even at that age, if pressed, I would have had to admit that regular, Earth ice cream was in every way superior. But astronaut ice cream came with the ultimate added-value, better than hot fudge or peanuts: I was eating what astronauts ate!


Surprise! This last one is not from the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest. It is, word for word, taken directly from the June, 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, page 58, should you care to check it out.

More tomorrow - promise!

1 comment:

  1. Re that last paragraph--Tang! Space sticks in our lunches! Ah yes, I *am* a child of the '60's and '70's.