It is time again for the annual cuckoo Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. In this competition, the good folk in the English department of San Jose State University seek "the worst possible opening sentence for an imaginary novel," perpetrated in 50 words or less.
One would think that current popular fiction would provide such sentences in nauseating abundance. But no, the fun-loving California conspirators believe ordinary citizens can write just as disgustingly as professional authors who receive royalties in obscene amounts.Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73) was a kind of literary serial killer. He wrote a prodigious number of fleetingly popular but genuinely awful novels. His pompous and convoluted works are rarely read today, perhaps because they are so unreadable.
He actually opened one novel, "Paul Clifford," with "It was a dark and stormy night," which the doghouse author Snoopy picked up and made famous.
The goofier a sentence, the more the judges are likely to hug it. John L. Ashman, 69, of Houston, topped 10,000 entries last year with this hernia-inducing japery: "Paul Revere had just discovered that someone in Boston was a spy for the British, and when he saw the young woman believed to be the spy's girlfriend in an Italian restaurant, he said to the waiter, `Hold the spumoni - I'm going to follow the chick an' catch a Tory.' "
The grand prize was a cheap word processor.
Having written bad sentences for years with little effort, I sent a couple of dozen entries to the current contest. Here are four, presented publicly without fear that anyone will care to steal them:
- At the bull ring in Pamplona, Jake said to Lady Brett, "A bullfight means something different to everyone who sees it; so send not to ask for whom the bull toils, it toils for thee."
- "I didn't want to surrender," said the venerable General Lee, "but times were hard Down South and I couldn't turn down a federal Grant."
- Dr. Watson pondered the symptoms of his friend Sherlock's stomach ache and said, "It's alimentary, my dear Holmes - that's my gut opinion."
- Mrs. Rhett Butler wrote to her husband that she craved more social status, money and slaves; but when the message was intercepted by the Yankees, the Scarlett Letter, filled with pride and prejudice, was gone with the wind.
OK, those are bad, really bad - but I'm afraid not bad enough to win.