This whimsical competition, which exalts terrifyingly bad opening sentences to (fortunately) never-to-be-completed books, at once displays the brimming wit of would-be wordsmiths ... and reminds us that the distance between such examples of execrable composition and what actually sells in bookstores these days can sometimes be frighteningly short, indeed.
Named in dubious honor of George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), whose 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, began with the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” this contest has been sponsored by the English Department at California’s San Jose State University since 1982. According to the contest Web site, thousands of people enter annually and collections of past winning entries have been published over the years (though they aren’t currently in print). “We want writers with a little talent, but no taste,” explains San Jose State English professor Scott Rice.
The winner of this year’s 23rd annual challenge, by Dan McKay, a 43-year-old quantitative analyst with Microsoft Great Plains, in Fargo, North Dakota, certainly shows such a paucity of aestheticism, though no lack of imagination:
As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.But a couple of the also-rans do equal damage to the reputation of novelistic prose. Consider, for instance, this exotic entry from Eric Winter of Minneapolis, Minnesota:
It was high noon in the jungles of South India when I began to recognize that if we didn't find water for our emus soon, it wouldn't be long before we would be traveling by foot; and with the guerilla warriors fast on our heals, I was starting to regret my decision to use poultry for transportation.Or this submission typifying America’s rampant ignorance of foreign cultures, from Ken Aclin of Shreveport, Louisiana:
India, that hangs like a wet washcloth from the towel rack of Asia, presented itself to Tex as he landed in Delhi (or was it Bombay?), as if it mattered because Tex finally had an idea to make his mark and fortune and that idea was a chain of steak houses to serve the millions and he wondered, as he deplaned down the steep, shiny, steel steps, why no one had thought of it before.The winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest receives $250. Which is not nearly enough to cover the cost of his or her necessary escape from public view.