The English Teacher

Bulwer-Lytton Contest Article


This is the text of the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest that gave me the idea for a unit in my creative writing class.
From the Oregonian, May 17, 1984, B3

SAN JOSE, Calif. - The third annual competition to see who can write the worst possible opening sentence for a novel has produced entries even more deplorable than those last year, contest judges at San Jose State University say.

"There must be a lot of aspiring terrible writers out there," said Scott Rice, a professor of English at San Jose State. "This year we have some wonderfully terrible sentences."

The winning sentence was composed by Steve Garman, city manager of Pensacola, Fla., who wrote: "The lovely woman-child Kaa was mercilessly chained to the cruel post of the warrior-chief Beast, with his barbarian tribe now stacking wood at her nubile feet, when the strong clear voice of the poetic and heroic Handsomas roared, 'Flick your Bic, crisp that chick, and you'll feel my steel through your last meal.' "

For that, Garman will be awarded a word processor.

The runner-up, Joan C. Gilliam of Houston, will be awarded a 30-volume set of the complete works of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lyton, a minor Victorian novelist noted for the opening line of his novel "Paul Clifford" which began, "It was a dark and stormy night...."

Gilliam wrote: "I had left the barbecue quite hurriedly with sketchy directions to the ladies room 'out back,' and now faced a black cow wearing one red earring standing beneath an ill windmill, bladeless and bent from years of prevailing winds, as he watches me with bovine detachment, my heels sunk arch-deep into the mire... I hate the country!"

Garman, who was awarded dishonorable mention last year for an entry of what he termed "some astonishingly bad writing," said he had entered four sentences in this year's competition and that the winning sentence did not take too long to compose. "It's really rather a quick process," he said. "The ones that I thought were the best didn't take much time or effort."

The bad writing competition, for which the English Department at San Jose State has received national recognition, was organized by Rice to provide an outlet for writers who could not normally be able to get anything published. The sentences were divided into 16 categories, including historical romance, plain brown wrapper, horror, murder mystery, and modern romance.

"If you put writing in the same category with other interests like softball, golf or chess, there are outlets available for amateurs," said Rice, who has taught advanced writing at San Jose State for 15 years. "In writing there's only room for a handful of good or lucky people."

Rice said that the competition had been named Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest because Bulwer-Lytton "really shows us something of the nature of true badness." His books are "hard to read, his characters are one-dimensional, they are not psychologically interesting and there is a lifeless formality to them," the professor said. What is more, he continued: "His plots are filled with all kinds of coincidences and improbabilities."

The judges did not record the number of entries, but Rice said he believed more than 4,000 amateurs had sent in sentences from all over the country, and also from Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Papua, New Guinea. The contestants included a large number of lawyers, and doctors, secretaries, electrical engineers, prison inmates and policeman.

According to Sharon Brown, one of the 14 judges, who is an English lecturer at San Jose State, the winner's sentence had all of the aspects of bad writing that the judges sought. It had anticlimax, wordiness, misplaced modifiers, overblown triteness and parody. "We were looking for examples of people using inspired errors," she said.

The judges took seven hours to wade through the 500 final entries of particularly bad prose and at times the discussions got heated. Rice said that although the contest was called a bad writing contest, it really took some skill to put together some of the sentences. "A craftsman, in order to achieve the required results, has to be in control of his materials," he said.


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