Generally, the point of publishing a manuscript is to distribute a good book into the world. Generally. However, there is a particularly naughty writing competition that declares winners each year: the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, “the funniest opening sentences from the worst novels never written.” The aim is simple: be deplorably, groaningly bad.
The name of the Contest derives from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who began Paul Clifford with:
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 rooftops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
I have the 1984 compilation, and spent the past couple of weeks snorting delicately into my lunch and slapping Post-Its on my favorites. It is also an immense pleasure to read them out loud – which I recommend you do with these:
Detective Sergeant Thudley Snigger pedaled manfully down the narrow, unmetaled – and therefore decidedly mucky – lane that led to the very minor village of Skinny Dipping, Dulcet, pondering the possible kinetic effects of removing his training wheels.
A sharp-pointed wing-tipped brogan hit me in the crotch – POW! – and it hurt real bad but Bobby Joelvitch Korisov the KGB agent had no idea he had tangled with Sister Theresa, disguised as a man, representing VESPER (Vatican Expeditionary Secret Police and Elite Religionists) so I just laughed – HA, HA! – and kicked him in the crotch with my black low-heeled Gucci health shoe, and watched in amusement as the Commie chauvinist pig scuttled off in a very low crouch.
Ruby Jewel pranced back and forth across the corral, her long, sorrel mane and tail frothily floating behind her like an otherworldly afterglow, and then, her arched neck silhouetted against the salmon-pink dawn for one scintillating suspended second, she wheeled and trotted toward Timothy with a low, undulating whinny, thus signaling her farewell to the freedom of the open range of yore, and she nuzzled her velvety nose into his upturned palm, as with her soulful, chocolate-brown eyes she told him that she was his own, dear, equine princess at last.
By the remorseless light above the operating table, which shone deep into the blood-washed cave of the open chest, hazel-eyed nurse Cynthia watched Dr. Wilson’s hands do their work on the heart, and in a sudden swell of passion she felt jealousy toward the patient.
As had happened other evenings in the past – not every evening to be sure, but this evening in particular – as I reclined in my easy chair to contemplate the events of the day (some good, some bad; all in all a fairly unremarkable day and quite comparable to many others) over my before-dinner brandy, which I had come to prefer over my favorite of previous years – scotch ad soda, mixed on the strong side with only a little ice – it occurred to me that perhaps I should again propose to Alicia despite the fact that at least one previous such occasion that I could recall she appeared to have fallen asleep before I had quite finished.
It’s quite ridiculous. However, it serves as an excellent antidote to the self-conscious books we see today, whose covers scream how Intellectual they are; that the emotional journey to be undertaken is Unparalleled – or Paralleled by Giants of Literature. I have a very hard time taking these books seriously; it’s why Life of Pi was a letdown. It’s lovely to come across something that has no hype at all: you get what they promise, and it’s a great read.
In the spirit of Bulwer-Lytton, I give my own contributions:
“Like sliding a snake in a saddle bag, Detective Jed filed the case of Mrs. Joshua Mason and Mrs. Sigfried Seidlander, twin arsonists and corpulent polka dancers, who had perished in dual pools of their own gunsmoke.”
“It is a dark and stormy night – but I get ahead of myself.”
“Matilda’s fit of grammatical ponderance made it easy for the gang of leathered linguists to catch up with her and force upon her grotesquely writhing form a bowl of alphabet soup.”
“‘For crying out loud!’ muttered Angelina as Josephine passed Marlene a note, expressing the necessity that Margaret violate Dirk’s carefully prepared artisanal rhubarb-kissed gelatin with the aid of her amorous tortiose, Princess Cassandra.”
Should you wish to enter the competition or read the winning entries, visit their website here.