Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bulwer-Lytton lives on!

Most people have never heard of Victorian author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Even of the most avid readers, most have never read one of his books. Yet the first words of his novel "Paul Clifford," written in 1830, are familiar to almost everyone. Why?  Because they were immortalized by Snoopy in the comic strip "Peanuts." These first words are: "It was a dark and stormy night..."

See?  I knew you'd recognize them. But what you might not realize is that those are only the first few words of the sentence which begins the novel:
"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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
This sentence has spawned an interesting literary contest called, appropriately enough, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. It was begun in 1982 by the English department of San Jose State University. The challenge was to create a badly-written opening sentence for the worst of imaginary novels, while keeping the tone and style of the opening sentence from "Paul Clifford." While the original sentence was a little awkward and contained a shift in perspective, I never found it that bad an opening sentence. But nevertheless, thanks to the contest, it has been the inspiration for some of the most awful and funny opening sentences ever penned.

The contest has been going strong since then. The 2011 contest results have just been announced. See them here:

The grand prize-winning sentence is:
Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.
To me, this is not representative of the best (worst?) efforts of years gone by, since it is short by contest standards (only 26 words) and not that rambling. My favorite grand prize winner was this one, awarded in 2002:
On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.
Here's the complete list of past grand prize winners:
Let me know which you think is the best/worst.

Although Bulwer-Lytton's name is now synonymous with bad writing, I think the author has gotten a bad rap. He was a very popular novelist, poet, and playwright of his time, and also a politician. Besides being the originator of that famous dark and stormy night, he was also the creator of a few other memorable phrases such as "the pen is mightier than the sword" (from his play "Richelieu") and "pursuit of the almighty dollar" (from his novel "The Coming Race"). So here's to Lord Bulwer-Lytton, a baron and minor Victorian author who has created several memorable literary phrases and provided the inspiration for thousands of dreadful ones.


1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, it's fun to revisit the past winners. I've always said I'd enter, but never have. Guess I'm too good to win! ;-)