Great “Bad” Writing: The 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Winners

Anyone who ever read a Peanuts comic strip knows that Snoopy frequently sat at his typewriter and plunked out “It was a dark and stormy night. . .” While the line may be famous, the writer and originator of the line is less so: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a Victorian novelist apparently fond of long, rambling, odd sentences. The “dark and stormy” sentence reads, in its entirety:

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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

The English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest since 1982, seeking the very best in the worst of opening sentences in novels. And I am so pleased to see that the winners of the 2008 contest have been announced. This year’s grand prize winner, Garrison Spik, hails from Washington, D.C.:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”

I urge everyone to go the the winners’ website and read the offerings, for there are many, many offerings that will bring a smile, chuckle, or inappropriate snort to one’s being. Some of my favorites are the following:

For the Philip Marlowe meets Martha Stewart genre:

The hardened detective glanced at his rookie partner and mused that who ever had coined the term “white as a sheet” had never envisioned a bed accessorized with a set of Hazelnut, 500-count Egyptian cotton linens from Ralph Lauren complimented by matching shams and a duvet cover nor the dismembered body of its current occupant.

Russ Winter
Janesville, MN

In The Woman-Done-Wrong category:

Bill swore the affair had ended, but Louise knew he was lying, after discovering Tupperware containers under the seat of his car, which were not the off-brand containers that she bought to save money, but authentic, burpable, lidded Tupperware; and she knew he would see that woman again, because unlike the flimsy, fake containers that should always be recycled responsibly, real Tupperware must be returned to its rightful owner.

Jeanne Villa
Novato, CA

Worst Pun EVER:

Vowing revenge on his English teacher for making him memorize Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” Warren decided to pour sugar in her gas tank, but he inadvertently grabbed a sugar substitute so it was actually Splenda in the gas.

Becky Mushko
Penhook, VA

And my Favorite Homage to a Victorian Dark and Story Writer Author:

It was a dark and stormy night, except when the lightning flashed, because then it wasn’t dark; it sort of turned the windows into a giant disco ball for a moment, but eventually the thunder and lightning stopped and it settled down to a steady light rain, so then it really was dark, but it would probably be a stretch to call it stormy.

Laura Loomis
Pittsburg, CA

These writers totally just made my day.

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16 Responses to “Great “Bad” Writing: The 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Winners”

  1. Becky Mushko Says:

    I’m glad my vile pun was one of your favorites!

  2. toddiedowns Says:

    Ooh, I’m so excited you posted!! I feel I am in the presence of greatness. What makes it so wonderful is that it takes a couple seconds to register the pun, and then blammo. So so funny. You are a warped, warped woman, and I mean that in the best way.

  3. GeekPornGirl Says:

    Oh, thank you! It’s nice to see the Bay Area so (well?) represented!

  4. toddiedowns Says:

    Seriously, reading the winners’ entries was the highlight of my whole week. And I KNOW how hard it is to be funny with such a limited amount of time and space. Props to everyone who contributed.

  5. Digital Dame Says:

    I burst out laughing at “Splenda in the gas”. That’s priceless.

  6. toddiedowns Says:

    Maybe Becky will comment again. I’d love to know the evolution of the sentence. I feel like she must have come up with the pun first, and then structured a scenario around it. What I want to know is, how did she come up with the pun? It is just wicked funny.

  7. Digital Dame Says:

    I always wonder how people come up with this stuff. I bet Becky’d be a scream to have lunch with!

  8. Becky Mushko Says:

    Well, since you encouraged me, I’ll comment again.

    I’m not sure how this pun popped into my head (and then went through several rewrites). I was thinking about the old movie, Splendor in the Grass, that starred Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, which led me to try to remember the poem the English teacher quoted in class, so I Googled the phrase “Splendor in the Grass” to get the right words, and I was drinking Diet Coke sweetened with Splenda, and something must have clicked. I didn’t think this entry would win, since you have to be an English teacher to get it, but then the contest is run by an English professor. . . .

    Don’t know if I’d be a scream for lunch, but if you want to see more of my dreadful writing (that a local paper actually pays me to do), check out some of my older “Peevish Advice” columns at http://peevishadvice.blogspot.com.

    In a few days, I’ll post some of my other Bulwer-Lytton entries that didn’t win on my main blog, Peevish Pen.

    I appreciate y’all’s comments.

  9. Kermitz Says:

    Although English is my second language, I do ‘get’ and enjoy most word-based humour. But I don’t get the “Splenda in the gas” pun. It’s been bugging me for two days now. What is it referring to? Can someone help, please?

  10. toddiedowns Says:

    See Becky’s post; she must’ve psychically felt your confusion. You pretty much have to be a movie geek to get this. Don’t feel bad. . .

  11. zorg Says:

    Here’s another way to describe it. It’s from a line in the Wordsworth poem the author is complaining about having to memorize.

    What though the radiance which was once so bright
    Be now for ever taken from my sight,
    Though nothing can bring back the hour
    Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

    The expression “splendour in the grass” was later adopted by William Inge to symbolize repressed love. He used it as the title for the movie mentioned in the post above yours. Note that the romantic lead is played by Warren Beatty and the English student in her entry is named Warren. Perhaps she meant to convey some obscure feelings on the part of the protagonist. That would make sense in the context because some tortured, obscure coda is standard in the contest.

    An essential ingredient to a Bulwer-Lytton contest entry seems to be the novelist’s assumption that the reader will greet the tortured coda with enthusiasm, and suspend disbelief with the load-bearing power of a suspended-deck suspension bridge, but without the low deck stiffness and need for aerodynamic profiling implied by that choice of bridges.

  12. toddiedowns Says:

    Zorg – Thank you for the additional references. Please note I edited some of your post to remove any unintended rudeness (which I, as mom of this site, do not tolerate). I must admit, I’m unclear as to whether your final paragraph is intended to be criticism or an homage to the Bulwer-Lytton contest, since your imagery seems to be quite in line with most of the contestants.

  13. W von Bulow Says:

    RE: Becky Mushko: Maybe the US citizens know what Splenda is, but others have to guess that it is a sugar substitute.
    Great stuff though!

  14. J.R. Says:

    Sorry, but Splenda in the gas, while hilarious, is not, in the narrowest sense, a pun. It’s a play on words.

    From Miriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary:

    PUN:
    Etymology: perhaps from Italian puntiglio fine point, quibble — more at punctilio Date: 1662
    : the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound

    Here’s an example of a pun:

    There was the person who sent ten different puns to his friends, with the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

    Loved the bad writing!

    J.R.

  15. toddiedowns Says:

    Ooh, SNAP! Touche, J.R.! (and I would’ve put the accent acute on it, but I don’t know how on this keyboard) Stick a Dunce cap on me and put me in the corner until I classify the two correctly. Kind of like Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” song where virtually nothing in it is actually ironic. So embarrassing.

  16. Becky Mushko Says:

    Oddly enough, I submitted this, as I did my ten or so other entries, as a general entry. The contest organizers put it into the pun category.

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