The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

sir-edward-bulwer-lytton
We’ve featured mention of Edward Bulwer-Lytton here on The Dabbler before – and here he is again, courtesy of an unusual wikipedia article about an even more unusual writing competition…

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest takes place annually and is sponsored by the English Department of San Jose State University in San Jose, California. Entrants are invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” – that is, deliberately bad. According to the official rules, the prize for winning the contest is $250.

The contest was started in 1982 by Professor Scott E. Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University and is named for English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, author of the much-quoted first line “It was a dark and stormy night”. This opening, from the 1830 novel Paul Clifford, continues floridly:

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 first year of the competition attracted just three entries, but it went public the next year, received media attention, and attracted 10,000 entries. There are now several subcategories, such as detective fiction, romance novels, Western novels, and purple prose. Here’s 2013’s winner:

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. — Chris Wieloch, Brookfield, WI

And a few more from 2013 that I enjoyed:

“Don’t know no tunnels hereabout,” said the old-timer, “unless you mean the abandoned subway line that runs from Hanging Hill, under that weird ruined church, beneath the Indian burial ground, past the dilapidated Usher mansion, and out to the old abandoned asylum for the criminally insane where they had all those murders.” — Lawrence Person, Austin, TX

As the sun dropped below the horizon, the safari guide confirmed the approaching cape buffaloes were herbivores, which calmed everyone in the group, except for Herb, of course. — Ron D Smith, Louisville, KY

The dame was stacked, both conventionally and in that she was the third of five bodies piled against the wall, the wall’s earth tones reminding me of Grandmother’s house, which figured since it was her house, she having stacked the bodies there after poisoning them, so I studied the bodies as I munched on Grandmother’s ginger snaps and felt a twinge in my stomach. — Kenneth Bennight, San Antonio, TX

It was a long shot by any measure, good bowman though he was, and he didn’t want to risk it with his kid, but a lot was on the line, and that big, red apple was square on his dear boy’s head, and he had to shoot it off … then everything went still, and William Tell heard the sound of music, quiet, then gently rising, like an overture. — John Holmes, St. Petersburg, FL

There is a special pinkness to the sky as the sun rises on a crisp January morning, kissing the clouds, warming the fields, and waking the livestock, who move quietly to their feet and begin to mill about their pens, like patrons in a crowded theater lobby who, instead of waiting to see a show, are waiting to be made into steaks or bacon. — Ward Willats, Felton, CA

When the slinky redhead slunk into the throbbing, strobe-lit nightclub, Elwood’s eyes fastened on her the way a toilet plunger will fasten onto a hard surface if you shove it down just right, but her returning glance, while smoldering, was actually more caustic and burned his tender ego the way liquid Drano can burn your hand if you spill some on it, having disregarded the manufacturer’s warning. — Jeff Treder, Springfield, OR

 

You can read lots more of these by visiting the contest website.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

  1. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    George
    February 16, 2014 at 12:39

    Those who prefer print may be able to find copies of It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, a collection of entries from early rounds, published 30 years ago. A friend gave me a copy back then, but it is long since lost.

  2. dan@neponset.com'
    DanZee
    February 22, 2014 at 21:08

    Hey, it’s difficult to write poorly!

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