Opening sentences of literary works are very important. Consider “Call me Ishmael” and “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Horror master Stephen King admitted recently that he can ponder the opening lines of his stories for weeks, months, even years.
But if the pendulum swings so far to the arc of making sure an opening sentence is well written, compelling, and enticing, would there not be room for acknowledgement of first sentences that are just, well, awful?
Professor Scott Rice and the folks at the English Department at San Jose State University certainly think so. Sponsored by the University since 1983,the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has challenged entrants to “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a minor British Victorian novelist of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame (and who also penned the oft quoted phrases, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed” and “the almighty dollar”), the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has sought submissions for the most horrid, the most indulgent, and the most wretchedly convoluted opening sentences so as to bestow honor and glory on their illustrious authors… well, kind of.
The rules are, according to the website, “childishly simple”, and go something like this:
- Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. (One fellow once submitted over 3,000 entries.)
- Sentences may be of any length but we strongly recommend that entries not go beyond 50 or 60 words. Entries must be “original” (as it were) and previously unpublished.
- Entries will be judged by categories, from “general” to detective, western, science fiction, romance, and so on. There will be overall winners as well as category winners.
- The official deadline is April 15 (a date that Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories). The actual deadline is June 30.
- The contest accepts submissions every day of the livelong year.
- Wild Card Rule: Resist the temptation to work with puns like “It was a stark and dormy night.“
And what does the winner get? According to the website, a pittance. But they also get fame… or would that be infamy? Regardless, submissions have grown from 3 in its inaugural year (“a resounding success”) to over 10,000 – that’s a lot of bad English, folks!
But just how bad are the winning sentences? We at LitStack suggest that you go to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest website for all the horribly delicious atrocities, but here is the grand award winner for 2013, from Chris Wieloch of Brookfield, WI (if that indeed is his “real” name!):
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 was there to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.
Yeah, you just had to know, didn’t you? That is, my friends, a most amazingly awful opening line. Hats off to Chris Wieloch (if indeed that is his “real” name).
So it looks like the entries are open for the 2014 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest! You’ve seen what has been done – do you think you could rise to the challenge? Think you could do better – or actually, worse, than Mr. Wieloch (if that is indeed his “real” name) or any of the other 2013 winners? Go ahead – I dare you. I double dare you! After all, in this contest, what do you really have to lose? Well, other than credibility, self-respect and reputation. Why let those get in your way?