How to Write Badly and Receive Acclaim
Edward Bulwer-Lytton will always be remembered as the man who penned the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” This was the opening sentence of the long-forgotten and not at all lamented novel Paul Clifford.
Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal prose became the start of the novel that Snoopy in Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts was always typing out on top of his dog kennel. Snoopy, of course, finished his magnum opus but it was only 136 words in length. After the dark and stormy setting “Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed.” There's a little more but it doesn't really move the plot along.
Bulwer-Lytton felt the need to offer his readers more than Snoopy’s slim volume. He went on to publish 30 novels, half a dozen plays, and a bunch of poetry.
Time Does not Serve Well
Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a product of the British upper class and carried the title of 1st Baron Lytton of Knebworth. He was born in 1803 into a landed gentry brimming with earls, marquises, and posh people with hyphenated names.
In his day, Edward Bulwer-Lytton was very popular; publishers would not have snapped up his manuscripts if the public did not buy his books. However, his work has not travelled well over the decades. So, perhaps it’s unfair to judge him harshly from the lofty pinnacle of the 21st century. Unfair, but still quite fun.
On that dark and stormy night, Bulwer-Lytton went on to floridly tell his readers that “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.”
And, the Winner Is
Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton’s large body of work has given rise to a coveted literary prize.
In 1982, English Professor Scott Rice of San Jose State University dreamed up the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. It is awarded annually to the author who can create the worst opening sentence to a novel.
The first year was a campus-only event and pulled in three submissions. Now, the contest attracts as many as 25,000 aspiring bad writers to contribute. Of course, the winner comes away with bragging rights, but what else? The contest’s website notes that “in keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner will receive … a pittance.”
“The envelope please. The 2018 winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is:”
“Cassie smiled as she clenched John’s hand on the edge of an abandoned pier while the sun set gracefully over the water, and as the final rays of light disappeared into a star-filled sky she knew that there was only one thing left to do to finish off this wonderful evening, which was to throw his severed appendage into the ocean’s depths so it could never be found again — and maybe get some custard after.”
This gem was penned by Tanya Menezes, who is but 17 summers old. Think what mangled English this young lady will be capable of producing once she falls into the clutches of English literature professors.
For decades, the Scottish versifier William Topaz McGonagall has stood unchallenged as the writer of the world’s worst poetry.
During the 19th century, McGonagall churned out more than 200 rhymes some of which are regarded as the worse examples of doggerel in the English language. The Famous Tay Whale is an example:
’TWAS in the month of December, and in the year 1883,
That a monster whale came to Dundee,
Resolved for a few days to sport and play,
And devour the small fishes in the silvery Tay.
So the monster whale did sport and play
Among the innocent little fishes in the beautiful Tay,
Until he was seen by some men one day,
And they resolved to catch him without delay.
The reader is spared any further agony.
There is, of course, a bad poetry contest that attracts those willing to take McGonagall’s mantle away. It’s a tough challenge.
The contest is run by Columbia University’s Philolexian Society in honour of Alfred Joyce Kilmer, a 1908 alumnus of that storied seat of learning. The society’s website notes that “One of his most notorious works, ‘Trees,’ is recited at the conclusion of each Bad Poetry Contest. The work begins with the lines ‘I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree,” and ends just as mushily with, ‘Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.’ ”
Canada Stands on Guard
A jingoistic word from the writer to promote the work of fellow Canadian Sarah Binks. Known as the Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan the poetry of this writer exploded on the Canadian scene in 1947. So, without further ado an offering:
Oh calf, that gambolled by my door,
Who made me rich who now am poor,
That licked my hand with milk bespread,
Oh calf, calf! Art dead, art dead?
Oh calf, I sit and languish, calf,
With somber face, I cannot laugh,
Can I forget thy playful bunts?
Oh calf, calf, that loved me once!
With mildewed optics, deathlike, still,
My nights are damp, my days are chill,
I weep again with doleful sniff,
Oh calf, calf, so dead, so stiff.
Sadly, Sarah is no longer with us. In fact, she never was with us. Sarah Binks was the mischievous creation of University of Manitoba Professor Paul Hiebert who wanted to poke fun at pretentious literary snobs.
In fairness to Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton he did give us a couple of memorable phrases:
- “Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.”
- “A fool flatters himself, a wise man flatters the fool.”
The American Book Review (AMR) lists “It was a dark and stormy night” as only the 22nd worst opening line of a novel. In first place (or last, if you wish) AMR gives us “Call me Ishmael.” From Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Hmmm. Others that beat out Bulwer-Lytton’s offering were “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov in fifth, and “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo” from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, 18th.
- “ ‘It Was a Dark and Stormy Night’: The Literary Cliché That Inspired a Contest for Bad Writing” CBC Radio, March 9, 2018.
- Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
- McGonagall Online.
- “Philolexian Society’s Bad Poetry Contest Continues a Columbia tradition: Embracing the Best Worst Poets.” Jack Meyer, Columbian Spectator, November 13, 2017.
- “Excerpt From Sarah Binks.” Paul Hiebert, Penguin Random House Canada, undated.
- “The World’s Shortest Novel?: Snoopy’s ‘It was a Dark and Stormy Night.’ ” Ronald B. Richardson, March 14, 2010.
- “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” American Book Review, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor