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For many writers, winning an award will be the crowning moment of their career: much needed proof that all the sleepless nights, hours of hard-work and effort spent editing and re-editing the same sentence was worth it. We’ve all heard of – and perhaps lusted after – the big awards: the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Whitbread (Costa) Awards and, of course, the Nobel Prize in Literature. But not all literary awards are as prestigious as these and, indeed, rather than celebrate beautiful works of fiction, some awards do the unthinkable and applaud bad writing.
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual tongue-in-cheek award that pokes fun at the more serious and weighty competitions, such as the Man Booker Prize. Started in 1982 by Professor Scott E. Rice at San Jose University, the contest calls for writers “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”; in short, their writing must be deliberately awful. The prize is a ‘pittance’ – as should be expected for a bad writing contest – of $250.The award’s namesake is Victorian author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who, despite being very popular in the 1800s, finds himself ridiculed today as being a writer of very florid and horrid prose, such as the infamous opening to his 1830 novel, ‘Paul Clifford’:
“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 Bulwer-Lytton Contest has proved to be immensely popular, with many writers eagerly taking up the challenge to flaunt their most flowery and clumsy fiction. Indeed, the competition has had so many superb entries that in recent years they’ve added prizes in different categories such as adventure, crime and romance, as well as a grand, overall winner. Everything we are told to avoid as writers, all the bits we edit out with shamed-faces after re-reading our work are embraced by this competition, with frankly hilarious results. You can read some examples of the ‘Lyttony of Grand Prize Winners’ here, although my personal favourite is from this year’s winner of the ‘Romance’ Category, Ali Kawashima: “As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand – who would take her away from all this – and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.”
The Bulwer-Lytton Contest is not the only faux-literary award. The popularity of the competition has since spawned the ‘Lyttle Lytton Contest’, which rewards bad opening sentences with fewer than 25 words, inspiring such gems as “Because they had not repented, the angel stabbed the unrepentant couple thirteen times, with its sword.” Other notable spoof awards include the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year, The Golden Bull Award and, another personal favourite of mine, the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
Personally, I think contests like these are fabulous. They remind us not to take our writing, and ourselves, too seriously all the time and, in a profession where there can be a tendency towards pretention, they create a little light-hearted humour. My heart goes out to poor Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, however, who would have had no idea that he would become the poster-boy of dodgy prose for future generations. But if it’s any consolation to the ghost of Bulwer-Lytton, we must admit that many of us are guilty of writing sentences just as alarming and, unlike the entries for these competitions, we, too, might be entirely unaware of their clumsiness. I was horrified to discover that in one of my own journals from when I was 15, I had written the opening line “The melancholy wind roared down the chimney, causing the flames in the fire to leap up and spit hot embers onto the wooden floorboards” which shamefully, it seems, is not that dissimilar to Bulwer-Lytton’s own, much-maligned “It was a dark and stormy night…” I’m cringing even now.