So Bad It’s Good

August 3, 2010

Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton may no longer be a household name, but back in Victorian England, he was something of a big shot.  Besides serving in Parliament for nearly 25 years, Bulwer-Lytton was a popular and epically-prolific novelist, poet, essayist, and historian who coined the term “the almighty dollar” and claimed Charles Dickens as a close friend.  Despite these lifetime achievements, however, history has not been particularly kind to Lord Lytton.  Thanks – or probably no thanks – to an overly-florid writing style considered more imitation than invention, Bulwer-Lytton has been largely banished by modern critics to the unread B-list of Victorian authors.  In fact, his most-lasting literary legacy seems to be as the author of this cringe-inducing first line from 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.

Widely considered one of the all-time worst opening sentences to a novel, Lord Lytton’s editor-defying monstrosity has inspired an international effort to turn bad writing into good fun by way of an annual parody competition aptly called the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  Fortunately for our literary entertainment – and less so for Lord Lytton’s reputation – the hilariously creative winners for 2010 have just been announced.

Molly Ringle - 2010 winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Context

Started in 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, the BLFC challenges entrants to compose the bad opening sentences to “the worst of all possible imaginary novels.”  Over the years, the contest’s growing popularity has attracted the attention of major news sources such as Time, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC while drawing thousands of purposely poor writers to compete for little more than bragging rights.  This year’s overall winner was Molly Ringle, a Seattle-based author who took the 28th BLFC Grand Prize with the following finely-crafted stinker:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss – a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil. 

Ringle, who insists she only writes bad fiction when she fails at good fiction, recently told the Seattle Times that “you kind of have to have a certain amount of skill to write a sentence so bad it would win. You have to work at it.”  She adds, “I’ve asked myself, probably belatedly, is [this] what I want to be famous for?  But hopefully people in the publishing world know it’s all in the name of comedy.”  Along with awarding a yearly grand prize, the BLFC also names annual winners in categories including Adventure, Detective Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction and Romance.  To enjoy this year’s divisional winners, simply visit the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Website where you can also find top picks from years past such as these subpar gems:    

The first time I saw her she took my breath away with her long blonde hair that flowed over her shoulders like cheese sauce on a bed of nachos, making my stomach grumble as she stepped into the room, her red knit dress locking in curves better than a Ferrari at a Grand Prix.  Harol Hoffman-Meisner, 2009 Romance Runner-Up

Nobody knew just who the steely-eyed stranger was, where he came from, where he was headed, or what his intentions were while he was in Dodge City; but he wasn’t an hombre you’d want to stick your tongue out at or flip off, and any man who tried to tickle him would be asking for a long stay in a pine box, if you know what I mean.  David McKenzie, 2008 Western Winner

It was a dreary Monday in September when Constable Lightspeed came across the rotting corpse that resembled one of those zombies from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” except that it was lying down and not performing the electric slide.  Derek Fisher, 2006 Detective Fiction Winner

Once your literary funny bone starts begging for mercy, you can give it a breather in a couple different ways.  First, you can learn more about Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton and begin forming your own opinion of his work by trying L. G. Mitchell’s biography Bulwer Lytton: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Man of Letters along with one of Lord Lytton’s more-popular novels The Last Days of Pompeii.  After completing your investigation, don’t forget to check out the American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels.  Not only do these incredible openers begin actual books, but you can also find most all the included titles right here on the shelves of EPL.

Russell J.


Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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