Kent Bush: Extreme purple prose -- so bad it's good
I love contests.
Actually, I love winning contests.
But San Jose State hosts an annual contest for writers with a slant.
They have awarded the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest prize every year since 1982 to the writer who composes the worst opening sentence to an imaginary novel.
This year's winner is Garrison Spik.
His "winning" entry was: "Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped 'Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."'
There was certainly a lot going on there. Spik's entry was obviously intended to upbraid the writer who forces a metaphor -- hopelessly marrying two non-integrable ideas.
The boon of the competition is that, in stretching the limits of bad writing, the ideas of good writing are highlighted. Truly understanding what makes the passage horrible helps compel better writing among entrants.
The contest, created by SJSU Professor Scott Rice, is named for novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel "Paul Clifford" begins with the insipid line "It was a dark and stormy night."
The entire genesis of Bulwer-Lytton's novel went: "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."
This passage has been lampooned in many fictional works.
Charles Schultz often used the phrase -- or a variant of it -- in "Peanuts" cartoons when Snoopy would begin to pen another novel. In the movie "Throw Momma From the Train," Larry (Billy Crystal) can't fight off a near-terminal case of writer's block as he varies the famous opening line in a vain attempt to write his own book.
Some of his classic variations included "The night was dry, yet it was raining" and "The night was sultry."
If he could have continued, he might have competed for that year's prize.
Basically what the judges at San Jose State are looking for is extreme purple prose. They look for writing so bad that it becomes good again -- kind of how Cabbage Patch Kids are so ugly they become cute again.
Consider it the abstract art of the literary world.
A list of the winners and the contest rules can be found at www.bulwer-lytton.com. According to the site, "The contest accepts submissions every day of the livelong year."
So writers, start your laptops.
Maybe you are good enough to compose the worst writing of the year.