Thoughts & Views: In praise of lousy prose

If you love good writing, you probably also love bad writing–providing it’s deliberately bad. It takes a good writer to deliberately create bad writing. Which is why fans of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest wait impatiently every year for the prizes to be awarded.

The contest, named for 19th century British novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton — who coined “it was a dark and stormy night” — has been around since 1982. Sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University, the competition challenges entrants to compose “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

Here are some of my favorities among the recently announced 2013 winners. As usual, I find the runners-up funnier than the top choices, so my picks are not necessarily the judges’.

In the Adventure category:

“As the sun dropped below the horizon, the safari guide confirmed the approaching cape buffaloes were herbivores, which calmed everyone in the group, except for Herb, of course.” — Ron D. Smith, Louisville, Ky. 

Crime writing:

“It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of the tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.” — Tonya Lavel, Barbados, W.I.

“Observing how the corpse’s blood streaked the melting vanilla ice cream, Frank wanted to snap his pen in half and add drops of blue ink to the mix, completing the color trio of the American flag — or the French flag, given that the body had just fallen from the top of the Las Vegas Eiffel Tower onto a creme glacee cart.” — Alanna Smith, Wappingers Falls, N.Y.


“There once was a nasty, evil troll who lived beneath a bridge and took pleasure in collecting gold from the unsuspecting users of the infrastructure; however, no one used the bridge because an evil troll lived under it so the troll didn’t do much of anything.” — Rachel Flanigan, Honolulu

“This was going to be a science fiction novel until I realized that you actually have to know some real science for it to work well, so I changed it to a fantasy novel instead, because that way I can just make up the rules as I go, unhampered by the laws of physics or chemistry, as if you knew what they were anyway.” — Thor F. Carden, Madison Tenn.

Historical Fiction:

“It was a long shot by any measure, good bowman though he was, and he didn’t want to risk it with his kid, but a lot was on the line, and that big, red apple was square on his dear boy’s head, and he had to shoot it off . . . then everything went still, and William Tell heard the sound of music, quiet, then gently rising, like an overture.” — John Holmes, St. Petersburg, Fla.

“General Lee arranged for the dreaded surrender yet capitalized on his opponents’ weaknesses to the very end, striking a tiny parting blow for the Army of Northern Virginia (chuckling to himself) as he remembered from Academy days how many Union commanders had struggled with spelling even common words, and so ran his finger along the map and settled on Appomattox.” — Randal Pilz, Milton, Fla.

Purple Prose:

“There is a special pinkness to the sky as the sun rises on a crisp January morning, kissing the clouds, warming the fields, and waking the livestock, who move quietly to their feet and begin to mill about their pens, like patrons in a crowded theater lobby who, instead of waiting to see the show, are waiting to be made into steaks or bacon.” — Ward Willats, Felton, Calif.


“Our tale begins with the encounter of two gentlemen; I’m going to describe the second gentleman first.” — Mark Donnelly, County Wicklow, Ireland

“Tony was unsure if the voice had said ‘Sven’ or ‘Ten’, but no one had ever called him Sven, and the ceiling lights were shining directly into his eyes, and recognizing the familiar sad, yet concerned, look on the referee’s face, he was gonna go with ‘Ten’.”– Warren Blair, Ashburn, Va.

Vile Puns:

“What the Highway Department’s chief IT guy for the new computerized roadway hated most was listening to the ‘smart’ components complain about being mixed with asphalt instead of silicon and made into speed bumps instead of graceful vases, like the one today from chip J176: ‘I coulda had glass; I coulda been a container; I coulda been some bottle, instead of a bump, which is what I am’.” — Brian Brandt, Lansdale, Pa.

“The veterinarian had suggested the tasty yellow fruit as a way to cure the undiagnosed lack of appetite that was ebbing away the very life of his fluffy little friend and Mark was fraught with anguish as he kept wondering, ‘Will a chick eat a banana?’” — Nancy Hoffman, Peaks Island, Maine

For more, much more, visit “where ‘www’ means ‘wretched writers welcome’.”

– Karen Zautyk

The Observer Staff