It Was a Dark and Stormy NIght
“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.”
--Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
Every year since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the most dreadful opening sentence to the most dreadful (fictitious) novel. The contest drew a handful of entries the first year, but today thousands of writers enter and the results are announced by media here and in other countries. I actually knew someone who won the contest a few years ago (her entry had something to do with snow that came down over brown hills “like Parmesan cheese being shaken over enormous meatballs”).
Writing intentionally awful stuff takes some skill. Here’s last year’s winner:
“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories” (Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, Wisconsin).
And here’s the runner-up:
“As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this … and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words” (Rodney Reed, Ooltewah, Tennessee).
Intentionally creating a few dreadful sentences as the opening of a dreadful novel requires skill. The operative word here, though, is intentionally. We’ve all seen examples of writing that is unintentionally dreadful -- which brings me to my current quandary.
I belong to a book club that reads widely and well, and each month I look forward to the intelligent discussion that each book engenders. Recently one of our members, a college professor, asked if we would consider reading and critiquing a novel written by one of her respected colleagues at the college. He would provide copies, she said, and he really really wanted our candid criticisms. We agreed. How bad could it be?
How bad? Bulwer-Lytton bad. Page after page of BL awfulness. A book-length BL dreadfulness that makes you want to leap out the nearest window after ten pages. The pure dreadfulness of it, of course, is not intentional. It just is.
So what to do? Do people who say they want candid criticism really want candid criticism? Should we just soft-pedal our comments and act like it isn’t that bad? Should we take the diplomatic, self-effacing approach (it wasn’t my kind of book, but maybe others would find it more interesting). Or should we just send him an application for the BL contest? And, yes, we should have known better!