As longtime readers of this weblog will (probably) recall, I’m no great fan of the yearly Bulwer Lytton Competition, where the idea is to write the best (that is, worst) opening sentence of an imaginary bad book. I don’t know anyone who reads slush who’s particularly impressed by their annual collection of intentional howlers.It’s the judging that’s the problem: the sentences they pick just aren’t that awful. Here’s the 2005 Bulwer Lytton winner:
Bleh. It’s the kind of bad sentence you only find in Bulwer Lytton competitions: long; tightly engineered; chiefly consisting of an elaborately overinflated metaphor or simile that in the end is punctured by a ludicrously mundane or trivial final clause. You can construct one of those by the numbers. It has none of the mind-warping swoop and grandeur of real opening sentences like “Before him, the road receded in both directions.”
As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.
In their book-length compilations, the Bulwer Lytton people occasionally include runner-up sentences that don’t fit that pattern—I have a lasting fondness for one of these, “I was a very, very, very sensitive child”—but somehow those never win.
The excellent Liz Gorinsky has turned me on to the Lyttle Lytton Contest, which has similar aims but much more astute judges. Quite a few of their selected sentences have the desired property of instantly convincing me that I don’t want to read the rest of that book. Here are some of winners from the 2005 Lyttle Lytton Contest:
2004 brought us the clueless self-importance of:
John, surfing, said to his mother, surfing beside him, “How do you like surfing?” (E. Davis)
Man oh man, you’re gonna like this book; boy howdy. (D. Stevens)
and the case of syntactical whiplash brought on by trying to figure out where the dependent clause attaches in:
Now, you’re all aware of my vocal campaign against the global slave trade, so what I am about to confess may raise a few eyebrows. (A. Davis)
The 2003 entries didn’t do much for me, but this one was up to spec:
The dame had balls, you had to give her that, and a Jetta. (V. Tobin )
The 2002 entries were also a little thin. That year did did see one beautifully earless specimen:
For centuries, man had watched the clouds; now, they were watching him. (S. Sachs)
but the only other entry that took my fancy really needed to lose its last two words:
“I raped your sister,” cruelly he sneered, “and now she is no problem,” and my friends that is the day my heart tore a sunder. (A. Plotkin)
By me, 2001 was the best year to date:
Herein lurk delegitimized power structures and epistemological straitjackets and stuff. (D. Stevens)
and the masterful
Turning, I mentally digested all of what you, the reader, are about to find out heartbreakingly. (T. Changwatchai)
A lone testicle lay in a barren field. (J. Tando)
It’s the real thing.
In anticipation, John licked his own lips. (A. Lloyd)