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A dark and stormy night

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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008

Finding just the right opening sentence for a book is a challenge for any novelist.  As much as a book’s cover, the opening line is the place for snap judgements about whether to give a book your time.  Make an impression with a few well-chosen words and the reader is yours—at least until the dull patch around page 50 where they decide that they have better things to do.


In Camus’ The Plague, the character Joseph Grand agonises endlessly over his novel’s first sentence (“One fine morning in the month of May…”) hoping to make an editor exclaim “Hats off, gentlemen!”  He probably should have been content to avoid the fate of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.


Despite such contributions to the English language as “the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”, Lord Lytton has been immortalised as the creator of the worst opening sentence ever.


To be fair, “It was a dark and stormy night” (from Paul Clifford) isn’t all that bad—and Lytton isn’t to blame for the cliché it’s become.  But a byword for bad writing it is, with San Jose State University’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Prize for worst opening sentence in an imaginary novel recently announced for 2008.


At least this prize is made-up, unlike the true brutality of Auberon Waugh’s Bad Sex Award—which exists to bring down actual writers.  This is a prize to stretch the imagination—and apparently we can imagine some truly awful first sentences.  What the rest of the novels would be like had they existed is best not considered.


The winning sentence (from Garrison Spik of Washington DC) is priceless:


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.”


The full list of notable entries is overwhelming and full of horrendous metaphors, similies and even the occasional single entendre:


She had the kind of body that made a man want to have sex with her. (Barry J. Drucker, Bentonville, AR)


There’s a true art in creating something so atrocious and it can only make you wonder what these writers generate when writing “properly”.

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