Downwrite awful winners
Cupertino, Calif. — SCOTT RICE was seeking sublimely saccharine sentences; labored language; maudlin metaphors; repetitive redundancies - faux fiction, as it were. He found what he was looking for in this genuinely odious passage: ``Like an expensive sports car, fine-tuned and well-built, Portia was sleek, shapely and gorgeous, her red jumpsuit moulding her body, which was as warm as the seatcovers in July, her hair as dark as new tires, her eyes flashing like rain on the hood; she was a woman driven - fueled by a single accelerant - she needed a man, a man who wouldn't shift from his views, a man to steer her along the right road: a man like Alf Romeo.''
This wretched writing earned 20-year-old Rachel Sheeley, a journalism student at Franklin (Ind.) College, the dubious honor of winning this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The award, bestowed by Professor Rice and the San Jose State University English Department, is named after Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton - a prolific but mediocre Victorian novelist best known for opening one of his novels with ``It was a dark and stormy night.''
Rice started this annual contest of pernicious prose because he thought it would teach his students something about good writing by having them practice bad, and because he wanted to tweak other local literary contests that he thought pretentious.
``If you talk generally what makes for bad writing,'' says Rice, ``there are certain components: disrespect for your audience and the craft, and there's a kind of insincerity in bad writing, an attempt to say more than one means, as someone observed at one time. Each sentence is a sort of a satire on different kinds of ineptness, sometimes stylistic or syntactic, sometimes intellectual or emotional. A lot of these effects depend on proper phraseology, it entails most of the elements of good writing, put together in such a way as to create a travesty.''
What Ms. Sheeley managed to do so skillfully, says Rice, ``is to make fun of writers getting carried away with extended metaphors - when writers try too hard, it's like a metaphor run amok.''
Rice himself sifted through the 11,000 entries that squeaked in under the wire on April 15 (a day Rice says Americans traditionally associate with bad fiction). Then last week, on the deck of Prof. Gabriele Rico's home in the Cupertino hills, 14 of Rice's colleagues sat outside eating salmon and nachos while reading 700 of the monstrosities, scrawled or typed on three-by-five cards. Sometimes they laugh. Often they wince. Always they sound like professors of English - because, you see, it can't be just ordinary bad writing. It has to be good bad writing. What the judges found was a cacophony of mixed metaphors, heavy-handed redundancies, and groan-worthy clich'es.
``I like that inversion.''
``The metaphor is beautifully maintained.''
``I think they used to be funnier.''
The first contest, for students only, was held in 1982. Rice opened it up to the public in 1983. From the outset, the novelty of a contest celebrating bad writing drew scads of national press. A simple Associated Press wire story ratcheted its way into newsrooms everywhere, even England, where this had all started. The BBC and the Guardian opened up the bad-writing market in Europe, and, in time, mad scribblers in Australia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea joined in. So far, writers from 80 countries have entered.
Would-be writers (and some actually are) can pen in any genre: romantic, Gothic, western, historical, children's, science fiction, detective, spy, purple prose, and something called clerical errors (as in nuns, not secretaries). Entrants receive a card that says, ``We've received your execrable prose and it's receiving the treatment it deserves.
Bulwer-Lytton's hackneyed sentence have died long ago were it not for favorite comic strip character, Snoopy, who opened his perpetually unfinished novel with that line.
``In giving Snoopy the fantasy about being a writer, [creator Charles] Schulz tapped into a widespread fantasy: A lot of people have the closet fantasy about being a writer,'' says Rice. Previous winners include a technical writer with a San Francisco bank, a woman who worked in a hospital research unit in Minneapolis, a high school teacher in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and a city manager in Pensacola, Fla.
Sheeley won an Apple II computer, which shows how far the contest has come since its inception. That winner received a comic-strip panel of Snoopy, autographed by Mr. Schulz. Runners-up get genuine simulated parchment certificates of dishonorable mention.
Writers might also find their entries in the collections Viking-Penguin has published: ``It Was a Dark and Stormy Night,'' ``Son of It Was a Dark and Stormy Night,'' and ``Bride of It Was a Dark and Stormy Night.'' One writer submitted 1,500 entries.
There are serious goals for this wacko contest, says Rice. ``I subscribe to the thought that the single-minded concentration on correctness alone does more to discourage writers than anything. Many people look on writing as something they do wrong. People should be encouraged to write things that are funny and unconventional.
``I think we have done some good for literacy. We get entries every year from high school teachers who organize their classes. And people have Bulwer-Lytton parties and send in entries, like the Cork and Fork Society of Lewiston and Moscow, Idaho.
``We have a lot of people out there working on syntax and polishing sentences. That's no small feat.''
Finding just the wrong word: some winning losers `Many men had tried to tame Rosalita of the Flashing Eyes whose wild beauty had made feverish their dreams and restless their waking hours, yet she was as willful as she was beautiful and cared nothing for their rough begging, their extravagant gifts bought with last dollars; she wanted only to be on ``The Wheel of Fortune'' and to fold like a soft tortilla into the arms of Pat Sajak.'
-Leslie Cannon, Cincinnati, the romance category
`Shirley doubted that her alien escort, composed as he was of vegetable matter, seaweed and a thick coating of swampy muck, would be a suitable date for the Intergalactic kegger, but he turned out to be a real fungi [read that, `fun-guy'].'
-Michael Stratford, Miles City, Mont., the science fiction category