It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines
A word lover in search of the planet’s most atrocious sentences
“Tragically, Rosette could not say conclusively that any given day was the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ day of her life, for, although she had been present at every occurrence during each of her days to this point, she had once gotten blind-drunk before a Segway tour of Berlin.”
Not a good sentence. A bad sentence. But how bad? Scott Rice read the words twice, peered out the window of his book-filled office. At last, he nodded and dragged his cursor over the words, bolding them for further review. On a distant plane, literature shifted imperceptibly.
It was a bright and clear morning; Rice was sitting in his tidy ranch home, blinds opened onto a quiet San Jose cul-de-sac. It’s the kind of street that calls to mind games of H-O-R-S-E and M-80s in mailboxes more than a life of scalding literary appraisal, but you can’t judge a book by its cover. The first sentence is better for that.
August marked the 33rd year that Rice has run the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a competition for the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. Since 1982, thousands of entries have poured in every year from around the globe, each seeking his keen disfavor. No sooner does he announce one year’s winners than the next year’s submissions begin to arrive. Each represents a concise act of literary criticism, to be adjudicated by Rice and, eventually, “a panel of undistinguished judges,” some of them former winners. On a recent Tuesday, I went to watch Rice separate literary wheat from literary chaff, and then throw away the wheat part.
At 74, Rice is tan and fit, with a trim white beard and a laid-back air that belies his solemn responsibility. He has a system for each day: wake up, do yoga, attend 24 Hour Fitness, eat steel-cut oats, identify worst fiction on the planet, nap in La-Z-Boy. Later: lunch with wife and “smiting the dimpled spheroid” at the nearby golf course. Until retiring three years ago, Rice ran the contest out of the San Jose State English Department, where he started teaching in 1968. Bulwer-Lytton began as a lark, a bit of silliness from a man serious about reading.
“Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer ‘Dirk’ Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase ‘sandwiched’ to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.”
With that, a New Jersey music teacher named Joel Phillips won in 2015. There were lesser awards, too, for subcategories like adventure and children’s literature; dishonorable mentions celebrated sentences about fuzzy memories of “a balmy night in Cuba,” and a stout dwarf named Vangir. Per tradition, winners receive bupkis.
A bad-fiction contest easily becomes a hall of mirrors. If it’s amusingly bad, does that make it good? Can something be so good it’s bad? Too bad to be bad? Take Edward Bulwer-Lytton himself. The English writer published more than two dozen novels and stage plays before his death in 1873, but it was the first words of Paul Clifford in 1830 that brought him infamy: “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.”
Rice named his contest for this famously purple bit of writing — but in recent years came to wonder if he, and we, had missed the point. A little research revealed that those first seven words were already a cliché in Dutch storytelling tradition. The flourishes Bulwer-Lytton added (the occasional intervals, the scanty flame) were a wink; in a sense, Bulwer-Lytton was the first-ever Bulwer-Lytton contestant.
“Ben Franklin had one of those dry, scaly scalps, more especially as he became older, and the inside of his wig was coated with selsun seeds sprouted in Maine.”
That one’s from John Holmes, a Floridian and serial submitter — sometimes half a dozen entries a day. Holmes wrote to me, “I like my endings to be the bad bits, the clumsy, the surprising, the unexpected, and my beginnings to be intriguing and to involve, to the point of being good.”
Rice has spent decades not just honoring the bad, but reverse-engineering a definition of what’s good. Lampoon the florid and the overwrought and the dull and the sentimental and the hackneyed for long enough and what’s left, perhaps, is Proust, and Woolf, and Dickens. But Rice seems less interested in outlining some definitive taxonomy of Great Literature and more taken with the ordinary people he hears from every day. He keeps in touch with entrants from years back, gets excited when a return address is somewhere neat. Not one auto-reply goes out; everyone gets a handcrafted response. “What kind of day are you having in Oshkosh?” he’ll ask. Travel tips are exchanged, golf opinions ventured.
In those correspondences lurks a deeper and unspoken exchange — a compact, of sorts, to keep one tiny, absurd corner of literature alive. “The world is divided into readers and nonreaders,” Rice said, “and you can always tell. Think of Reagan’s incredulity at new ideas. That’s no reader. Then there’s Truman, who didn’t have a college degree but was a reader at heart, and cared about ideas and empathy.”
He thought a moment. “It may be harder to find us these days,” he added, “but the word people are still out there. The contest shows me that.”