Friday, September 19, 2008

The best of the worst

The winner of one of my favourite ‘literary’ awards has been announced: the 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Started in 1982 by the English faculty at the San Jose State University in the States, the Bulwer-Lytton recognises the purplest of prose, with entrants asked to write the most deliberately awful opening sentence to an imaginary novel they can think up, inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’ This year’s winner is one Garrison Spik, a 41-year-old communications director and writer from Washington, D.C.

His winning sentence is: "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."

But I think I prefer the runner-up, from Andrew Bowers: "Hmm . . ." thought Abigail as she gazed languidly from the veranda past the bright white patio to the cerulean sea beyond, where dolphins played and seagulls sang, where splashing surf sounded like the tintinnabulation of a thousand tiny bells, where great gray whales bellowed and the sunlight sparkled off the myriad of sequins on the flyfish's bow ties, "time to get my meds checked."

If you want to read more of the cringe-worthy category winners and runners-up, go to

A cardinal sin?

While we’re on the topic of bad writing … British novelist Andrew O’Hagan, who I recall was quite a hit at the 2007 Sydney Writers’ Festival, now seems to be auditioning for the next series of Grumpy (not quite so) Old Men.

During a panel session at the recent Edinburgh Writers’ Festival, he started by committing something akin to treason in the world of UK publishing by criticising the morning TV hosts Richard and Judy. While no-one denies that R&J’s book recommendations have shifted a lot of ‘units’, O’Hagan had the temerity to suggest that ‘they think the British reading public is stupid’ and that the kinds of titles selected ‘oversell a reduced, unimaginative notion of what people's literary enjoyment might be.’

He then added that he was disappointed by so many students taking creative writing courses, and recalled a visit to one such course at a famous institution. He complained that ‘some students were more interested in finding an agent in the United States than in improving their writing.’

‘When you speak to students, if you teach on a creative writing course, often what you find is that they are not interested in life at the level of the sentence,’ he said. ‘When you try to activate some interest, they find that slightly distracting. What they want to talk about is what it would be like to be a famous novelist.’

Sticking their fangs in

Whatever else we might think of it, That Global Online Bookseller (and everything else-seller!) has certainly played a big part in giving readers a voice when it comes to reviewing their purchases. Sometimes the reviews are gushingly over-the-top, others are very thoughtful, and at others hilariously brutal.

Take this one (some names omitted to spare anyone’s blushes): ‘[this] series has never been great-- it's been sloppily-written, almost plot-less, and incredibly cheesy-- but it's been a guilty pleasure. Or at least the first book was. [Book 2] was bad, [book 3] was worse, and now [book 4] is the cherry on top of the really horrible sundae. It rapidly goes from unintentionally hilarious, to awful, to leaving the reader wondering how it ever got published.’

Despite reviews like this—and this one is by no means an isolated example—and growing calls from disgruntled fans for a mass consumer return, this book has been the biggest thing since sliced wizard, selling in the millions. Will quantity win over quality? Or will fan-based communities really shape the way we publish and sell into the future?

On that lofty though, my dears, I bid you adieu.