Scott Rice on Bad Writing
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has been celebrating bad writing for three decades. Professor Scott Rice of San Jose State University is the founder of this tongue-in-cheek literary competition in which entrants attempt to write an opening sentence for the worst possible novel.
The competition is named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, author of the infamous phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night...” Visit the hilarious competition website to read winning entries from past years and submit your own attempt at awful prose.
We talked to Professor Rice about various types of wretched writing.
A Conversation with Scott B. Rice
Q: Could you share a winning entry from the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest and explain why you think that entry is particularly delicious in its horribleness?
A: Take this year’s winner: “For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss -- a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil” by “Molly Ringle” (nom de plume) of Seattle. The analogy here does capture the passion of the lovers but while suggesting a ludicrous image, likening an ardent lover to a rodent -- hardly erotic, much less romantic. Furthermore, it suggests a one-sided relationship: Felicity passively exists to slake Ricardo’s thirst. Actually, this calls to mind Plato’s observation: “As wolves loves sheep, so lovers love their loves.” Wait, maybe it’s not so bad after all.
Q: Could you discuss and give examples of some of the types of bad writing that show up in your competition entries (for example, the runaway metaphor, the mood-killer, the misplaced modifier)?
A: There are so many. Where do I start? Okay, take Mariann Simms's winner from 2004: “They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . . Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn't taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently.”
This illustrates a truth about similes and metaphors: if we do not keep them reined in, they can run off with us. In this case, the cheese metaphor goes on until it has taken center stage and we forget about, again, two hyper-fervent lovers. In our English teacher modes, we distinguish between tenor and vehicle -- our subject and the image used to express it (In “My love is like a red, red rose,” my love is the tenor and the rose the vehicle). In moments of ineptitude, perhaps tempted to demonstrate their cleverness, some writers allow their vehicles to overwhelm their tenors. And if they have not wrung out the last possible detail of comparison, some readers are likely grasp for some more, and there goes the narrative.
Q: Your contest features a special category for "purple prose." What is your definition of purple prose? Sometimes, beginning writers confuse purple prose with descriptive or poetic writing. Could you help define the distinction?
A: In the Contest, “purple prose” is kind of a catch-all category for overdone writing, writing that is precious or gratuitously elaborate or trying too hard to impress. Call it badly done descriptive or poetic writing. Descriptive writing can be very good but usually when it is compact. In the 18th century, there was a genre of picturesque travel writing with descriptive passages that went on for pages and pages. We no longer had the patience or, I suspect, the powers of visualization to enjoy such prose.
Q: What are some places where you encounter Bulwer-Lytton-worthy writing in daily life?
A: There are so many but let’s take one. Read the first paragraph of Going Rogue by Sarah What’s-her-fungus. In this case, we see A Mean Girl trying to pretend that she is soft and sentimental and, by gosh, she doesn’t care who knows it. It’s an American thing to be. Some caution is advised. Browse a copy at the bookstore and have an air sickness bag handy.
Q: Your contest focuses on horrible sentences. Any advice for fiction writers who'd like to take their bad writing further to include wretched character development, dreadful plotting, ludicrous dialogue, etc.?
A: I just read Theodora Goss’s excellent fantasy short story, “Child-Empress of Mars.” It is filled with silly conventions from the genre like exotic character names, bizarre flora and fauna, wildly capricious monarchs, etc. If you recognize that it is an affectionate send-up of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Barsoom novel, A Princess of Mars, the intentional travesty makes wonderful sense. In Burroughs’ novel, the invincible hero, John Carter, slays Martian monsters by the score. In Goss’s story, the hero fights a staged battle with something called a “poufli” and dies of a rash. So much for heroes, or should I say Heroes. But basing an entire novel on being intentionally dreadful, I wouldn’t recommend it. There is something out there that they read at Sci Fi conventions, The Eye of Aragon. It is an intentional parody of the worst kind of Conan the Barbarian fantasy but after a few paragraphs I find it tiresome.
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