Friday, 2 July 2010

Bulwer-Lytton or: The Pen is Mightier than The Great Unwashed

The winners of the Bulwer-Lytton prize for the worst opening of a novel have been announced.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a nineteenth century novelist, poet, playwright, politician, philanderer, debauchee and wife-incarcerator who put four phrases into the English language. Here are the first three:

The pen is mightier than the sword
   - From the play Richelieu, since disproved by experiment.

The Great Unwashed
   - From Paul Clifford, of which more anon.

The Coming Race

   -And if that is an unfamiliar phrase then you don't know nearly enough about Nazi mysticism or the lyrics to David Bowie's Oh You Pretty Things. It comes from a novel Bulwer-Lytton wrote about super-people who live underground, obviously.

However, poor Bulwer-Lytton will be forever remembered not for those sublimities, but for the ridiculous opening lines of Paul Clifford, which was published in 1830:

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.

Apparently those first few words were much quoted in the Peanuts cartoon strip (which I fear I have never read). Anyway, the phrase "It was a dark and stormy night" have become a byword for bad opening lines.
Rightly so. That whole paragraph tells you nothing at all about the story that is to follow. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Rien.

Is this going to be a novel about a serial killer or about an amusing talking cat called Gerald? I don't know and that paragraph gives me not a hint of a whiff of a clue. It is a collection of clichéd images full of rain and darkness and signifying bugger all.

As with a proper cliché it could be cut out and prefixed to almost any novel set in London (and, with the alteration of a word, any city). That is what's wrong with it.

Which leads me inevitably on to the Bulwer-Lytton prize. Contestants have to write the first few lines of an imaginary terrible novel. This year's winner is a lady called Molly Ringle and her paragraph goes:

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.

But... but... that's not terrible. That's not terrible at all. So far as I'm concerned that's brilliant. I would read on. If I picked up a book in the bookshop and that was the first paragraph I would be leaping for the till, cash in hand and whooping joyously. It's surprising, it's funny, it is utterly different. It is everything that Bulwer Lytton's paragraph is not. There is the suggestion of Ricardo's desperation, of the unhealthiness of the relationship and yet of its comical contemptibility.

Molly Ringle's lines have none of the problems that scar Bulwer-Lytton's immortal drivel. They are original. They are amusing. They could not have been put at the start of any other book. I have a damned fine idea of the kind of (very odd) novel that I'm about to read. The story has already got itself going and I've been introduced to the main characters, their relationship and the animal to which they can best be compared. I care about Ricardo already.

But Felicity's horrid.

For all the winners and honourable mentions follow this link.

P.S. When he was old Kingsley Amis became so depressed with the tedium of contemporary literature that he vowed never to read another novel unless it began with the words "A shot rang out."

P.P.S. This whole post could, perhaps, have been better expressed in the words of a wildly successful screenwriter friend of mine who will tell you, at gun-point if necessary, that you should start a story as late as possible and finish as early as possible.

Such mysteries


  1. The one I always remember is "the heat was stiffling" - I think it is in The Information, where one of the characters is reading somebody else's bad fiction. Everet would be able to remember.

  2. The heat was stiffling, read Richard. He sighed, and lit a cigarette.

    The heat was stiffling. Moodly he looked out of his bedroom window. Yes, the day was far too hot to be sleepy. He had to chose. To win, to suceed would be incredulous. But to fail, to loose, would be contemptuous!

  3. thank you, Everet. I knew you would have this at your fingertips.

  4. They are very very funny. I didn't know about this competition. If I get no takers from the next 117 agents I try for my novel, I may try and enter this one.

  5. It sounds like you may prefer Adam Cadre's Lyttle Lytton contest:

  6. I used to read Peanuts and remember the phrase well - Snoopy was the original 'struggling writer' constantly thwarted by distractions. But it also always reminds me now of the following:
    It was a dark and stormy night
    The toilet light was dim
    I heard a cry and then a splash:
    My God! He's fallen in!