I expect some of you are already familiar with the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a yearly honoring of the worst opening lines in fiction. It has the distinction of being a tongue-in-cheek, submission-based bit of literary humor that predates the internet, going back to a time when getting multiple thousands of entries in a contest really meant something.
Mostly it meant a few hundred bucks for the U.S. Postal Service
And if you’re not familiar you can always check out the website, which looks to have been made some time in the early 80s itself. Zing!
But here’s the thing. The contest all stems from the purported awfulness of Paul Clifford‘s iconic first line:
“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.”
Which is, okay, kind of awful and wordy prose in this day and age. In 1830, when Paul Clifford debuted, it was sort of par for the course. We’ve latched onto the “dark and stormy night” introduction and Dickens’s “It was the best of times” as icons of wordy English prose, but I submit to you that things could be much worse. No one makes people read the really bad ones any more, so we have no idea how good we’ve got it. Take, for example, The Tower of London, a William Harrison Ainsworth published ten years after Paul Clifford:
On the 10th of July, 1553, about two hours after noon, a loud discharge of ordnance burst from the turrets of Durham House, then the residence of the Duke of Northmberland, grand-master of the realm, and occupying the site of the modern range of buildings, known as the Adelphi; and, at the signal, which was immediately answered from every point along the river where a bombard or culverin could be planted,–from the adjoining hospital of the Savoy,–the old palace of Bridewell, recently converted by Edward VI, at the insistence of Ridley, Bishop of London, into a house of correction,–Baynard’s Castle, the habitation of the Earl of Pembroke,–the gates of London bridge,–and, lastly, from the batteries of the Tower,–a gallant train issued from the southern gateway of the stately mansion above-named, and descended the stairs leading to the water’s edge, where, appointed for their reception, was drawn up a squadron of fifty superbly-gilt barges,–some decorated with banners and streamers,–some with cloth-of-gold and arras, embroidered with the devices of the civic companies,–others with innumerable silken pennons to which were attacked small silver bells “making goodly noise and goodly sight as they waved in the wind,”–while others, reserved for more important personages of the ceremony, were covered at the sides with shields gorgeously emblazoned with the armorial bearings of the different noblemen and honorable persons composing the privy council, amid which the cognizance of the Duke of Northumberland,–a lion rampant, or, double quevee, vert,–appeared proudly conspicuous.
I respectfully submit that this is a far, far worse opening line than anything Bulwer-Lytton (who was popular and successful in his time) ever penned. I would even go so far as to say that it is worse than any of the recent winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest. For that matter, I’m sort of fond of some of those winners, especially 2008’s, submitted by Gordon Spik:
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 breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N. J.”
It kind of has something going for it. Or maybe I just like manhole covers.
We have nice ones here.
Where did you last run across a really awful first line? And was it awful in its own right, or just a product of its times? Leave a comment…