15-13 Story 1: “It was a dark and stormy night”: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

 

Synopsis: Everyone knows the line “It was a dark and stormy night” from Snoopy’s exploits as a budding novelist. But do you know the real author of that famous line, and why he has a literary competition named after him? We’ll talk to the retired professor of English and contest creator about the famous aristocrat and author who lent his name to a quirky contest, and why he was a better writer than he’s been given credit for. We’ll also hear some of the winning entries from past Bulwer-Lytton Contests.

Host: Gary Price. Guest: Scott Rice, retired English professor from San Jose State University and founder of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

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“It was a dark and stormy night”: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

 Gary Price: Most people have probably never heard of the British Victorian-era politician and author, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, first Earl of Lytton, but they certainly know his most famous line, “it was a dark and stormy night.” It’s the opening sentence in the 1830 novel, “Paul Clifford,” and it’s been parodied in film, literature, song and by the late “Peanuts” comic strip creator, Charles Schulz —   every novel his character Snoopy would write atop his dog house began with that sentence. It’s was also the inspiration for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest sponsored by San Jose State University. The contest asks for entries for the opening sentence of “the worst of all possible novels.” It’s just one sentence, but it’s quite a challenge to come up with a winner. We talked to the contest’s creator, retired San Jose State English professor Scott Rice, about the contest and the man for whom it’s named. Rice says that during the 19th century, Bulwer-Lytton was quite a busy man, and a prolific writer…

Scott Rice: He’s a better writer than the contest has made him out to be, and had a very active mind. He was ahead of his time in some respects. He wrote crime novels, he wrote science fiction, novels about mysticism. He had a busy, active life. He was a member of Parliament, for one thing. And he’s responsible for things we don’t know about. He has a lot of responsibility for the fact that British Columbia is in Canada and not in the United States. There was a gold rush up there in the 1850s, and a bunch of American miners went stampeding up the Caribou Trail and they got up there and they decide they’re going to make it into another state. But Bulwer put a stop to that. He was a Foreign Secretary at the time, and he pulled the right strings and brought that to an end.

Price:  Rice says Bulwer-Lytton wasn’t as good a novelist as Charles Dickens, but he was a “respectable writer” who deserves a place on the shelf with his contemporaries…

Rice: He was every bit as popular as Charles Dickens was right up until the beginning of the First World War. His years were 1803 to 1873, and he wrote a number of famous novels. Probably the best-known novel was The Last Days of Pompeii, which has been made into a movie on about three different occasions. He is the originator of expressions like, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” that was from a play. And he also originated the phrase “the great unwashed,” and the phrase “the almighty dollar.”

Price:  Since the famous “dark and stormy night” line was the opening sentence of one of the Bulwer-Lytton’s books, Rice says he mistakenly attributed its origin to him. It’s not very good prose, as is, but on reflection and after a bit more research, Rice says he changed his thinking about the line…

Rice: The contest really began as a mistake on my part, it’s a testimonial to my ignorance because I’ve since found out that expression that opening line, “it was a dark and stormy night,” had been around for centuries. And apparently, it was a common fixture in a popular Dutch storytelling tradition, an oral storytelling tradition. And what Bulwer-Lytton did, “it was a dark and stormy night — semi-colon – and then he set out to rehabilitate the sentence and turned it in to what actually I think is a pretty good sentence, it’s just long by our standards.

Price:  So how did Bulwer-Lytton rehabilitate such a bad sentence? By making it into a compelling word picture…

Rice: It began with “It was It was a dark and stormy night;” then, semi-colon, “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.” So it begins and ends in the dark, and he personifies the force of nature and makes you feel sorry for the scanty little flames in the lamps, and whatever. It’s like those who’ve had freshman composition know what the formula is: you know, you start a paragraph with a generalization and then you illustrate it. And that’s what he does. “It was a dark and stormy night,” is actually a pretty general statement, and then he becomes very specific.

Price:  The contest began in 1982, and Rice says it started very modestly and through the years grew into an international phenomenon…

Rice: The first year it was on campus, and we had something like three entries, and at the time we were also asking for a bad opening paragraph. Part of the attraction of the contest as it later developed was that we asked for only a bad opening sentence, after all it was inspired by an opening sentence, and it didn’t require a great deal of effort on people’s parts. But the first year, that having it simply on campus, and asking for a paragraph attracted only a couple of entrants. And then a year later, our public relations person, Dick Staley, wrote a story and sent it out to the Associated Press, and he did that on a Friday, and Monday morning it was on the front pages of newspapers in Houston, and Miami, and Boston. Then the entries came in by the thousands.

Price:  One of the first comprehensive stories about the contest was in the Wall Street Journal and written by Erik Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City.” Even with all of the publicity, though, Rice says the entrants are almost always amateur writers….

Rice: The kind of people who enter are just readers. I mean there’ve been everything: there was a retired policeman, there was a City Manager from Pensacola, there’s a research assistant I think at the University of Minnesota, attorneys, housewives, house painters – almost everybody and his dog has entered the contest. That’s one of the heartening things about it for me, because like a lot of English teachers I continually bewail the contemporary state of literacy. Or maybe I should I say illiteracy, but the contest attracts people who are readers and who are interested in writing.

Price:  The fact that they’re amateurs doesn’t mean they aren’t clever. Rice says since there are very few rules, it’s the entrants who set the tone. There are a variety of categories from adventure, to historical fiction, sci-fi, romance and even purple prose. One of the favorite categories in the contest is crime fiction, and a submission from the past shows what it takes to write an opening sentence that gets noticed…

Rice: “She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on. Not with good paint like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and just like that cheap paint the dress needed two more coats to cover her.”

Price:  Rice says that when a writer starts with a metaphor like the paint in that entry, it sometimes gets away from the writer and develops a life of its own. Sometimes the sentence creates a little story all by itself, as was the case for the Grand Prize winning entry from the 2014 by Elizabeth Dorfman of Bainbridge Island, Washington…

Rice: She’s playing around with the cliché that we’re all familiar with. We know story after story where we have the intrepid leader, like Columbus, who knows better than his crew, and he has to deal with these people who are on the edge of mutiny but finally he is vindicated, and so forth. But, yeah, it says, “When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.”

Price:  But entries don’t have to be long. Rice cites a couple from the past that were remarkably short and to the point…

Rice: One of my favorites is, “Edmund waited, then immediately waited again.” And then, “As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were to ever break wind in the sound chamber, he would never hear the end of it.”

Price:  Long or short, the entries take a lot of thought and work, but it’s worth it to gain the admiration of your fellow entrants and the public. The prize isn’t much these days, but an early winner got a priceless keepsake — from that famous beagle who wrote fiction on top of his dog house…

Rice: For years, you know, Snoopy would be on top of his dog house with a typewriter and he’d be writing a novel, and he’d always start out, “It was a dark and stormy night.” The first year of the contest I actually got on the phone and up to Santa Rosa where Charles Schulz was still alive and talked to him through his secretary. And he never heard where the line came from, but he did donate an original cartoon panel, Snoopy cartoon panel, and that was what the first-year’s winner Gail Cane received. Since then they’ve received something less grandiose. In keeping with the general bignatude of the contest, the winner receives and pittance, and the pittance amounts to $250.

Price:  Edward Bulwer-Lytton still has descendants in England. How do they view the contest that pokes fun at their ancestor?

Rice: I went in 2003 for the bicentennial of Bulwer-Lytton’s birth. I went to Knebworth House just north of London and I met Harry (Henry Lytton-) Cobbold who is his direct descendant and I participated in a program there. They were very kind. And later on I went up to Lytton British Columbia, which is named after Bulwer-Lytton, and I debated the merits of Bulwer-Lytton with Harry Cobbold. They’re really pleased with the contest because it’s drawn attention to their ancestor.

Price:  The Bulwer-Lytton contest is accepting entries now, and there are some requirements about sending them in. The deadline for entries is April 15th…or is it?

Rice: That’s the mythical deadline because I always say that’s the date for which Americans traditionally make up bad stories. But the real deadline is sometime in June. Then I release the results in July. I’ve got my panel of undistinguished judges I call them. Most of them are friends who were there at the beginning of the contest and then winners, recent winners of the contest also judge. And that enables me to keep in touch with the winners by email, and so I’ve got some serious pen pals, email pen pals because of the contest.

Price:  Rice says the contest is all about fun and witty writing, but he hopes that it also opens the public up to a different type of writing than we’re used to these days…

Rice: Today’s readers, I think, are somewhat impatient, and they’re somewhat reluctant to pick up a long novel. They’re impatient with long sentences. It’s a wonder that Faulkner was as popular as he was, ‘cause he wrote sentences that were hundreds of words long, hundreds and hundreds of words long. I used to teach him in class and have fun looking at some of those. But by-and-large today’s readers are rather impatient and they want to tick off another book and then get off and then read another book and run up their list of accomplishments.

Price:  Rice also suggests that when you pick up a novel by Dickens or Bulwer-Lytton, you try reading a few paragraphs or pages aloud, the way the Victorians often did. He says that that writing was meant to be heard, and an oral reading can magnify the language and make the story that much more enjoyable. Scott Rice invites listeners to visit the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest website, and try their hand at writing that opening sentence. You can find it at b-u-l-w-e-r-dash-l-y-t-t-o-n.com. You can find out more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpoints online.net. I’m Gary Price.

 

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