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Saturday, September 6, 2008

NYC inspires the most atrocious opening sentence

So the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst opening sentence for a novel (inspired by that deathless phrase, "A Dark and Stormy Night") went ahead, despite the most strenuous efforts of a Bulwer-Lytton descendant. (See older post.)

In a story in the New York Times, Clyde Haberman muses that "New York, warts and all, has long inspired great writing." But an awful opening sentence?

Indeed. And here it is. A chorus of trumpets, if you will.

“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.’ ”

This gem was composed by a Mr. Spik (pronounced "speak"), 41, who lives in Washington, where he is the communications director for a diamond-importing company. But he has visited New York often enough to know the billows of steam that rise from the subway that snakes beneath the streets. As for the manhole covers, when interviewed by Haberman over the phone, he said, “I just thought DeLaney Brothers had a funny ring to it. There’s no hidden meaning, no Salman Rushdie kind of stuff. And Piscataway just sounds funny.”

As Haberman comments, "You just try coming up with something so dizzyingly atrocious."

“It’s challenging to write something that’s intentionally bad,” Spik agreed. “You have to know the mechanics of English to be able to throw a monkey wrench into it.”

Ain’t that the truth, said Scott Rice, an English professor at San Jose State University who has presided over the Bulwer-Lytton competition since its inception in 1982. “Somebody said years ago that the contest calls for something like the equivalent of imitating a drunk on roller skates." It’s certainly not for the untalented or the faint-hearted.

The appeal of Mr. Spik’s submission was “the way it slides downhill,” Professor Rice said. “It starts out a little bit dramatically, with this somewhat unusual metaphor of a checkered taxi ride of a love affair, and it goes right downhill and ends up in a sewer.”

The prize for the major winner in this surprisingly popular contest is in the three figures -- Mr. Spik received a check for $250.

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