Honoring the Very Best of the Worst in Fiction San Jose State University professor Scott Rice talks to Liane Hansen about the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which collects the very best of the worst opening lines in fiction.

Honoring the Very Best of the Worst in Fiction

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It's hard to think of a worst opening line for a novel than it was a dark and stormy night. But for 25 years now, contestants in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been trying. San Jose State University professor Scott Rice started the competition and has collected the very best of the worst fiction ever written in a series of books titled, "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night." And Scott's on the phone.

Scott, what are some of the worst opening lines you've ever read?

Professor SCOTT RICE (English, San Jose State University; Author, "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night"): I can start with some short ones like: The sun rolls slowly like a fiery fur ball caught up uneasily unto a sky-blue carpet by a giant unseen cat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SCOTT: The thing that goes back and forth inside the old grandfather clocks swing back and forth like a pendulum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. RICE: There's a reason for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: What - what's the - you had one about Dennys?

Prof. RICE: Oh yes. The rising sun crawled over the ridge and slithered across the hot barren terrain and to every nook and cranny like grease on a Dennys grill on the morning rush. But only until 11 o'clock when they switch to the lunch menu.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: How did you get the idea to hold a contest for the worst writing? I mean, 25 years you've been doing this.

Prof. RICE: Oh, yeah. A lot of different reasons. We were talking about literary contests one day and I started to think about this conversation stopper I had in graduate school, I discovered what novel begin with: It was a dark and stormy night. It was Paul Clifford by Bulwer-Lytton, probably better known for having written the "Last Days of Pompeii" and for originating a line - the pen is mightier than the sword. And also, by the way, he originated the expression: the almighty dollar.

HANSEN: Interesting.

Prof. RICE: So I thought why don't we have a writing contest that asks for people to submit bad writing but let's not ask for very much. Let's ask for bad opening sentences and we'll call it the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

HANSEN: Cool. What's the criteria? I mean do you have a laugh-o-meter and if it goes over the red lineā€¦

Prof. RICE: Oh, no. It's a - I think the smartest thing we ever decided to do was not to tell people what we're looking for.


Prof. RICE: You know, I mean, if you start thinking about it, in a Tony Hillerman novel somebody asked, I think it was Jim Chee, who's investigating a crime site on a high desert nuzzle(ph). What are you looking for? And he says I'm not looking for anything in particular then I might not see something I'm not looking for. And so we just read them and we respond.

HANSEN: Has anyone gone on from winning this contest to becoming a published writer?

Prof. RICE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Some of the people do go on and are publishing fiction. It's just that they're not - we don't have John Bars(ph) doing it or someone of that bignitude(ph).

HANSEN: You don't go and check out their opening lines too?

Prof. RICE: No. No. No. But they have sense of humor and real powers in invention.

HANSEN: Scott Rice is sorting through the entries for the 25th Annual Bulwer-Lytton Worst Fiction Opening Line Contest. The deadline for submission is July 15th. The winner will be announced July 23rd. And we reached Scott in his office at San Jose State University where he's hip deep in bad writing. Thanks a lot, Scott.

Prof. RICE: Thank you.

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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