this weekAll Lit Up

October 19, 2004

Bad Fiction Contests

A way to pass the time on dark and stormy nights

When Morgen and I visited Venice, we made the obligatory pilgrimage (along with all the other North American tourists) to Harry’s Bar. For those who have never heard of it, Harry’s Bar is a very nice, though small and perfectly ordinary, restaurant near Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). It opened in 1931, taking its name from an American named Harry Pickering who had donated the capital to get it up and running. There is nothing especially noteworthy about this restaurant except the fact that it has attracted a great many famous people, who in turn attracted still other famous people. So in a way, it’s famous for being famous—not to impugn the quality of its fare, which is excellent. Perhaps the best-known celebrity to frequent Harry’s was Ernest Hemingway. He spent so much time there he had his own table in the corner, and he mentioned Harry’s in Across the River and into the Trees.

There’s Harry, and Then There’s Harry
Hoping to capitalize on the recognition of the name “Harry’s,” another establishment named “Harry’s Bar” soon opened in Florence, Italy. This Harry’s was not owned by, or related in any way to, the original. Nevertheless, following the precept that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it set a precedent that would play itself out in a strange way decades later. In 1978, a replica of the Harry’s in Florence called Harry’s Bar and American Grill opened in Century City, California, near Beverly Hills. As an apropos publicity stunt, the Century City Harry’s sponsored an Imitation Hemingway Competition. Entrants were asked to write a single page in the style of Hemingway—understood to mean a convincingly bad parody of Hemingway—with the only stipulation being that the piece had to mention “Harry’s Bar” in a complimentary way at some point. The winner received a trip to Florence (not Venice) and dinner at Harry’s Bar there.

A huge number of entries came in that first year, and the contest proved so popular that it has continued every year since. The original sponsors bowed out after 11 years, at which point the literary organization PEN Center USA took over. PEN, in turn, handed over sponsorship of the contest to United Airlines in 2003. The airline publishes winning entries in its Hemispheres in-flight magazine, and sends the winner to Milan (not Venice or Florence). You can read past years’ winning entries in a book called The Best of Bad Hemingway or, for more recent years, online. Even if you’re not familiar enough with Hemingway’s style to feel the full force of the parody, these entries are brilliantly funny. The winning entry in 2002, written by Kathryn Bold, was titled “The Old Man and the Flea”; runners-up included “Harry Potter and the Gimlet on Fire” and “The Old Man and the Sea of Reporters.”

Faking Faulkner
If Hemingway isn’t quite your speed, United also sponsors the Faux Faulkner Contest in cooperation with the University of Mississippi’s Department of English and Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the Yoknapatawapha Press. Like Imitation Hemingway, the contest seeks a single page of Faulkner parody that makes judges laugh. The prize is a bit less impressive, though: a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, where the entry is read at a Faulkner conference.

A different and, for my tastes, much more interesting form of bad fiction contest has been running nearly as long as Imitation Hemingway. Since 1983, the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The objective of this competition is to write the worst possible opening sentence for a novel. The sentence can be, in principle, any length, though typical entries are much shorter than the 500-word maximum for the Hemingway and Faulkner contests.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Contest
This contest gets its name from 19th-century novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with the immortal words “It was a dark and stormy night…” But it was the remainder of the sentence—and, in fact, the rest of the book—that earned Bulwer-Lytton his reputation for verbosity and melodrama. The entire opening sentence reads: “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.” Whew! And it just goes on like that.

For all the fun people have had at Bulwer-Lytton’s expense in the last couple of decades, he was an extremely successful and popular novelist in his day, second only to Dickens. He is best remembered for his novel The Last Days of Pompeii, and was responsible for coining the expressions “the great unwashed” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.” He also inspired some less-obnoxious parodies: “It was a dark and stormy night” was the opening line of both Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Snoopy’s perpetually unfinished novel in the Peanuts comics.

The most interesting entries in the Bulwer-Lytton contest can be found in a series of five books, most of which are now, sadly, out of print. The winning entries for each year, however, are still available on the contest’s Web site. Winning this contest won’t involve a trip to Italy, Tennessee, or even San Jose; sponsored as it is by a university English department, the main reward is simply notoriety. But contestants, judges, and all those who read the entries are amply rewarded with laughter.

Bad fiction—when it is intentionally bad—can be very entertaining to read. But far from simply lampooning writers whose styles are no longer in vogue, these contests can actually help to teach better writing by calling attention to what makes bad prose bad. And anything that helps writers laugh at themselves or challenge writer’s block has got to be a good thing. —Joe Kissell

UPDATE: In early 2006, United announced that it was no longer sponsoring the Hemingway and Faulkner contests, and that no new sponsor had yet been found. So those two contests appear to be in limbo for the time being.

More Information about Bad Fiction Contests…

This article was featured by the 13th Literature Carnival.

If you want to enter the current Imitation Hemingway Competition or Faux Faulkner Contest—or read the winning entries for the years 2000 and later—visit United Hemispheres Magazine (link nonfunctional as of April, 2006). For entries from the first 11 years of the competition, pick up The Best of Bad Hemingway. More information on the Faux Faulkner Contest can be found on the Yoknapatawapha Press site. I’d like to see a contest for the best parody of “Yoknapatawapha.”

A good article on Harry’s Bar in Venice appeared on CNN.com.

For information on the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, visit its home page, where you can also find links to winning entries from previous years. Used copies of the compilation books can occasionally be found on Amazon.com:

cover art

If you want to read some 19th-century bad fiction, pick up a copy of Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford—which, I might point out, has remained in print far longer than the books parodying it. For better 20th-century fiction, try A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Last year, the Washington Post announced the winner of a contest to write instructions (for anything) in the style of a famous author. The winning entry, written by Jeff Brechlin, was The Hokey Pokey as written by Shakespeare. Extremely funny.

I must also give credit where credit is due: the idea for today’s topic came from my sister-in-law, singer/songwriter Cat Jahnke, who sent me a “care package” that included the first two “Dark and Stormy Night” compilation books.