About the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

old Crandall typewriter

Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. The contest (hereafter referred to as the BLFC) was the brainchild (or Rosemary’s baby) of Professor Scott Rice, whose graduate school excavations unearthed the source of the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” Sentenced to write a seminar paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose the man with the funny hyphenated name, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was best known for perpetrating The Last Days of Pompeii, Eugene Aram, Rienzi, The Caxtons, The Coming Race, and – not least – Paul Clifford, whose famous opener has been plagiarized repeatedly by the cartoon beagle Snoopy. No less impressively, Lytton coined phrases that have become common parlance in our language: “the pen is mightier than the sword,” “the great unwashed,” and “the almighty dollar” (the latter from The Coming Race, now available from Broadview Press).

Conscripted numerous times to be a judge in writing contests that were, in effect, bad writing contests but with prolix, overlong, and generally lengthy submissions, he struck upon the idea of holding a competition that would be honest and – best of all – invite brief entries. Furthermore, it had the ancillary advantage of one day allowing him to write about himself in the third person.

By campus standards, the first year of the BLFC was a resounding success, attracting three entries. The following year, giddy with the prospect of even further acclaim, Rice went public with the contest and, with the boost of a sterling press release by Public Information Officer Richard Staley, attracted national and international attention. Staley’s press release drew immediate front-page coverage in cultural centers like Boston, Houston, and Miami. By the time the BLFC concluded with live announcement of the winner, Gail Cane, on CBS Morning News (since defunct through no fault of the BLFC), it had drawn coverage from Time, Smithsonian Magazine, People Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Manchester Guardian, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Radio, and the BBC. Most important, over 10,000 wretched writers had tried their hands at outdoing Bulwer’s immortal opener, with the best entries soon appearing in the first of a series published by Penguin Books, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1984).

Since 1983 the BLFC has continued to draw acclaim and opprobrium. Thousands continue to enter yearly, the judging has been covered by all the major American television networks, and journalists and pundits from Charles Osgood to George F. Will have commented on the BLFC phenomenon. And each year the winners continue to be announced by both national and international media, including such worthies as the BBC, Australian Radio, Radio South Africa, and Radio Blue Danube from Vienna. To sustain the momentum, the Penguin collections of entries have reached five, each an indispensable addition to the bookshelves of discerning readers and collectors (lamentably, they are now all out of print, a commentary on the misplaced and mercenary values of modern publishers).

In the meantime, Lytton’s fame has not rested solely on his literary accomplishments. In 1989 he came (albeit unbeknownst) to our attention when his ancestral estate at Knebworth was chosen by Tim Burton as the setting for “stately Wayne Manor” in the movie Batman. White water enthusiasts will also be gratified to know that the rafting capital of British Columbia, located at the dramatic confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, takes its name from our hero, acknowledging his tenure as Interior Secretary, when he was responsible for building numerous roads in Australia and Western Canada. In the off chance you are interested in the assessment of species diversity in the Montane Cordillera Ecozone near Lytton, B.C., go here. In the greater likelihood that you do not give a rat’s patootie about the biogeography for selected taxa belonging to some of the major phylogenetic groups in the eastern Rockies and western Cascades of British Columbia, we suggest that you loiter at our site.

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Fans, Stalkers, and Others

Mariann Simms, winner of the 2003 contest, writes about the BLFC in her blog. (April 2006)

Celine Shinbutsu: Fantasy Category winner’s blog from Japan.

Suite.101.com interviews 2008 Winner Garrison Spik (August 16, 2008)

Suite.101.com interviews the Grand Panjandrum (August 16, 2008)

Guillaume Destot interviews the Grand Panjandrum (2002)

“The Great Bulwer-Lytton Debate” (Manchester Guardian)

Sticks and Stones (a “new” contest, last updated August 2010)

Bulwer-Lytton's Ancestral Estate

Bulwer-Lytton’s Bicentennial Birthday Celebration at Knebworth House. With pictures. (May 20-23, 2003)

Literary Locales: Over 1,350 picture links to places that figure in the lives and writings of famous authors

The Eye of Argon (a Sci-Fi conference classic)

Dead White Guys

Dead Dogs

Shakespearean insult?

Bad Sex in Fiction Award

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night — the game for people who love to read

Dickens or Bulwer?

“Dark and Stormy Night Cocktail” from the Swig Bar in San Francisco: Pour ginger beer into a highball glass and top with Zaya rum.

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