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My first professional sale was a parody.

Confession time:  I did not actually sell this masterwork, even though it did appeared in book published by one of the best known, best loved presses in the world.  I signed no contract, received neither money nor royalties, and did not appear either on the cover or in the table of contents.  I didn't even get a contributor's copy.  

Before you think that this sale-that-wasn't involved a vanity press, a fake poetry contest, or a similar literary atrocity, rest assured that no aspiring authors were either harmed or exploited by my experience.  I knew what I was doing, had no expectations of anything except possibly being told that my work had been accepted, and was thrilled down to my tippy-toes to receive that little orange postcard saying that my work had been received, given the attention it deserved, and found worthy.

By now you're probably all wondering the precise nature of this jewel of the English language.  Here it is, and when I caution you, my faithful readers, that you should neither eat, drink, nor even breathe when you read the next paragraph, I assure you that I have only your best interests at heart.

Presenting the first (and, to date, only and really, seriously, you should get down on your hands and knees and thank whatever god you worship that there's only one paragraph of this turkey) sentence of the epic romance Love's Scabrous Infection:

"Tomorrow," moaned Esmerelda as she clutched the supine form of her sleeping lover more firmly to her heaving bosom, "to--nay, tonight" -- she tensed as her waters broke and flooded the love-stained sheets -- "I will tell Lord Rampart that I bear his child!"
The anthology to which I submitted the romantic and ridiculous saga of Esmerelda and her extraordinarily unobservant swain was, as you might have guessed, that legendary celebration of Opening Sentences So Bad They're Good, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  This annual quest to find the worst possible opening sentence to a novel is the brainchild of Scott Rice, professor of English at San Jose State University.  Each year the faculty sorts through thousands of entries in categories such as Science Fiction, Romance, Mystery, Historical Fiction, Vile Puns, and In Dubious Taste to crown the likes of the following not with leaves and bays, but skunk cabbage and kudzu, for reasons that should be immediately evident:
Gerald began – but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them “permanently” meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash – to pee.

— Jim Gleeson, Madison, WI, 2007 Grand Prize Winner

Mike kills mice with a hammer during his poetry readings, but we're still friends.

pre-1990 winner whose name I've forgotten

The notes blatted skyward as the sun rose over the Canada geese, feathered rumps mooning the day, webbed appendages frantically peddling unseen bicycles in their search for sustenance, driven by Nature’s maxim, “Ya wanna eat, ya gotta work,” and at last I knew Pittsburgh.

— Sheila B. Richter, Minneapolis, MN, 1987 Grand Prize Winner

The question remains, however:  who was Bulwer-Lytton, and why has Scott Rice chosen to commemorate him with a contest devoted to bad writing?  

The who is easy enough:  Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton was a distinguished Victorian writer and politician, as well as close friends with Charles Dickens and two generations of the D'Israeli family.  His books were popular, his political career was solid enough that he was offered a high position in the Admiralty which he turned down because it might prevent from him writing, and he was overall la respected, nay, admired, fixture of the mid-19th century London literary scene.  His novels include the likes of The Last Days of Pompeii (repeatedly filmed), Rienzi, the last of the Roman tribunes (source of a minor Wagner opera), and the minor science fiction classic The Coming Race.  His works have been translated into multiple languages (one was the first English novel ever translated into Japanese), and many are still read and enjoyed to this day.  Surely he couldn't be that bad?

Unfortunately for the English language, he most certainly could, and was.  One only need read the notorious opening sentence of Paul Clifford to know why Bulwer-Lytton's posthumous reputation so richly deserves a contest devoted to the very worst:

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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Isn't that a daisy, as Mark Twain would have said?

This simple phrase - "It was a dark and stormy night" - has become possibly the most famous opening line in literary history.  Others might be simpler ("Call me Ishmael") or more lyrical ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"), but how many other first lines have been appropriated by authors ranging from Madeline L'Engle to Snoopy?  And how many others have inspired a literary contest?  Surely the man behind this extraordinary assemblage of words must have had an equally extraordinary life!

Such is indeed the case with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, later Lord Lytton.  Born the son of a general and a gentleman's daughter, descended from solid country stock, he was such a precocious youngster that he published his first book at the tender age of fifteen.  This isn't to say that Ishmael and Other Poems was very good - one critic described it as "immature," which is not surprising - but mere fact that Our Hero was capable of stringing together something coherent enough that a publisher took a chance on it was considered a sign of future greatness.

This early promise was borne out when the future novelist won the Chancellor's Gold Medal at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1825 for yet more poetry.  He arranged for the publication of a second book of verse, Weeds and Wild Flowers, in 1826, the year he graduated from university.  This volume was "privately printed," which is a polite way of saying that Our Hero couldn't find anyone willing to pay him good coin for his versifying, but still - two books before one is five-and-twenty is nothing to scorn!

Alas, the next few years were not kind to the young Bulwer, as he was then known.  He toyed with a military career but sold his army commission without serving a second day.  Admittedly there were no major wars in the 1820s, Bonaparte being first safely exiled to St. Helena and then safely dead thanks to his fashionably arsenic-laced wallpaper, but there were plenty of colonial postings for an ambitious young officer of good family, even for those who were more interested in the life literary than military, so his sudden interest and then lack thereof is a bit puzzling.  Perhaps he had a special, personal reason for wishing to stay in the British Isles rather than go abroad to serve king and country?

The reason may well have been a woman.  Edward fell in love with and married a gorgeous Irishwoman, Rosina Doyle Wheeler, in the summer of 1827.  Although she was respectable enough, his mother was less than pleased; she wanted him to aim for bigger and better things, and when he went ahead and married Rosina anyway, she promptly cut off his allowance.  This forced Edward, who had never actually worked a day in his life, to find some way of supporting himself and his beloved.

The most obvious route to riches, or at least enough to keep his family out of that great Victorian cliché, the workhouse, was to write; our hero had already published two books so churning out a few novels to keep the wolf at the door in Milk-Bones must have seemed almost easy.  Fortunately for him and his growing family (not to mention the wolf), it seems he had a knack for churning out the product; he published a novel a year between 1827 and 1830 (one of them Paul Clifford), including the possibly autobiographical The Disowned., and briefly edited a magazine.  If that weren't enough, he also entered Parliament as a Whig in 1831.

This frantic pace inevitably took a toll; all too soon Our Hero, feeling not quite so heroic as he should, was finding comfort with women who were not Rosina, and they separated for good after only nine years of  marriage.  Rosina, who had evidently learned about stringing words together from being married to a writer, revenged herself three years later by writing a nasty little roman a clef, Cheveley, or The Man of Honour, about a writer/ politician who bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the man who had loved and then betrayed her.  They continued to battle for several decades in a Victorian version of The War Between the Tates, with Rosina attempting to undermine his political career, Bulwer attempting to have Rosina confined to an asylum, and Rosina finally publishing a bitter memoir called A Blighted Life that aired the family laundry in reasonably spectacular fashion.  

If all this weren't enough, in 1843 Our Hero's mother, whom he had loved in spite of everything, joined the choir invisible, leaving him at one of the lowest points of his life.  She had forgiven him his elopement, possibly due to the bust-up of his misalliance with Rosina, and left him money, property, and the arms of her family, the Lyttons.  All he had to do was change his name to "Bulwer-Lytton," which seemed a small enough price to pay.  He also ordered that Mummy Dearest's room be kept exactly as she left it, in perpetuity…and as astonishing as it may seem to modern readers, Bulwer-Lytton's children, and their children, and their children, have done exactly that.  

Fortunately for literary history, not to mention Bulwer-Lytton, things began to look up after that.  Plays and novels poured from his pen, selling so well that phrases such as "the pen is mightier than the sword" (Richelieu), "the almighty dollar" (The Coming Race), and "the great unwashed" (Paul Clifford) therefrom became part of the common language.  He continued his political career, was raised to the peerage in 1866 as Baron Lytton, and even had a town in British Columbia named after him.

Best of all for such an eminent Victorian, his only son (yet another Edward, although he usually went by Robert) became, if anything, even more important than his father to the Empire thanks to a long and genuinely distinguished diplomatic career.  Robert, who entered government service at age eighteen, eventually rose to become Governor-General of India and became the first Earl of Lytton.  Not only that, he published several popular books of poetry under the name "Owen Meredith."  It seemed that literary ability and political acumen ran in the Bulwer-Lytton line, and doesn't that just warm the cockles of your heart (not a phrase coined by Bulwer-Lytton the Elder, oddly enough).

Our Hero lived long enough to revel in his son's success, although unfortunately not long enough to see Rosina join her former mother-in-law in the choir invisible.  One of England's most popular novelists, he was interred in Westminster Abbey upon his death in 1873, although not in Poet's Corner thank GOD.

As for his literary legacy...perhaps it is best to let Our Hero speak for himself in the following selection of opening lines and paragraph from his bestselling novels:

'Ho, Diomed, well met!  Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?' said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.

The Last Days of Pompeii

A gentleman and a coxcomb?  Can such things be?
Merry was the month of May in the year of our Lord 1052.  Few were the boys, and few the lasses, who overslept themselves on the first of that buxom month.  Long ere the dawn, the crowds had sought mead and woodland, to cut poles and wreathe flowers.  Many a mead then lay fair and green beyond the village of Charing, and behind the isle of Thorney, (amidst the brakes and briars of which were then rising fast and fair the Hall and Abbey of Westminster;) many a wood lay dark in the starlight, along the higher ground that sloped from the dank Strand, with its numerous canals or dykes;--and on either side of the great road into Kent:--flutes and horns sounded far and near through the green places, and laughter and song, and the crash of breaking boughs.

Harold:  Last of the Saxon Kings

And many were the semi-colons and dashes that the printers had to beg, borrow, and steal to set the type for the first edition.
In an apartment at Paris, one morning during the Reign of Terror, a man, whose age might be somewhat under thirty, sat before a table covered with papers, arranged and labelled with the methodical precision of a mind fond of order and habituated to business.   Behind him rose a tall bookcase surmounted with a bust of Robespierre, and the shelves were filled chiefly with works of a scientific character, amongst which the greater number were on chemistry and medicine.


"Igor!  At my command, unleash the tricoteuse!"

"But Master, she was guillotined last week!"

"Since when has that ever made a difference?"

The Tragi-Comedy of Court Intrigue, which had ever found its principal theatre in Spain since the accession of the House of Austria to the throne, was represented with singular complication of incident and brilliancy of performance during the reign of Philip the Third. That monarch, weak, indolent, and superstitious, left the reins of government in the hands of the Duke of Lerma.

Calderon the Courtier

"And tonight, on Lifestyles of the Weak and Indolent...."
If, reader, you have ever looked through a solar microscope at the monsters in a drop of water, perhaps you have wondered to yourself how things so terrible have been hitherto unknown to you--you have felt a loathing at the limpid element you hitherto deemed so pure--you have half fancied that you would cease to be a water-drinker; yet, the next day you have forgotten the grim life that started before you, with its countless shapes, in that teeming globule; and, if so tempted by your thirst, you have not shrunk from the lying crystal, although myriads of the horrible Unseen are mangling, devouring, gorging each other in the liquid you so tranquilly imbibe; so is it with that ancestral and master element called Life.  

Night and Morning

We should all get down on our knees and thank our makers that Bulwer-Lytton was unfamiliar with the horrors revealed by the electron microscope.
SIR PETER CHILLINGLY, of Exmundham, Baronet, F.R.S. and F.A.S., was the representative of an ancient family, and a landed proprietor of some importance. He had married young; not from any ardent inclination for the connubial state, but in compliance with the request of his parents. They took the pains to select his bride; and if they might have chosen better, they might have chosen worse, which is more than can be said for many men who choose wives for themselves.

Kenelm Chillingley

Do we detect a teensy, weensy, itsy, bitsy, hint of autobiography in this turgid tale of the scion of Exmundham?
I am a native of ___, in the United States of America. My ancestors migrated from England in the reign of Charles II.; and my grandfather was not undistinguished in the War of Independence. My family, therefore, enjoyed a somewhat high social position in right of birth; and being also opulent, they were considered disqualified for the public
service. My father once ran for Congress, but was signally defeated by his tailor.

The Coming Race

At last, some good old-fashioned traditional values!  


And so, my friends...have you ever read anything by Our Hero?  Seen one of the numerous films of The Last Days of Pompeii?  Have you wondered how the same person can be both a gentleman AND a coxcomb?  Shrieked in horror and eschewed water in favor of gin at the sight of a drop of water under a solar microscope?  It may not be the buxom month of May, and there may not be a bust of Robespierre behind my desk, but that doesn't mean we can't have a bit of fun tonight....


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Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Oct 20, 2012 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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