In describing a tear’s journey from a cheek to the Long Beach Harbor, one Berkeley man sealed his fate as an inductee into the hall of literary infamy.
Berkeley resident Bill Mac Iver wrote, “A single sparkling tear fell from Little Mary’s cheek onto the sidewalk, then slid into the storm drain, there to join in its course the mighty waters of the Los Angeles River and, eventually, Long Beach Harbor, with its state-of-the-art container-freight processing facilities.”
The sentence was deemed so offensive it won an award in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a writing competition where entrants are challenged to pen bad opening lines to the worst novels imaginable.
Mac Iver nabbed first place in the “purple prose” category, a catchall for the “writer who’s trying too hard,” said Scott Rice, contest founder and chair of the San Jose State University English and Comparative Literature Department, which sponsors the competition.
“That was one of my favorites,” Rice said of Mac Iver’s contribution. “It’s so casual and confident, the way it starts out in one way and ends up another way … You have to wonder what’s next. Is it about Little Mary or the state-of-the-art container-freight facilities? It’s absurd in a clever way.”
Mac Iver’s entry was absurd enough to qualify him for the grand prize, Rice said, an award that ultimately went to Carmichael resident Jim Guigli, a retired mechanical designer for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for the following:
“Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.”
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, named for the minor Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, who produced the opener: “It was a dark and stormy night…”—a phrase later co-opted and made famous by the cartoon dog Snoopy--started on the San Jose State campus in 1982 with just three entries. That year, Gail Cain of San Francisco, was declared the winner with this line:
“The camel died quite suddenly on the second day, and Selena fretted sulkily and, buffing her already impeccable nails—not for the first time since the journey began—pondered snidely if this would dissolve into a vignette of minor inconveniences like all the other holidays spent with Basil.”
The contest has since attracted thousands of submissions each year—Rice no longer keeps exact figures—many from international contestants.
Sentences are judged in multiple categories, such as children’s literature, detective fiction and adventure, by a panel of 24 “experts,” of whom about half are former winners, Rice said. The grand prize winner is said to receive a pittance; category winners, like Mac Iver, receive 15 minutes of fame, Rice said. If they want it.
Mac Iver did not return multiple calls for this story.
The criteria for judging are simple: there are none, Rice said.
“That’s one of the secrets of the contest,” he said. “We’re not looking for anything.”