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What is the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest is a writing competition held annually to find examples of truly bad and humorous work. Named for author and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the tongue-in-cheek contest searches for the worst examples of opening sentences to fiction novels. The winner is honored with a small monetary prize, but the contest attracts thousands entrants each year.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton was an English playwright and novelist notable for his ability to coin phrases that became common expressions. In addition to credit for such popular phrases as "the pen is mightier than the sword" and "pursuit of the almighty dollar," Bulwer-Lytton penned one of the most famous opening sentences of all time, "It was a dark and stormy night." In recognition and ironic appreciation of his florid and incredibly ornate writing style, the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest was named in his honor.

In 1982, Professor Scott Rice of San Jose State University created the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest. As a graduate student, Rice had stumbled upon the origin of the phrase "It was a dark and stormy night" and named his humorous competition in honor of the minor and often belittled Victorian writer. Although the first contest received only three entries, word soon spread of the search for the best badly written opening lines. Over the next two decades, the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest began to receive media attention from increasingly influential news agencies. Decades after its inception, the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest now attracts thousands of entries annually and boasts an international pool of submissions.

The rules of the competition are quite simple: Each entry must be a single sentence and must be the original work of the submitting author. Entries are judged by participating members of the English department at San Jose State, with the winner receiving a monetary prize and fame among followers of the contest. In the past several collections of entries have been published in book form, but many are out of print or difficult to find.

Winning entries typically feature a run-on sentence filled with passionate descriptions, nonsensical premises and violated rules of grammar. While critics may feel that the competition encourages poor writing, proponents point out that you cannot intentionally construct a bad sentence without understanding why it is so terrible. Instead, the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest attracts many language lovers, who find humor and ironic wit in intentionally awful writing.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On Feb 08, 2014

@KoiwiGal - Well, the Bulwer Lytton is a bad fiction contest, so maybe the authors are adding that self awareness as an additional factor in how bad it is. Trying too hard is often one of the things that annoys me about fiction.

I have to say, it's an ingenious idea for a contest though. The entries are short and probably fairly diverse, so you wouldn't get bored.

By KoiwiGal — On Feb 08, 2014

@indigomoth - I usually check it out when the winners are announced. One of my friends enters it occasionally but I don't think he's ever been picked as one of the top entrants.

In some ways the contest winners feel a bit strange though. I think it's difficult to write something truly bad and yet also completely unaware of the fact.

By indigomoth — On Feb 07, 2014

This is an awesome contest to enter, especially for anyone who is just starting out. It gives you a place to put all the purple prose that you have to cut out of your work to clean it up.

I've also always found the man who runs the contest to be very friendly to entrants, which is wonderful as usually writing contests are fairly impersonal.

Plus, the previous winners are hilarious. I have no idea how people manage to come up with sentences that are so bad in so many different ways.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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