Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bulwer-Lytton time

Little known fact: Originally, the popular cola was called "Nathaniel Armpriester Lethbridge-Stewart Pepper, Doctor of Humane Letters." Didn't sell worth a lick until they changed it to "Dr Pepper" (no period after the abbreviation. Look it up.) Simpler is usually better. The deft, quick stroke usually connects better than the drunken roundhouse.

I mention that because the organizers of the Bulwer-Lytton contest have announced this year's winners.

I've already explained why I think this exercise probably does a disservice to Bulwer-Lytton. I should add that I think it probably puts parody in a bad light, too. After you've read the first two or three B-L winners, there's not much surprise (and hence, very little humor) to them--not unlike the experience of watching Leno do his tired "Jay Walking" segments, I suppose.

If all you want is a passage that rambles on to an abrupt and preposterous conclusion--well, frankly, we're already paying someone $400,000 per year, plus benefits, to crank those out on a regular basis. What, really, is the difference between these two quotes, other than that one is the work of a talented amateur and the other fell out of the mouth of the highest-paid public official in the country?
She looked at her hands and saw the desiccated skin hanging in Shar-Pei wrinkles, confetti-like freckles, and those dry, dry cuticles--even her "Fatale Crimson" nail color had faded in the relentless sun to the color of old sirloin--and she vowed if she ever got out of the Sahara alive, she'd never buy polish on sale at Walgreen's again. --Christin Keck, Kent, OH
"Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 2004

That's why I continue to recommend Adam Cadre's Little Lytton contest, which celebrates brevity and at least the faint whiff of literary plausibility over formulaic obviousness. (Of course, having said that, I don't think last year's finalists are as good as the ones from earlier years.)

I mean, consider:
The pain wouldn't stop, and Vern still had three cats left.
It's two years later and I still haven't quite figured what the hell that one means (if he had fewer cats left, would that be good or bad?), but you just gotta know that a novel that starts out like that is going somewhere interesting.

On the other hand, how much farther would you keep reading--even hypothetically--if you'd picked up a novel that began like this:
Christy, lounging in the gondola which slipped smoothly through the enveloping mist had her first inkling that something was afoot as she heard pattering hooves below (for our story is not in Venice but Switzerland with its Provolone and Toblerone) and craning her not unlovely neck she narrowed her eyes at the dozen tiny reindeer, pelting madly down the goat trail.

The editor in me can't resist noting, by the way, that the line would be funnier and more intriguing by the simple substitution of the word "amiss" for "afoot." "Amiss" would raise interesting questions: What about the sound of reindeer hooves, per se, caused Christy's concern? (And we know it was the sound, because she hadn't yet looked up to see the reindeer.) What order was disrupted by the presence of reindeer where goats should be?

Leave "afoot" in the sentence, and the reader is left wondering if the author is saying anything about the reindeer at all, or if the point is simply the play off the proximity of "afoot" and "hooves."

"Amiss" is funny; "afoot" isn't. Of such deft strokes is humor created. So I say, less time spent on rhyming European foodstuffs and more attention to the fundamentals.

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