Funny Little Brothers & the Lyttle-Lytton Contest

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 5th, 2009

Literary little brothers are a special breed. They may act as wide-eyed witnesses to the shenanigans of older siblings (like John in The Great Brain books; see note below), or may be the main mischief-makers themselves (Judy Blume’s indomitable Fudge). Sometimes they try to compete with the older sibling (Julian’s little brother, Huey, in Ann Cameron’s chapter book series); sometimes, they find a way to forge their own identity quite independently (Judy Moody’s little bro, Stink; Buster in Richard Peck’s Fair Weather).

There is a "little brother" that has managed to do all four of these things at once. This little bro is not a human character, however; he is a literary contest, the Lyttle-Lytton.

First, meet his big brother. Most book lovers are already aware of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which has been challenging contestants since 1982 to "compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." The contest was perpetrated by San Jose University English professor Scott Rice, who named it after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the turgid 19th-century author who gave us the familiar opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night," among other phrases (like "the great unwashed"). In its 27 years of existence, the contest has engendered some truly hilarious and intentionally execrous results.

The entries tend to ramble, much like these blog posts, taking detours that may or may not lead somewhere coherent, ending with an amusing clunker, twist, or non sequitur. For example:

"Professor Frobisher couldn’t believe he had missed seeing it for so long—it was, after all, right there under his nose—but in all his years of research into the intricate and mysterious ways of the universe, he had never noticed that the freckles on his upper lip, just below and to the left of the nostril, partially hidden until now by a hairy mole he had just removed a week before, exactly matched the pattern of the stars in the Pleiades, down to the angry red zit that had just popped up where he and his colleagues had only today discovered an exploding nova."  —Ray C. Gainey, Indianapolis, Indiana (1989 winner)

Sometimes they start strong and trail off into (again, intentional) total irrelevance:

"The bone-chilling scream split the warm summer night in two, the first half being before the scream when it was fairly balmy and calm and pleasant for those who hadn’t heard the scream at all, but not calm or balmy or even very nice for those who did hear the scream, discounting the little period of time during the actual scream itself when your ears might have been hearing it but your brain wasn’t reacting yet to let you know." —Patricia E. Presutti, Lewiston, New York (1986 winner)

And this: "They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . . Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn’t taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently. —Mariann Simms, Wetumpka, Ala. (2003 winner)

I look forward to the Bulwer-Lytton entries every year. They are clever, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and wonderfully wrought. 

The contest is everything a bad sentence contest should be. Or is it? In 2001, upstart bad-sentence-seeker (and interactive fiction award winner) Adam Cadre created the Lyttle-Lytton Contest as a response to his quibble with the length of the Bulwer-Lytton entries. "I say, bleah," he boldly asserts on his website. "Brevity is the soul of wit, and this goes on and on and on." In contrast, Cadre limits his contestants to just 25 words—plenty of space, he maintains, in which to be brilliantly bad.

On his website, Cadre warns entrants, "I will begin with my now-traditional exhortation about what this contest is not. It is not a "funniest sentence" contest. It’s relatively easy [sic] make people laugh with you, if you try…. Again, what this contest is going for is a simulation of unintentional comedy — we should be laughing at your entry, not with it. This is hard to do on purpose." The entries can’t be tongue-in-cheek, sly, clever, or ironic. One should not be able to detect a gleam in the author’s eye or a spark in the author’s neurons, the ones that govern the part of the brain that makes good sentences. (Darn, that last sentence exceeded the 25-word limit, but I was going for the spirit of the Lyttle-Lytton there.) The Lyttle-Lytton "is an exercise in intentional unintentional comedy. Anything that sounds like a deliberate joke on the part of the author is therefore not what this contest is looking for."

Ideally, one should feel as though the author is unaware that his or her sentence is bad. There is something extra delicious, if spartan, about this requirement. It is hard work.

Instead of the acrobatics of Bulwer-Lytton entries like the examples above, Cadre looks for sentences like this: "’Jennifer stood there, quietly ovulating.’" He succinctly articulates why the sentence is so bad: "The non-action of ‘stood,’ the vagueness of ‘there,’ the involuntary process of ovulation treated as an activity, the inappropriateness of mentioning the volume of that non-activity, the uncomfortably gynecological detail of mentioning it at all — all combine to make a cringeworthy sentence. And since it’s only five words long, its impact is instant; you don’t have readers slogging through clause after clause after clause."

While one would rarely find sentences like the Bulwer-Lytton winners in any published novel, Lyttle-Lytton winners sound as if they’re drawn straight from bad, bad novels and awkward nonfiction that somehow made it into print. In fact, alert readers who come upon qualifyingly bad first sentences in published books are welcome to send in such examples (with citations, of course), which are judged in a separate category.

Here are some of the Lyttle-Lytton past winners:

2009— "The mighty frigate Indestructible rounded the Horn of Africa and lurched east’ard." —Pete Wirtala

2005 – "John, surfing, said to his mother, surfing beside him, ‘How do you like surfing?’" —Eric Davis

2002 – "The pain wouldn’t stop, and Vern still had three cats left." —Andrew Davis

2001 – "Turning, I mentally digested all of what you, the reader, are about to find out heartbreaki
ngly." Top Changwatchai

I’m not certain I can’t detect some tongue-in-cheek sensibility in these, especially in the Vern entry, but I respect the goal. The 2001 winner might be my favorite, because it’s so earnestly awful, and ends with an awkwardly placed adverb. But "lurching east’ard" kills me every time I read it. *snort*

It is a dark and stormy night, dear readers, and my pillow awaits me like a soft marshmallow, if the marshmallow were huge and slightly flattened, with wrinkles where a face had pressed into it, and slightly redolent of dog, though that isn’t really true since the dogs have to stay at the foot of the bed ever since Ink dropped a dead mouse on the comforter.

So, Lyttle-Lytton, little fist-clenched brother, relax. There’s plenty of room in this world (don’t we all know it) for bad sentences and the contests that reward them.

For those of you who were hoping for an actual list of little brothers in fiction, I invite readers to fill the comments section with them! (As for the Great Brain note I alluded to earlier: this is one of the best middle-grade series of all time, yet only a few volumes are currently available even though every single parent, teacher, and kid who has ever read it, loves it. Hi, Penguin!)

4 thoughts on “Funny Little Brothers & the Lyttle-Lytton Contest

  1. Joanne Fritz

    Terrific column, Elizabeth! Oh, I absolutely adore the Great Brain books. Maybe it’s time the publisher re-issued them. Of course then they’ll give them all new covers with photos of real kids and it just won’t be the same. How about the Anastasia Krupnik books by Lois Lowry? All About Sam is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Also Operation Dump the Chump by Barbara Park.

  2. MARGARET MILES

    To the list of great little brothers in fiction, add Louis of My Brother Louis Measures Worms and Other Louis Stories by Barbara Robinson. The recent incident with the 7-year-old Utah boy caught driving a car reminded me immediately of the chapter “Louis at the Wheel” — although Louis, naturally, never got caught.

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