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A Huge Inferno of a Fire: Guillaume Destot interviews Scott Rice

We always have our reasons for liking authors who have no objective, defendable claim for a discriminating reader’s attention. It can be the memory of a first book read or bought, a first “classic” defiantly borrowed from the adult section of the library, against the librarian’s advice that there were no pictures in it and that the story was not very interesting for the young. This vague fondness comes most of the time from a lingering, illusory impression that theirs was one damn good book, because we read it at an age, or in a situation, when our critical sense was, for one reason or other, blunted. Thus do we sometimes place some of our tenderness in undeserving pages, faintly hoping, perhaps, that love might improve them, with time.
Professor Scott Rice, from San Jose State University, will take none of that shit. For him, a bad book’s a bad book, and its appalling writer deserves to be told so, even posthumously. But yet, autodafé is not his cup of tea either, and by launching the highly successful and much noticed Bulwer Lytton fiction contest back in the 80s, Prof. Rice has probably rendered literature one of the best services he could, and found an intelligent, constructive, and hilarious way to fight the not always perceptible invasion of our societies by shabby prose. The idea was simple. As a student working on his PhD, Scott Rice had to find himself some obscure Victorian writer to write about, and Lo, the Fates dropped into his youthful lap a volume of one of the worst published writers of that period, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. It was, so to speak, love at first sight, so very succulently bad was the opening sentence to Bulwer-Lytton’s now famous 1830 book Paul Clifford: “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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." Something had to be done to celebrate and perpetuate the memory of such a wretched writer.
“It was a dark and stormy night…”: does this ring a bell? So it should, if you are or used to be a Peanuts aficionado. Yes, it is the sentence irremediably opening every attempt by Snoopy to write his literary masterpiece. Schultz had obviously read his classics, and perceived the farcical potential in Bulwer-Lytton’s sublimely tacky style. Professor Rice went a step further, and launched, unaided, out of his own hat, an international contest, in which participants would be rewarded for the best opening sentence of an imaginary bad novel. The first years’ shy overall response from the writing circles did not dent our Hero’s unfailing sense of a purpose, and soon the contest attracted thousands of entries, even resulting in Penguin Books publishing five print collections of the best efforts (all of which, alas, off the bookshops’ shelves now – but there is more in the works. )
The competition, like all literary competition of short fiction, seems naturally adapted to the electronic age, and Professor Rice’s web site proposes several excellent samples of the winners’ talents. Here are a few of my favourites:
"Why, you silly little pussycat," he chuckled warmly, "of course I'll make love to you!"
--W. R. C. Shedenhelm, Ventura, California
"You can call it 'a celebration of life' all you want," said Snow White caustically to the seven little men looking up at her, "to me it sounds suspiciously like a gang-bang!"
--Robert F. Pollock, Newton, Massachusetts
"As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the sound chamber he would never hear the end of it." --David C. Mortensen, Pocatello, Idaho
Professor Scott Rice accepted to take some time off his assiduous pursuit of literature’s and mankind’s welfare in general, to answer some of our badly written questions. BULWER LYTTON FAMILIARS PLEASE NOTE: an important announcement is made at the end of the interview by Professor Rice.

Guillaume Destot interviews Scott Rice


3AM: Do you still, after all these years, enjoy reading bad writing?

SR: I enjoy reading entries as much as I ever did. If anything, my eye has been sharpened, my tastes refined. Let me rework my metaphor. My eye has been honed. Many entries are, of course, bad by any standard.

3AM: Do you know if similar contests exist in the USA or elsewhere?

SR: I have heard that someone once ran a contest for bad opening sentences years ago. In fact, Barnaby Conrad wrote a column accusing me of stealing the idea. However, we are not talking about quantum physics here. The idea is rather an obvious one. What I did was accidentally blunder onto the "dark and stormy night"/Bulwer-Lytton/Snoopy connection. That is what caught the public imagination (or should I say, the reading public's imagination, because the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest belongs to readers and writers).

3AM: Have you ever heard, or proposed the idea to anyone, of a Bulwer Lytton contest in another language?

SR: We have had two or three entries in foreign languages, one in Portuguese from Brazil, and Reader's Digest did run excerpts from the first collection and published them in foreign language editions. That is the only foreign language interest we have had (at least that I know of).

3AM: Have you spotted trends of ‘bad' bad writing, i.e. people who strive to be funnily bad, but are actually only bad?

SR: There are writers such as you describe but I do not see any trends. We do have the "Sticks and Stones" section of our Web site that invites people to submit examples of bad writing that they find in print. In fact, let me use this occasion to invite your readers to join in the fun and submit their own nominations. There is also a link on the site ("Dead Dogs") that will take you to one of the heroically bad writers of the 20th century, Albert Payson Terhune, the fellow who wrote all these books about collies that I liked so much when I was a mere child of 12. The site includes excerpts from his "work." I am not sure that anyone so bad is actually getting into print these days. Danielle Steel is pretty bad, though. I have one of her sentences on the "Sticks and Stones" site: "She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco."

3AM: Do you think that bestsellers tend to be wretchedly written, or is this a snob prejudice? Do you think that "popular" publishers propose poor fiction because it is cheaper for them to secure the rights on a hopeless writer's work, because poor fiction is all they have to sell, or because it's the only thing the majority of the public will buy ? Or all three? Or none?

SR: The fact is that the general reading audience, the mass reading audience, is relatively uncritical. Hence, a lot of junk gets published and relished. I don't want to say too much on the subject, though, because I am just grateful that they read at all. There are some very fine "popular" writers, though, many of them in mystery or detective fiction. I have just discovered a delightful writer named Carl Hiassen who has been around for years (Double Whammy, Skin Tight, Tourist Season ). My theory is that detective fiction is even more participatory than most fiction because it challenges readers to attend to all the clues and propose their own hypotheses. Of course this is also true of serious fiction (of all but the simplest writing, in fact) but many readers do not appreciate this. As I tell my students, good writing carries the tacit instruction "Some assembly required." Reading is a highly participatory act. To read a good book well, you must play Ginger Rogers to the writer's Fred Astaire.

3AM: Has there ever been misunderstandings, like people entering earnest pieces of fiction unaware of the parodic dimension of the contest?

SR: We do get people who occasionally submit published work, not understanding that we want people to confect their own intentionally bad openers to imaginary novels. Their taste is not always reliable. One chap submitted the opening paragraph to John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. And some submit short stories that they have written, presumably stories that they are good (any port in a storm, I suppose; they will send their work anywhere).

3AM: A very obvious "criticism" that could be opposed to the BL contest is that is is much safer for writers to submit intentionnally bad writing than to try their best to produce good fiction...May it not be a sham for many people who feel insecure about their own "serious" writing?

SR: Well, of course it is safer and easier to create a deliberate travesty than to attempt to produce something of genuine artistic merit. You don't have a successful contest by making things tough for the entrants. If writing travesties falls far short of producing art, it is light years ahead of producing nothing. Still, some of our entries are pretty good in their own right. Our winners are usually pretty decent writers even if they are not Alice Munros or Salman Rushdies.

3AM: Has your experience enabled you to conceive principles on good and bad writing? Or on the welfare of mankind in general?

SR: The entrants are expressing literary judgments, or at least the brighter entrants are, and they often share insights that are new to me. One kind of entry, for example, makes the point that Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" can be carried too far by readers. That is, we sometimes cut novelists and even movie makers too much slack. There are some principles of plausibility that must remain intact. The principle applies even in cartoons, at least as far as I am concerned. I have never liked "Garfield" because it is too frequently way over the top. Garfield likes lasagna, his owner puts the lasagna in the refrigerator, so Garfield swallows the refrigerator. For me that is not humor. You can draw an elephant balancing on its trunk on a daisy but what have you proven?

3AM: At the same time, excess and transgression of the codes (moral, plausibility, etc.) can be seen not only as a prerogative, but also as a vital function of fiction in general...And this has more or less always been true (cf. the incredible physical prowess of Beowulf, the "authentic" adventures of Gulliver, etc.) Wouldn't you draw a line between voluntary and involuntary disregard for the rules of plausibility ?

SR: I think that you propose an important distinction. In the name of freedom and experimentation, we cannot applaud every eccentricity or grotesquerie. Announcing that you are going to disregard all the "rules" (whatever they are) does not confer talent. Recently I attended a panel on "post-millennial fiction" (mostly non-linear, "interactive," electronic fiction--I put quotation marks around "interactive" because all reading is interactive). One of the panelists, a prolific writer of such fiction, nevertheless characterized most work in his field as lacking in language or imagination. Language and imagination, that is what good writing will always demand.

3AM: Can you name some examples of recent fiction that you enjoyed?

SR: On the plane down to my conference I was reading Mario Vargas Llosa's Notebooks of Don Rigoberto and thought that it was excellent. Then I left the damn thing on the plane and bought Hiassen's Double Whammy in the San Diego airport book shop. I was delighted. Hiassen is a satirist, an insightful one who blasts Florida and its denizens. (Remember Florida? It inflicted George Bush on the American presidency.)

3AM: Along with the mastery over the syntax - or the absence of it - the choice of metaphors seems to play a crucial role in turning a piece of fiction into art, or into trash. Do you have any comments on this?

SR: Metaphors are like tar babies . It is sometimes easier to pick one up than it is to put it back down. That is, once we start working on one, we can become overly impressed with our own cleverness and try to carry it too far. As someone has pointed out, writing allows us to appear more intelligent than we are but we shouldn't push it. When you reread your stuff and think, "Damn, I'm good!" you may be in danger.

3AM: Many winning entries rely on the use of cliches (not only metaphors, but themes, atmosphere, plots...). Do you reject the idea that some cliches are useful to give us a picture, even if inaccurate, of spheres we don't know a thing about (c.f. police - hospital - army dramas/novels, etc.)?

SR: Cliches are dead images or at least badly faded pictures. To use one is to confess to one's inadequacy. You are probably waiting for me to say that I avoid them like the plague but I will not give you the satisfaction. Occasionally, though, a writer will find a way to re-invigorate a cliche, use it in a context that suddenly makes it original again. I cannot pull an example off the top of my head, though. I have noticed an odd phenomenon on news broadcasts, the imaginative comparison that is not a comparison at all, as when someone compares a huge fire to an inferno (which is, of course, a huge fire).

3AM: Have you had any reactions (friendly or otherwise) from Bulwer-Lytton admirers? Has there been reactions to the 'sticks and stones' section?

SR: I have been surprised by how friendly the response to the contest has been. It has received way less criticism than I expected. In the almost 20 years of the contest, a few have tried to argue that Bulwer was actually a good writer but comparing him to a good writer is like comparing a crouton to a loaf of bread. He could tell a story but he was no wordsmith. Still, I am waiting for the day when I pick up a column that begins, "I cannot recall the exact moment when the Bulwer-Lytton Contest ceased to be amusing . . ." And when that day comes, a turd in their soup.

3AM: Did any 'famous' writer take part in the contest, perhaps even under an assumed name?

SR: To my knowledge, no famous writers have entered the contest. Jim Houston, a Santa Cruz writer whose favorite subject is California and who wrote a novel called Continental Drift, entered a sentence, and a heroically bad one it was. He graduated from San Jose State with a degree in Drama and was illustrating one major point of the contest, that it takes a good writer to compose a truly inspired bad sentence, one that educates and amuses us even as it appalls us. As I said in the intro to one of the Penguin contest collections (now lamentably out of print), the contest attracts two kinds of entrants: good writers pretending to be bad writers, and bad writers pretending to be good writers pretending to be bad writers.

3AM: You say that "it takes a good writer to compose a truly inspired bad sentence", but it also takes good readers to fully appreciate the fun of it.

SR: You make the point I suggested above and that has been made by many before me (by those who anticipated me). As C. S. Lewis observes in An Experiment in Criticism , there can be a bad reading of a good book but there cannot be a good reading of a bad book (Ginger Rogers would not have looked so damned good on the dance floor if I had been her partner). A good reading requires a good writer and a good reader. If it sounds like I want to make the reading of good books a sacrament, it is because I do.

3AM: Yet you seem to show that literature that takes itself seriously must needs be bad…

SR: Literature should take itself seriously but writers should not. That is, they should beware of being too self-impressed. We have a writers series at San Jose State, a pretty good one I am proud to say, and I have met some major figures, from William Styron and John Barth to Norman Mailer and Richard Russo. Most of them were dignified and humane and seemingly not too self-impressed. Russo especially overturned the image of the writer as SOB (Faulkner, Hemingway, Salinger). The worst people in our series are some of the lesser known, the ones who show up to bask in the attention of groupies. I shy away from those.

3AM: Perhaps what they need is some exposure in the sticks and stones section? Politicians are daily caricatured all around the world (that is, except where it's likely to send you to jail) but contemporary "respected" authors (Rushdie, Naipaul, Susan Sontag, John Updike, etc.) are hardly ever parodied. Yet they do express opinions and (some of them) prescriptions regarding, well, the general welfare of mankind...

SR: Who is not a jackass once in a while? Writers should be allowed their little errors. I heartily admire Norman Mailer and treasure the five-minute conversation that I once had within him after a speaking engagement at San Jose State (he called Jimmy Carter the most decent person to inhabit the White House in his lifetime). Still, for all his wisdom, I find some of Mailer's positions a little silly. For example, he is one of those liberal progressives who drool all over Muhammed Ali, a spectacle I find painful and condescending. As both a fighter and a person, Ali is much overrated (for one thing, he lost all three fights to Ken Norton, regardless of what the refs said). Still, I agree with V. S. Naipaul's recent statements about the nobility of the impulse to write. Writers will be the last truth-tellers standing (not to suggest that all writers tell the truth).

3AM: How are your wretched-writing activities seen by your colleagues (both in and out of your university)?

SR: In my department and school people have been supportive and good natured about the whole thing. My deans have always given me encouragement and my department chairs have even helped by judging. I like to think that the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest contributes to the universal improvement of mankind and that the University should respond by giving me large annual merit pay increases. I also think that my wife should always do what I tell her and that my cat should stop shedding on my clothes. I expect all three to happen about the same time.

3AM: Will you write a bad opening sentence about that day in your memoirs?

SR: The only thing I write to and about myself is the occasional reminder to get something at the grocery store. If I had the self-importance to begin memoirs, how else could the project begin but with a bad opener?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Scott Rice’s computer crashed a few weeks ago and he had not backed up his contest files for this year. If there is anyone out there who contributed anything between the middle of July and the middle of October, he would appreciate their resubmitting. Visit The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest web site and submit your own jewels!

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