Wisconsin man's mangled prose takes bad writing prize

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- A Wisconsin man whose blend of awkward syntax, imminent disaster and bathroom humor offends both good taste and the English language won an annual contest Monday that salutes bad writing.

Jim Gleeson, 47, of Madison, Wis., beat out thousands of other prose manglers in San Jose State University's 2007 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest with this convoluted opening sentence to a nonexistent novel:

"Gerald began -- but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them 'permanently' meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash -- to pee," Gleeson wrote.

Scott Rice, an English professor at San Jose State, called Gleeson's entry a "syntactic atrocity" that displays "a peculiar set of standards or values." Rice has organized the contest since founding it in 1982.

Gleeson, who works at a Madison hospital setting up computer networks, said he submitted about 20 entries, and gave a little insight into what it takes to win the bad writing title and its $250 prize.

"It's like you take two thoughts that are not anything like each other and you cram them together by any means necessary," Gleeson said. He claimed he took time off from his current project, a self-help book for slackers entitled "Self-Improvement Through Total Inactivity," to pen his winning entry.

Gleeson credited his time in college with preparing him well. "There's a certain degree to which academia prepares you to write badly," Gleeson said wryly.

The contest takes its name from Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel "Paul Clifford" famously begins "It was a dark and stormy night."

Entrants are asked to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Citations are handed out for several categories, including "dishonorable mention" awards for "purple prose" and "vile puns."


Runner-up

Here's the second-place finisher in the 25th annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a literary parody competition sponsored by San Jose State University.

"The Barents Sea heaved and churned like a tortured animal in pain, the howling wind tearing packets of icy green water from the shuddering crests of the waves, atomizing it into mist that was again laid flat by the growing fury of the storm as Kevin Tucker switched off the bedside light in his Tuba City, Arizona, single-wide trailer and by the time the phone woke him at 7:38, had pretty much blown itself out with no damage."

-- Scott Palmer, Klamath Falls, Ore.

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