Friday, August 05, 2005

Kirk Poland and Bulwer-Lytton

(Taking a long running start before we get to the main matter:)

Over at Slacktivist, Fred Clark has been doing a series of posts reading/interpreting/commenting on Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins' series of "Left Behind" novels (which for those who don't know are a series of (12?) bestselling novels depicting the apocalypse according to one particular (widespread in America) evangelical interpretation). It's a marvelous series: full of interesting comments on all sorts of things. Clark is a Christian, but -- how to put this tactfully? -- one of those Christians who don't seem to think that Jesus's main message was to further enrich the rich and start lots of wars. He's a good person to read if some of the theocratic tendencies and nastier political positions of today's Christian right start (as they do me from time to time) to bias you against the whole religion thing: a walking and talking, or at any rate posting, example of a man for whom Christianity inspires compassion and intelligence. The Left Behind series is moving extremely slowly, since Clark is doing one post a week, and covering only a handful of pages in each post (he's only halfway through the first one more than twenty-one months!); but as I say it's terrific, a great example of a superb use of the whole format of blogging.

Anyway, in his latest post in the series, Clark takes a brief break from page-by-page interpretation of the novel to examine why bad writing (or at any rate negligently bad writing) is anti-Christian. And in the course of this, he notes the following in passing:

Much of this stuff is simply Bad Writing. Sometimes it can be accidentally entertaining in a Plan 9 From Outer Space way, but usually, like most Bad Writing, it's just boring.

And that brings me, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, to my main topic.

Here's the thing: I think that it's true that bad writing is generally dull. So what about Kirk Poland and Bulwer-Lytton?

The Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition is a (more or less) annual event at Readercon, a more-or-less annual SF convention devoted to written SF -- and, during the day, to well-written SF. But on the Saturday night of the convention, time out is taken to mock bad prose. The way this is done is through a variation of the game 'Dictionary'. The moderator of the panel -- by tradition always Craig Shaw Gardner -- reads the first half of a piece of bad SF writing, stopping, in the words of (at least one of the) program guide(s), "in mid-sentence, often in mid-metaphor". Then each of the panelists reads a continuation: four or more false ones, plus the real one. The audience votes for which they think is the real one; a panelist gets a point for each audience member who votes for theirs (the panelists read each other's, of course, or you'd know who wrote what), and the audience itself gets a point for each person who votes for the real one. The audience always does terribly ("We're number four!"). It's always hysterical (though I personally get tired of them and skip a few before going back -- others seem to enjoy them every year without fail.)

Why is it so funny? Well, there are the entries of Craig Shaw Gardner, who unlike the other panelists doesn't try to mimic the style of the bad writing, but is simply flat-out funny (his books are generally humor; he's a very funny guy). Yet the rest is funny also. But I think that this is in large part because of the nature of the event: Craig's delivery is always funny, many of the other panelists' deliveries are too. The mob mentality helps too -- laughter always being promoted by other people laughing. (At least one person has argued that the 'badness' of the prose is largely due to the structure's calling it that, and if it called it good people would believe that as well. I don't agree -- most of the passages are genuinely terrible -- but I think they seem even worse than they are, and certainly funnier, because of the context.) The whole structure of the event -- the delivery, people laughing, the other bad prose, Craig's humor -- makes the wackiness of the bad prose funny rather than just dull. (If I'm right, then the oft-floated idea (by me among many others) of a Kirk Poland anthology, including the entries from past Readercons, just wouldn't work -- it wouldn't be very funny on the page: at best it would be funny for people who had attended the actual event since it would recall the context for them. Still would probably sell well enough to make a few bucks though.)

Okay. But then what about the Bulwer-Lytton contest? This yearly contest -- now more than two decades old, with its results collected in numerous books -- asks for the first sentence of a bad (indeed, I believe of the "worst possible") novel, giving out awards in various categories (by genre, nature of the badness of the prose, etc.) It, too, is very funny. Obviously here too context helps -- reading it labeled as such, amongst other pieces of bad prose, etc.

But I think that many -- I haven't read all that many, honestly, but from what I have read it's a large percentage indeed (if anyone thinks my sample has just been wrong, email me and I'll publish your rebuttal) -- are funny because they aren't bad prose: instead they are actually well-crafted humorous prose, albeit of a certain type -- broad-brush humor rather than narrow scintillating wit. Actually, they remind me of nothing so much as Craig Shaw Gardner's contributions to Kirk Poland.

To show you what I mean, let's take a look at some of the winners.

(Pedantic, micro-scholarly footnote. I started thinking about this because someone forwarded me a purported list of the "top ten" winners of this years contest -- the list is here among other places. But it turns out that the list is no such thing; indeed none of its contents are from this year's winners (the full list of 2005 winners is here). Rather, the list is cobbled together from the promotional material from four of the Dark and Stormy Night collections -- the original one (#1 & 9 on the list) Son of "It was a Dark and Stormy Night" (#7 & 8), Bride of Dark and Stormy (#5, 6 & 10) and It was a Dark and Stormy Night: the Final Conflict (#2, 3 & 4). I don't know who put this particular list together and presented it as a 'Top Ten' (and caused me to have to track all this !@#$% stuff down in the name of possibly-misplaced concern for accuracy); but since they are all actual B-L quotes -- indeed, some of the samples they use to promote their books -- I feel fairly justified in using them. So onward.)

"Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do." This isn't badly written: it's a clever joke, written not in any of the standard formats (story-punchline, cartoon, or whatever) but as a hypothetical first-sentence of a novel. But it's not bad, it's clever -- even witty.

"Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eking out a living at a local pet store." Another joke, in this case a pun -- not bad if you like puns, although it's not, y'know, Joyce. But again, there's nothing in this sentence that is bad writing -- at most it's a bad pun (and I don't even think it's that).

"Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back-alley sex-change surgeon to become the woman he loved." This is a bit more complicated: it's two jokes, one pun ("cutting edge of narcissism") plus the main joke (he loves himself, is becoming a woman), plus a silly name. Still, while not good prose, the only thing in it that's arguably "bad" is the name choice -- and, of course, that's part of the humor.

I won't keep belaboring the point, but four others from the list are also, simply, jokes -- and all well written as such. The ones I have in mind are:

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.

With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the east wall: Andre creep... Andre creep... Andre creep.

Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn't know the meaning of the word fear, a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death -- in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies.

Jokes, not bad writing. Oh, they may have some characteristics of bad writing (e.g. use of clichés) but they are all using them well (using them to set up a context which makes the joke funny & knocks them down in the process). So of this list of ten entries, by my count fully seven are simply jokes rather than any sort of bad writing.

The one listed as being the "winner" on the list (actually from the promotional materials of the original book) is: "The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, "You lied!"" This is mostly a joke -- the part about the princess and the frog certainly is. The first few phrases are, I suppose, genuinely bad writing -- but, of course, in context they just make the joke funnier. I suppose, though, that they come closer to the supposed ideal of the contest, namely 'bad writing'.

One of the remaining ones is funny because it is bad writing. Sure, it's over the top -- and deliberately so (requiring a fair bit of craft to create, of course) -- but unlike most of the ones above, it is funny because it is so bad, rather than because it's a good joke. ("Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.")

Finally, only one is straightforward bad writing -- oh, funny, but funny because it's inane, rather than because it is over-the-top bad like the Santa Claus metaphors or the beginning of the frog/princess one, or because it is simply a joke rewritten as a first sentence. ("Just beyond the Narrows the river widens.")

-- Now, I grant you that any of these might well be the first sentence of a terrible novel if it were actually used as such. But on the other hand, I can actually imagine that any of them might be the first sentence of a very good novel -- not a 'great' novel à la Ulysses or even a 'great' humorous novel, perhaps, but a very good novel of a certain sort, namely, a novel written with a very broad humorous brush -- the sort of prose that you find in Douglas Adams or Woody Allen's written stuff.

Again, someone please tell me if the ones I've picked aren't representative, and I will post their point of view. But looking over the other promotional material, and the various winners from this and other years, it looks to me like this is a fairly reasonable set -- perhaps a bit higher on out-and-out jokes than the others; but then, whatever anonymous fraudster put them together and called them a top ten list presumably did so because they were the funniest -- which is to say, I bet the best parts of the Bulwer-Lytton books are the jokes, with the over-the-top bad writing being fun but not perhaps as funny, with any actual, ordinary bad writing being simply, in the end, filler.

And what of Mr. Bulwer-Lytton's famous first sentence? The sentence, as quoted at the top of the contest's home page, is the first sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford, and runs as follows:

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.

Not, I think, that bad a sentence -- purple, certainly by today's standards, but not as bad as most of the stuff made fun of at Kirk Poland. But not particularly funny either.

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