Bad Writing at its Best

Oh, happy, happy day, the Bulwer-Lytton prize for the worst opening sentence in a novel has announced its 2012 winners (here). The prize has a long and proud history. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a 19th-century novelist and friend of Dickens whose books have deservedly fallen out of favour. (Trust me, I’ve read a bunch for work; you don’t want to.) His novel Paul Clifford began with the sentence:

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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This was then picked up by Snoopy, who used the first clause for his own always-under-construction masterwork. And then in 1982 the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, run by the English department at San Jose State University, was born.

The prize now has many categories — worst opening line for a children’s story, worst opening line for a detective story, fantasy fiction, historical fiction — in fact, worst opening line in almost every genre you’ve ever heard of.

A random selection of my favourites:

What shocked Juliette as she entered the room was not that there was an escaped convict under her coverlet snuggling with her best teddy bear, but that there was a knife through his back, “And who,” she wondered out loud, steadying herself against the faux-taffeta wallpaper, “would stab a teddy bear?” — Katie Alender, Studio City, CA

 

 

The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, not even a sharp knife, but a dull one from that set of cheap knives you received as a wedding gift in a faux wooden block; the one you told yourself you’d replace, but in the end, forgot about because your husband ran off with another man, that kind of knife. — Lisa Lindquist, Jackson, MI

 

It was a dark and stormy night – actually not all that dark, but more dusky or maybe cloudy, and to say “stormy” may be overstating things a bit, although the sidewalks were still wettish and smelled of ozone, and, truth be told, characterizing the time as night is a stretch as it was more in the late, late afternoon because I think Oprah was still on. — Gregory Snider, MD, Lexington, KY

Not all winners are of the convoluted, BL-type. This is simply perfectly terrible:

The day dawned much like any other day, except that the date was different. — Geoff Blackwell, Bundaberg , Queensland, Australia

But I think I should end with

It was a stark and dormy night – the kind of Friday night in the dorm where wistful women/girls without dates ovulated pointlessly and dreamed of steamy sex with bad boy/men in the backseat of a Corvette – like the one on Route 66, only a different color, though the color was hard to determine because the TV show was in black and white – if only Corvettes had back seats. — David Kay, Lake Charles, LA

mostly because I read a page of 50 Shades of Grey over someone’s shoulder on the tube yesterday and I was mesmerized by the following paragraph opening: ‘After our tasty and nutritious meal…’ After our tasty and nutritious meal? Really? Really? You can write that, and still have 12 million readers?

Maybe Bulwer-Lytton was on to something.

People-like-us Syndrome

I left my bicycle in the London Library’s bike-shed yesterday. The shed has a lock that can be opened only by library members, and so I didn’t bother to chain the bike to one of the stands. I usually do, but it was a Sunday, the library was closed and I figured the odds were that few if any other members would be opening and closing the door, potentially letting strangers in. During the week, I chain the bike when I leave it there, but I don’t bother to double-chain the basket, which detaches, the way I do when I leave it on the street.

Notice that I was only worried about strangers. I noticed that too, when I thought about locking/not-locking it. It never occurred to me that a library member would steal my bike. I mean, they’re London Library members. They’re people like me!

I make those kind of unconscious decisions all the time, and I’m sure we all do. It’s OK to leave my scarf on a seat, because only university members come here; it’s not OK to leave my book there, ‘anyone’ might come across it. There are in-groups and out-groups in my head. And for some reason, my in-groups (library members, shoppers at one specific — but not any other — farmers’ market, neighbours) have no dishonest people in them, no liars, thieves, cheats.

All the more shocking, therefore, when I read this morning that at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, publishers were losing up to 75 per cent of their stock to, well, looters — 75 per cent can’t really be called petty pilfering, can it? My assumption, automatically, is that some ‘they’ group — outsiders — came in and perpetrated the thefts. Because I can’t get my head around the fact that book people would steal. They wouldn’t, would they? Even though I know there are statistically as many liars, cheats, thieves among my professional cohort as anyone else’s professional cohort.

I know it, but I don’t believe it.

Selling our souls

The Ambassador Theatre Group has just announced a wonderful new innovation. Before a play begins in one of their theatres, Gordon’s gin ads will be projected onto the safety-curtains. Maybe I’m old and sad. I’m certainly grumpy. But really, does everything have to be an opportunity for advertising: do we really have to ‘monetize’ life? Isn’t there some way of living without people shrieking ‘Buy buy buy’ into our ears every moment of the day and night?

Libraries used to be a place where one could read, or borrow, books that took you into a different world; now they are told to sell services to survive. Tubes and buses took you from point A to point B, yes, with ads on the walls, but the ads didn’t actually sing and shout, and the public-transport system was not expected to make money, just get people around the cities. If you looked something up in the encyclopaedia, the publishers didn’t have a way of selling your searches to advertising companies. National museums hand out press packets that say to journalists, ‘Pretty please, mention that Crappy Merchandise is our sponsor, otherwise we’ll never be able to put on a show again.’

And now, when we go to see Hamlet, we’re going to be bombarded with messages to drink gin. God knows, it’s enough to drive one to drink.

Ikea dooms the book

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to recognize that when Ikea says no one wants books anymore, no one, perhaps, wants books anymore. Word is just out that Ikea has redesigned its famous ‘Billy’ bookshelves. Why is this interesting? Well, because it uses the word ‘book’ together with ‘shelves’, but it doesn’t really mean it. Apparently, the new Billy (excuse the first-name terms: we’re very informal in Sweden) is deeper, the same height but – brace yourselves – the shelves are closer together, so that standard paperbacks no longer fit.

Yup, that’s it: Ikea thinks (knows?) that people don’t actually put books on their bookshelves. So what do we rename these things? [Book]shelves? Place-to-put-my-stuff-shelves? Tchotchke-holders? Whatever, they sure as hell ain’t bookshelves.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Not even, sadly, in literate Stockholm.

Goodness, what a fuss

The Booker shortlist is announced, to predictable screaming and whining. What, no Hollinghurst? What, no Barry, no Ali Smith, no this no that no the other? Boyd Tonkin in the Independent writes that we need to ‘fix’ the prize, which has apparently gone woefully astray, in order to ‘issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year’ (that is a quote from someone, possibly Julian Barnes, although it’s not quite clear).

Oh yeah? And how do we do that? Who does that? Whose finality? Whose authority? They’re books. It’s a matter of taste, for God’s sake, I want to scream (and sometimes do, but quietly, so as not to frighten the horses).

Hollinghurst wasn’t chosen. Well, the earth has obviously tilted on its axis. Even if you think The Stranger’s Child was perfection (and I didn’t – the opening section was astonishing, and then it just faded away to a series of random encounters) – even if you did think it was perfection, it was one of hundreds of books, and there were only six slots. It’s like the annual newspaper story of the student with umpty-eleven starred A-levels who doesn’t get into Cambridge. Well, no, says rationality; s/he didn’t, because there were another couple of hundred students with umpty-eleven starred A-levels too. It doesn’t mean the student’s no good, or the novel’s no good, just that there are a finite number of places and a combination of taste, circumstance and sheer bloody random chance selected others for the slot.

We can’t ‘fix’ the prize, because it’s perfectly obvious (or it is if you’re not required to churn out the annual newspaper column of angst) that this is the deal: this bunch of people chose that bunch of books; another bunch would chose something else.

There is no final, no independent authority. Much like life, really. Which may be what people really object to.

Contempt for skills, Part 2 million

OK, let’s get today’s rant over with, we’re all busy people. According to the Local Government Association and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, libraries are now to be ‘saved’ by putting them in doctor’s surgeries, churches, and other community centres (and let’s not forget their previous genius idea, putting them in supermarkets).

Apart from the multiple reasons that this is a terrible idea, the real reason it’s a terrible idea is that these libraries will no longer be run by librarians. (I know, I know, but bear with me — we need to spell things out for the barbarians not only no longer at the gate, but sitting on our front doorsteps.)

All it takes to realize how necessary librarians are to (duh) libraries, is to look at Google Books. Just look at it. (Go on, I’ll wait.) Do a quick search. Type in almost anything — oh, I don’t know, Moby-Dick. The first title that comes up is, miracle of miracles, Moby-Dick. Or is it? It isn’t (God forbid) the first edition. It is a 2008 reprint published by ‘Forgotten Books’. Its preamble is hugely encouraging:

Forgotten Books take the uppermost [sic, sic as a dog] care to preserve the wording and images from the original book. However, this book has been scanned and reformatted from the original, and as such we cannot guarantee that it is free from errors or contains the full contents of the original.

So, Forgotten Books takes so much care that they can’t actually say if the whole book is there or not. Good choice for the number 1 slot, Google algorithm!

Number 2: another reprint, volume 1 only.

Number 3: an issue of Life magazine from 1956, with an article on ‘How to read Moby-Dick‘ (something you won’t be able to do so far if you’re relying on Google Books).

Number 4: another reprint, volume 2.

Numbers 5 on down: An article in Indianapolis Monthly (really, I’m not making this up) on whale-watching; an essay called ‘Fathering the Nation: American genealogies of slavery and freedom’; an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1950…

I’m at the end of page 2 of Google books, and so far there is not a single reliable copy of Moby-Dick. Let’s ignore that I’ve found Henry James in a search that includes the term a ‘contemporary’ classic; or Hemingway under Edith Wharton; or or or…

Google had a load of cash, and thought that all that was required was unskilled labour. The local councils have no cash, and are relying on unskilled labour too. Are we expecting more than old copies of, if not Popular Mechanics, then its 2011 equivalent?

What I don’t understand is, why are the elements around the act of reading regarded as something anyone can do? The phrase, ‘I would write a book if only I had time,’ has become a sick, sad cliche. No one says to Philip Glass, ‘I would write a symphony if only I had time,’ or to Magdi Yacoub, ‘I would ditto a cranial haemorrhage if only ditto.’ (At least, I’m guessing they don’t.) So why are writing, and reading, considered unskilled? Yeah, let’s ask nursery groups, and doctors’ receptionists, and boy-scout leaders, or even the scouts, to run the libraries. After all, you don’t need to know anything about anything to do that, do you?

I’ll be in my surgical scrubs and operating behind the produce counter at Aldi at 1 p.m. Anyone with stroke-like symptoms, line right up.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.