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Lord Lytton's heirs

Each year San Jose State University presents the winners of its Bulwer-Lytton bad prose contest, named in honor of the 19th-century British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The inspiration comes from the opening of Lord Lytton’s Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night. ...” The 2007 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton competition display a generous range of rococo effects.

Once, on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, some of us collaborated on an entry during slack time. (Yes, children, in the Olden Times copy editors sometimes had slack time during the shift.) I still admire it, though it won no prize:

Little did the lesbian mah-jongg champion who had shared his bed for three hectic seasons suspect that, having been run out of Brisbane, where he had been sent to oversee his family’s interests in the profitable eucalyptus-smuggling trade, for improper congress with a koala, Billy Bob Vanderbilt made a fortune selling worthless CDs to Thai whores in the mid-1960s, or that his past was about to catch up with him for the last time.

And yet our own feeble efforts paled in comparison with the work of fellow journalists filing unintentionally hilarious straight copy.

There was this little gem sent to The Enquirer’s copy desk about an FBI agent assigned to the Covington office (an FBI agent, mind you):

A specialist in coordinating bank robberies while in Denver, Huggins in recent years became involved in white collar crime and public corruption.

Or, in Baltimore, this datebook item that reached the copy desk:

The Hemlock Society of Maryland will meet at 1:30 p.m. March 24 at the Miller branch of the Howard County Public Library, 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City. Participants are asked to bring a dish to share.

Or, to return to the florid mode, this:

Spring arrives in Central County like a beautiful, young woman moving through the mist of our dearest memories.

After a bold introduction by the golden forsythia, she arrives with her attendants in bouffant Bradford pear and lacy weeping cherry. Dancing softly above the moist earth, tiny flower girls transform into pansies, daffodils and tulips.

As the music swells, all eyes turn to see the one most anticipated. Blushed with perfection, she is the dogwood.

It would be nice to look at Lord Lytton’s oeuvre and be able to say, “They’re not writing prose like that anymore.” Sadly, one can’t.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (3)


I've always mistrusted those saccherine little flower girls. Finally I understand why.

The link to the 2007 winners doesn't seem to work for me; it takes me to a 404 and says the correct address has changed. There's always the main Bulwer-Lytton Web site, though...

The link has been corrected. Thanks for pointing it out.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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