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Purple Prose? His Is Truly Bruising

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

The results for the 26th annual Bulwer-Lytton contest were announced last week, and for the first time, the winner is a Washingtonian.

And the Bulwer-Lytton is . . .

"It's like the Nobel Prize for Literature," explains 2008 recipient Garrison Spik, whose day job is communications director for Mervis Diamond Importers. "But at the other end of the spectrum. And the prize money is $999,750 less."

The Bulwer-Lytton, in fact, rewards the most wretched, the most inept, the most fantastically awful abuses of English writing. The kind of language that should be taken out and shot. Each year applicants submit putrefying one-sentence openings to bogus novels; this year Spik's was chosen from some 8,000 entries.

It reads:

"Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped 'Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.' "

"Two others were my personal favorites," says Spik (pronounced "speak"), 41, who submitted eight entries to the contest. "But I was definitely aware of how bad the New Jersey one was."

"It starts out in a familiar vein, one more attempt to define the nature of someone's exquisite love," says Scott Rice gravely. Rice is the lit professor at San Jose State University who founded the contest back in 1982. "But mentioning a cab is somewhat of a step down, and finally at the end it degenerates all the way to a manhole cover with the little detail about Piscataway."

He pauses. "I Googled that. It's real."

Ah, the effort that goes into analyzing offensively bad dumpster trash. The furrowed-brow, ivory-tower effort is what must have made the contest absurd 26 years ago, when it received just three entries. And it's what makes it relevant today, when the "so bad it's good" genre has become a sizable portion of our entertainment. Enjoying something because it's crasstastic is as justifiable as enjoying something because it's good, even more so because excellence can be debated ("Sex and the City") while ungodliness is universally acknowledged ("Flavor of Love.")

Trying to do something well only sets the stage for YouTube disappointment, in which comments posted below your magnum opus read, "Is this a joke?" So much better to shoot for the worst.

Spik, who says his magnificent badness grew out of such eclectic inspirations as Devo, Nathaniel Hawthorne and "Curse of Bigfoot" ("just a horrible, horrible movie"), had never before entered the Bulwer-Lytton, though he had followed it for nearly a decade. (The contest is named after 19th-century author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, writer of the much-parodied opening "It was a dark and stormy night.") He spent those 10 years gathering material in a Word document until he had "a big pile of literary dung to choose from."

He has two master's degrees, one in journalism and the other in European history. The latter proved particularly useful: "You talk about a breeding ground for bad writing, academia is where it's at." He has nothing to do with writing the Mervis radio ads: Ronnie Mervis, the voice of Mervis Diamonds, sometimes asks him to take a look at the copy, "but that's all him."

He plans to use the $250 prize money on a digital camera.

Rice argues that Spik should feel as proud of his accomplishment as if it were that Nobel: "You don't write a bad sentence intentionally without knowing what a good sentence is." Behind the hyperbole and stinkorific metaphors, there must be the makings of a very good writer.

Have any other writers parlayed their Bulwer-Lytton success into more lucrative endeavors?

"One guy said he was going to finish the book and send me a copy once it was published," Rice says. "I never received it."

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