It was a dark and stormy future that awaited the English prof: Sure he had tenure, but as he contemplated grading freshman compositions for the next 30 years, something in him rebelled, and he conceived of an elaborate diversion that would eventually include a comic strip character, a forgotten Victorian novelist, various stripes of ineptitude, national acclaim (of a sort) and more bad writers than you could stuff into your word processor.
"Too many people associate literacy with angry English teachers with red pens," says Scott Rice, who teaches rhetoric and advanced writing at San Jose State. "If we're going to improve reading abilities, we need to encourage the use of play. I wanted a literary contest that wasn't too serious or damaging to people's egos, and that was fun."
Hence the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, the unserious competition with the serious message: Don't be serious. Winner of the fifth contest will be announced next Friday; entries for the sixth are already piling up.
The idea first took shape when Rice decided "there were some people who would rather write bad books than read good ones." Somehow that combined with his memories of the "sensitive hack" Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), six of whose novels he had endured in graduate school.
Bulwer-Lytton was a very popular writer -- the James Michener of his day. Now, however, he's only remembered for coining "the pen is mightier than the sword" and for starting his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with "It was a dark and stormy night." The line was taken up by Snoopy of the Peanuts comic strip, who begins all of his novels that way.
"I thought. 'Why not have a contest for the Snoopys of the world?' " says Rice, 44. Last year, he received 20,000 entries, none longer than a sentence.
Some submissions are the work of good writers. Many are from bad writers pretending to be good writers pretending to be bad writers. And quite a number are just plain bad.
"I found there are a lot of closet writers out there -- people who have fantasies about being writers that they wouldn't confide to their closest friends," says Rice. "And I found that most English teachers and students have a novel inside of them, which is usually where it should stay."
The original plan was to have winners receive a fellowship not to write, but lack of money torpedoed that. The 1986 winner will get an Apple home computer. Perhaps more appropriately, two past runners-up have received the collected works of Bulwer-Lytton -- all 28 volumes, bound in leather.
"When I got the books, I thought they were probably just trying to keep them out of circulation," says runner-up Barbara Kroll of Kennett Square, Pa. "I think I've read about three of them. I mean, you take your kicks where you get them -- you read a little Stockman, you read a little Bulwer-Lytton. But do you know how small the print is?"
Kroll, 60, confides that one of the best things about the books is their appearance.
"They look great. We have a library in our house and we have been doing a lot of cleaning out, because we're not young. But we don't throw out our Bulwer-Lytton!"
This year, Rice says, runners-up will receive subscriptions to California magazine. If you live in any other state, he admits "it will be a rather useless oddity." Just like Bulwer-Lytton.
Following are some of the briefer entries from the second volume of selections, Son of "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night" (Penguin, $4.95). Subjects range from current events:
We'd made it through yet another nuclear winter and the lawn had just trapped and eaten its first robin.
To domestic comedy:
Vanessa's vision of happiness was close to being marred by Winston's unfortunate preference for canned dog food rather than for her meat loaf, the recipe for which she had striven so long to perfect, although it should be noted that he did go in for the better brands and not that cheap stuff.
I was an extremely extremely extremely sensitive child.
To fairy tales:
Old Poppa Bear and Aloysius Bear and Cuthbert Bear and Little Baby Bear all lived together in Bear Forest, a tiny wee cottage in a thicket by the sea, and gave psychic readings, did tarot, and conned the natives as best they could.
To cops and robbers:
"This is a bust!" she yelled, as she ripped open her coat, boldly displaying her ample authority.
"The train passed by here," said the Indian scout, a tall, well-muscled Sioux with a weathered, dark red face, hawk-like eyes, and a history of gastronomic troubles, who paused to further study the ground at his feet (ground which would someday be part of the state of North Dakota), "and it traveled recently, for I can still see its tracks."
To the sexual:
She was like the driven snow beneath the galoshes of my lust.
And finally, to parodies of the master:
It was a dark and stormy night and the rain eventually turned into a steady drizzle not unlike the spray that comes from those flat, green garden hoses that have thousands of tiny holes on one side, except that it appeared to come from the sky rather than the ground.
Everyone is a winner with Bulwer-Lytton.
"Since it's a bad writing contest, people can put a happy construction on it, no matter what," says Rice. "If they don't win, they can say, 'I just don't write badly enough.' "
Contest entries must be on index cards, with the entrant's name, address and phone number on the back. Send to: Bulwer-Lytton Contest, Department of English, San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif. 95192.