(Drum roll) . . . and the envelope, please. (Pregnant pause) A winner in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is:
''The sun rose slowly, like a fiery furball coughed up uneasily onto a sky-blue carpet by a giant unseen cat.''
It is heartening to see that standards are being maintained -- standards of awfulness, that is. The coughing-cat sentence compares favorably with the following recent winner in the contest that challenges writers to compose the worst opening sentences for the worst novels never written:
''The camel died quite suddenly on the second day, and Selene fretted sulkily and, buffing her already impeccable nails -- not for the first time since the journey began -- pondered snidely if this would dissolve into a vignette of minor inconveniences like all the other holidays spent with Basil.''
The contest is named after the writer who in 1830 published a novel that began, ''It was a dark and stormy night. . . .'' Bulwer-Lytton's sentence churned on until it coagulated in a description of the wind ''fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps.''
The contest is linguistic vandalism with an academic rationale, literary delinquency with a legitimate purpose. Some sentences submitted are disconcertingly familiar. I have the awful feeling I have read a detective novel that began with this Bulwer-Lytton winner: ''There are things a good detective can feel in his bones, and Dillon Shane knew Jasmine Kimberly Collingsworth did not drown in her sleep on New Year's Eve.'' And every spy novel I read loses me in a hairpin-turn first sentence like:
''It came to him in a cocaine rush as he took the Langley exit that if Alrich had told Filipov about Hancock only Tulfengian could have known that the photograph which Wagner had shown to Maximov on the jolting S-bahn was not the photograph of Kessler that Bradford had found at the dark, sinister house in the Schillerstrasse the day that Straub told Percival that the man on the bridge had not been Aksakov Paustovsky, which meant that it was not Kliest but Kruger that Cherensky had met in. . . .'' (That is about half the sentence that recently won the Bulwer-Lytton spy-fiction category.)
''During an exuberant rainfall, a languid bottle of salad dressing sat passively on a Formica counter top.'' Bulwer-Lytton sentences, polished to perfect imperfection, are works of anti-art. They are clogged with metaphors, similes, adjectives and adverbs. The words pile into and crumble onto one another like (stop me before I overdose . . . the disease is catching) cars tailgating at high speed on a foggy freeway. Modifiers multiply madly, as in a ''garden redolent of burgeoning tropical paradise.''
Run for shelter, gentle reader: rain is ''splattering like raisins dropped by uncaring gods.'' But do not jostle the elderly woman whose lined face is ''like a patchwork of meandering rivers strung together over a bed of waffles.'' Thrill to adventure: ''The lovely woman-child Kaa was mercilessly chained to the cruel post of the warrior-chief Beast, with his barbarian tribe now stacking wood at her nubile feet. . . .'' Admit it: you get guilty pleasure from the phrase ''nubile feet.''
The impresario of the Bulwer-Lytton contest is Scott Rice, professor of English at San Jose State. Because the contest demands only one sentence, it is, he says, perfect for persons ''with short-winded muses.'' Obviously he is having fun, as are the authors of the 10,000 entries. But he has a serious point.
He believes that before you can write badly enough to win his contest, you must be a good writer. You must have a feel for how language misfires, how clumsy syntax can swallow thought. His contest is wordplay with a pedagogic purpose. If you can figure out what makes things (sentences, painting, foreign policies) awful, perhaps you can reason back to rules of excellence.
''Clad in a light summer frock, the mauve print which James gave her when James was still interested in frocks and she in James, Vera sits brooding at the tea table and stirs a cup of what she expects is execrable Irish Breakfast, wondering why it is that when one's lovers become one's friends the resulting social discomfiture is impalpably but inescapably less intriguing than the sequestered malaise which results from the reverse.''
As my blushing pen reproduces that sentence, a congressman is asking Adm. Poindexter if a particular person had been asked to do something in connection with the Iran-contra debacle. The congressman asks if the person had been ''tasked with the effort.'' A Bulwer-Lytton dishonorable mention to anyone who treats ''task'' as a verb.