Friday, January 23, 2015

When Bad Writing Wins

Sure, you’ve heard of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker Award. And you might have heard about the Illinois Emerging Writers Competition, which awards a poet who has not published a book with $500 and potential publication in prestigious literary journals, like EIU’s very own Bluestem.

However, in the long and illustrious history of writing competitions, there have been some other, less prestigious venues for celebrating writing, showing off not the best of the English language, but the abuses. And the winners are hilarious.

From 1995 to 1998, the journal Philosophy and Literature ran The Bad Writing Contest. Former editor of the magazine Denis Dutton started the competition to draw attention to some of the “deplorable writing among the professoriate.” The Bad Writing Contest exhibited the absolute worst of obtuse, jargon-laden, clause-riddled academic writing.

Here’s a small sample: “An anatomo-politics of human and non-human bodies is sustained by accumulating and classifying such necroliths in the museum’s observational/expositional performances.”


Not all of the contests were mean-spirited. One of my personal favorites is the now defunct International Imitation Hemingway Competition. Hemingway’s unique style almost begs to be mocked.

Or, as I should say: Hemingway had a unique style. He wanted to be mocked.

Contestants submitted a title and one page of their worst Hemingway imitation. Take a look at some of the winning titles—“Big Too-Hardened Liver” and “The Old Man and the Flea.” Personally, I would love to see this contest revived, perhaps with a different author. Don DeLillo seems like a prime candidate. I would submit “White Writing,” or maybe “Crawling Man.”

I also found a competition that still exists—The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where WWW means “Wretched Writing Welcome.” The idea is to write “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Named after the poor sap who penned “It was a dark and stormy night,” previous winners are spectacularly poor in quality. Here is the 2013 runner-up: “As the sun dropped below the horizon, the safari guide confirmed the approaching cape buffaloes were herbivores, which calmed everyone in the group, except for Herb, of course.”

Next time you wrestle with the blank page, reading over a draft and wondering how you ever made it this far in your career and considering swallowing your computer key by stupid key, check out some of these competitions. They might make you feel better. At the very least, they’ll make you laugh.