Cheese wiz of bad fiction

I was amused by this article, and reproduce it here for your enjoyment. You may wish to comment on it, and perhaps provide us with your own proposed entry; not the kind of entry you might actually submit to the 2004 contest, but a shorter, less well fashioned, more whipsical, perhaps, quasi-entry that someone might dash off after a brief moment considering the rules, without having decided whether or not to in reality enter the contest next year, assuming one remembers or is reminded to do so.

Jersey native is judged tops for her tale of fromage and amour

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Hers was the kind of life that takes one to the world’s most exotic locales — Browns Mills, New Jersey; Wetumpka, Alabama — but it was not enough, and thus did Mariann Simms find her mind racing, like a Singer sewing machine ‘neath the foot of an overworked seamstress, blending multi-colored dairy products, tortured metaphors and her own native wit into a literary emulsion so ripe it could not help but win the 2003 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction prize, the world’s best bad writing contest.

“I was shocked, totally bowled over by the fact they picked me,” Simms said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It was a definite great honor to be chosen.”


For as the late comedian Jack Benny knew, one must actually be a proficient performer to play the violin as badly as he did, and one must be a fair fictionalist to fashion the kind of adjective-addled, simile-soaked, punctuation-laden parodies that mark the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

The contest bears the name of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, best known for writing “The Last Days of Pompeii” in 1834 and coining the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” He also opened his 1830 novel, “Paul Clifford,” with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” made famous by the literary beagle Snoopy in the “Peanuts” comic strip.

The contest began quietly in 1982 on the campus of San Jose State University, the brainchild of English Professor Scott Rice. It now attracts thousands of entrants from around the world, all competing for the traditional “pittance” in prize money and recognition as truly bad writers. They must submit a bad opening line from an imaginary novel.

Simms, 42, grew up in Hamilton Township, Mercer County, and Browns Mills, Burlington County. She moved to Alabama 13 years ago when her husband, Douglas, was stationed there in the Air Force. He’s now retired and runs a Web design company.

She said she had never heard of the contest before this year. Simms runs an interactive, on-line humor site, HumorMeOnline, and it was through her Web site that she learned of the contest.

“A couple of people on my site who have won distinctions in the Bulwer-Lytton contest, dishonorable mentions, said, ‘Mariann, check it out,’” she said. “I looked, I thought it was funny — it seemed right up my alley.”

She wrote only one entry and waited until the last minute to enter it.

“I’ve never entered before and it was my sole entry, so it was a double shock that I won,” Simms said.

Looking for something visual about which to write, she came upon the idea (aided by a Grey Goose martini) of embracing lovers, and was inspired by the multi-colored string cheese twists she buys for her children, Alex, 15, and Giselle, 8. (“She loves the cheese,” Simms said. “My daughter would live on cheese.”)

Amour! Fromage! C’est magnifique!!

“I sat on my entry forever and then I sent it to someone and asked if this was the kind of thing they were looking for,” Simms said. “They said, ‘This is really good,’ so I sent it in.”

She got a hint she might be a winner when she got a call from Rice asking her for some biographical information. Simms thought he was gathering the information “just in case” she won something, but when he called back asking her if she would be willing to do some media interviews, her hopes brightened like a 40-watt bulb during a power surge.

But then a few days went by, and she hadn’t heard from Rice, nor could she find any information about the contest winners on the contest Web site.

“No fax, no e-mails, no phone calls, no nothing,” Simms said. “I figured he’s now e-mailing the guy who actually won, and now I’m getting a little depressed. But I figured I hadn’t lost yet.”

The next day her husband checked the Web site and told her she had won.

“My reaction? Definite disbelief,” Simms said.

Now that she’s tasted victory (“Give me a little credit — I’m the best at writing badly!”), Simms said she’ll probably continue entering the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

“Being a competitive person, I probably will send some in,” Simms said. “This is basically akin to winning the gold medal in the Olympics of bad fiction writing. There’s really no place to go from here but down.”

Matthew Reilly works in the Hunterdon County bureau. He can be reached at or 908-782-8326.

DadFunnies07/20/03 2 comments


Patrick • 07/22/03 6:24 PM:

This is the critic in me: I read through the winning entries (they’re just the first sentence of a potential novel), and they’re not that good. “Of course not!” you say, but I mean, they’re not that bad. What do I mean? I guess I mean, I’d expect something a little more clever. Maybe I was biased by the newspaper article (which begins by assuring us that “one must be a fair fictionalist to fashion the kind of adjective-addled, simile-soaked, punctuation-laden parodies that mark the Bulwer-Lytton contest”), but I expected some glint of good writing hiding behind the bad. I’d agree that the writing was bad, but it wasn’t clear that it was bad on purpose.

What’s an example? First thing that comes to mind is not the same, but a sibling: when you read a Brian Doyle run-on sentence with wrong punctuation, you know that he really does know what he’s doing, but he chooses to ignore certain rules for effect. Or maybe on the Simpsons, when Homer or some other idiot speaks, it sounds dumb, but it also sounds like somebody really smart had to come up with something that dumb. Or maybe Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts. So dumb they’re genius.

The winners of this contest seem like they could have been written by some of the freshmen I’ve taught, only they wouldn’t have even known they were being good bad writers.

I said at the beginning that this was the critic in me. That’s because I am not, at least not now, going to do it better myself, though I think I could.

Dad • 06/27/04 4:38 PM:

This is an entry that should have garnered more comments. I revisited the site and it seems they don’t have the results of this year’s contest! So maybe you can still enter!

In answer to Patrick’s comment, I thought the following entry from last year was funny:

Detective Inspector Mike Norman slipped six fingers into his overcoat pocket, five of them clad in a latex glove and attached to his palm, while the sixth was wrapped in a plastic evidence bag and apparently belonged to the kidnapped pianist Ricardo Moore, or, as it now seemed likely, the kidnapped ex-pianist Ricardo Moore.

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