Monday, September 21, 2009

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Let me just say, straight up, I envy Dan Brown, author of this latest publishing phenomenon, The Lost Symbol. What wanna-be novelist wouldn't, with the kind of sales this guy has had, just with his newest book alone. The publisher is reporting a first day sale of both hardcover and electronic copies of ONE MILLION, a number which is described as "historic." No doubt.

But in another way, I don't envy Dan Brown. The man can sure sell books, but his writing, depending on your mood, is either laughable or unbearably annoying. What he does well is write plot. What he does badly is, well, write. One critic calls his prose "not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.” Ouch. Another reviewer says that Brown hales from the school of elbow-joggers: "nervy, worrisome authors who can’t stop shoving us along with jabs of information and opinion that we don’t yet require." You can just feel this kind of writer hanging over your shoulder as you read their book--did ya get it, did ya? Gee, I hope they got it. Writers like that just can't get out of the way of their own stuff. In anticipation of the new book coming out, one critic, Tom Chivers of the UK Telegraph, has written a review titled "Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences" and invites readers to add their own entries. However, I notice that most of the readers' posts are in defense of Dan Brown, which makes sense considering his sales.

Reading Chivers' review reminded me of one of the funniest books I have on my shelf: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: The funniest opening sentences from the worst novels never written, compiled by Scott Rice. This book comes from the best of the Bulwer-Lytton Contest. If you're not up on 19th century English literature, Bulwer-Lytton was the novelist who actually wrote that first sentence, "It was a dark and stormy night." He wrote in various genres, including mystery, romance, and the occult. As a writer of novels, and those who aspire to be Dan Brown might want to pay attention to this, Bulwer-Lytton was second in popularity only to Charles Dickens. As Scott Rice says in his introduction, "Bulwer-Lytton has been an inspiration to generations of untalented writers." His writing has been widely lampooned, most hilariously by Charles Schultz, whose dog Snoopy always had designs on writing the great American novel. (Does anyone else desperately miss Peanuts, by the way? I sure do.)

The Bulwer-Lytton bad-writing contest was begun in 1982; the goal of the contest is "childishly simple," says the website: it is to compose the worst possible opening sentence for an imaginary novel. Difficult as it is for me to pick a favorite "worst" opening sentence from the Scott book, this one is certainly representative:

Handsome, strongly muscled, but lean as a rapier, splendid in his colorful bolero jacket, silver-trimmed leather pants, and enormous sombrero, his cruel mouth curled in a sardonic smile, his hooded dark eyes flashing as he gazed at the faces of the motley crew he called his companeros, he reigned in his horse so that the magnificent beast stood toweringly on his hind legs--truly a superb picture of the legendary Mexican bandito, El Loco.

Then there's this one: As was tradition, he had begun this journey adorned in the ritualistic garb of a medieval heretic being led to the gallows, his loose-fitting shirt gaping open to reveal his pale chest, his left pant leg rolled up to the knee, and his right sleeve rolled up to the elbow; around his neck hung a heavy rope noose--a "cable tow" as the brethren called it, but tonight, however, like the brethren bearing witness, he was dressed as a master.

Oh, but I gave it away, didn't I. The second entry is of course none other than Dan Brown in the prologue of his new, gad-zillion seller novel, The Lost Symbol. I don't know why Dan Brown sells so many books, except I suppose they have a certain entertainment value. However, if you plan to read the latest Brown book, then stay away from the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing Contest. Once the cadences of those entries get into your head, you won't be able to read Brown's stuff without laughing out loud. Which, I suppose, considering the current depressing political climate, wouldn't be the worst thing.

No comments: