His fingertips grew hungry, prowling the surface of the keys like tiny lungfish slurping at the lettered pegs for sustenance to feed their drive to weave a tale of an impavid constabulary, boldly, courageously, indefatigably attempting to glean the meaning of a calamity that warped a late-model conveyance the way a wet suction cup siphons droplets of gentle dew into grotesque figures of terror.
If only it had actually happened on a dark and stormy night.
With that purple prose the Ewing Observer, the hometown paper of Joel Phillips, announced that Phillips, a professor of composition and music theory at Westminster Choir College, had won a literary award for exceptional fiction writing that almost defies description. Phillips is the 2015 winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest and named in honor — or perhaps dishonor — of the 19th century English writer Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.
The competition, administered by the San Jose University English Department, asks entrants to compose an opening sentence to a novel that rivals the over-wrought introduction to Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel “Paul Clifford:”
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Phillips’s winning entry, reproduced at right under a graphic inspired by his writing, was the first of several that entered in the contest. The others are printed below.
Fiction — good, bad, or wretched — is a long way from musical theory, which Phillips teaches at Westminster. But Phillips has also taught a course on parody and satire. “I see my job as not to just teach making music,” he told the Ewing Observer, “but to get my students to articulate poetry.” He’s referring mostly to students singing lyrics, but the point of creative cross-pollination is important here.
Phillips grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where Phillips was influenced by his mother’s singing and story telling. “My mother was brilliant,” he said. His father, on the other hand, “can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But he was very supportive.”
Today Phillips gains further inspiration from his wife, Elizabeth Scheiber, a professor of Italian and French who also is the associate director of the Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Holocaust and Genocide Research Center at Rider. She also makes up parody lyrics to popular songs.
Phillips has acquired a certain admiration for truly bad writing. He particularly appreciated the opening sentences — quoted above — from Scott Morgan, the writer reporting on his award for the Ewing Observer.
“I didn’t ask Scott Morgan whether it was his own submission, but he told me he had once entered the competition,” says Phillips. “I think he harbors a secret desire to write badly, yet is cursed by a gift that won’t permit it.” Praise, though not exactly high praise, from one writer to another.
#b#‘Losing’ Submissions From the Purple Pen Of Joel Phillips:#/b#
With the tip of her cigarillo Brenda scratched madly at the rash beneath her sweaty bra strap and hiccupped so loudly she farted — then watched with a lustful gaze as Eddie stirred, eager to reignite their passionate lovemaking.
Clausen groped in the dark for a phone that quit ringing long before he found it, but not before he had knocked an empty Jameson bottle into a half-eaten pizza littered with cigar butts, donut holes, and a Polaroid of the dame who had inexplicably delivered him at full term.
Startled by the “flick” of the light switch, a cockroach tacked past a flotilla of shell casings adrift in an ocean of blood surrounding the heiress, who — like a sumptuous island resort with lots of amenities that was unlikely to get a C.O. post-hurricane because of the structural damage — had always given Frank reservations.
Spurs a-jangling, Black Bert sauntered to the bar and cried “this town ain’t big enough” — then gulped a whisky, fingered his six-shooter, and belched — “so I say we annex Dry Gulch, thus increasing our tax base while simultaneously reducing fixed costs through economies of scale.”
As the chopper’s rotors beat white clouds to stiff peaks overhead, Kaboodle thought nothing beat his line of work (unless another cop beat you to the stiff) so — Jiminy Christmas! — was Kitt piqued, observing Tori handle the victim’s severed head — rather than himself — but as forensics whisked away the torso, he still hoped to add something to the mix.
As Joel prepared an entry for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest he recoiled at the thought of anyone having to read yet another tortured example of post-modern prose (After all, whom did he think he was, Paul Auster writing City of Glass?), yet he began his novel with this, its first sentence, which he could also submit to the contest ev