To begin with, it was quite absurd...

WHAT IS the worst opening in the canon of English literature? The academics who run the English department at San Jose State University have no doubt about it. It's the first line of a novel called Paul Clifford, published in 1830, and it goes like this:

"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 that swept up the streets, for it is in London that our scenes lie, rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Ghastly, eh? The author of this lolloping, twisting, U-turning, participle- dangling, parenthetical tirade of faux-elemental nonsense was Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian MP, novelist, playwright and fop. Though a prolific writer, he was no accomplished stylist; which is why the wits at San Jose University run an annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contenders try to write the worst, most inept or unappealing opening sentence of an imaginary novel.

Entries come in from all over the world, including Saudi Arabia and the Far East. Some past winners cling to the memory with a horrible tenacity - like Janice Estey from Aspen, California.Her winning sentence in 1996 read: "`Ace, watch your head,' hissed Wanda urgently, yet somehow provocatively, through red, full, sensuous lips, but he couldn't, you know, since nobody can watch more than part of his nose, or a little cheek or lips if he really tries, but he appreciated her warning."

This year's winner is David Chuter, 47, a civil servant at the Ministry of Defence in London, whose entry reads: "Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum from the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life."

Mr Chuter's hilariously miserable scene-setting equates bad writing with gloom rather than bathos. But some of the worst opening lines in the canon are promises of misery to come. One thinks of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and its cheerful opening: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Or Anita Brookner's intimations of hilarity at the start of Hotel du Lac: "From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore ..."

Gloom apart, the most off-putting novel openings are those that promise a close acquaintance with someone to whom you would rather not get any closer. It's hard to warm, for instance, to the narrator of Dostoevsky's Letters from the Underworld: "I am ill; I am full of spleen and repellent. I conceive there to be something wrong with my liver, for I cannot even think for the aching of my head ..."

The worst openings, though, are things of boredom. Like this one: "3 May, Bistritz. - Left Munich at 8.35 pm on 1 May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.45 but train was an hour late."

Or this scintillating suggestion from Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea: "The best thing would be to write down everything that happens from day to day. To keep a diary in order to understand. To neglect no nuances or little details even if they seem unimportant ..." (Would that really be the best thing? And if so, what would be the worst thing?) Or those endless first paragraphs of Thomas Hardy's novels, locating a single figure in a vast landscape in "the year of 18-" and "the town of D-".

For me the most annoying first sentence in modern fiction is from Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body. It's a one-line paragraph and it sits on the page with huge self-importance, getting more irritating by the minute. Ready? Here it comes: "Why is the measure of love loss?"

One you've worked out the syntax, it goes round and round your head until you want to call round to Ms Winterson's home and demand she re-writes it, there and then, balancing it, if necessary, on one knee ...

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