Miles Kington: In Britain, nothing succeeds like a complete failure

Most British actors have hoarded away their worst notices. Most Americans refuse to admit they ever had such a thing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Americans are funny people. Or, to put it more sensibly, the Americans are different from us. For instance, when Stephen Pile wrote his book of Heroic Failures years ago, detailing the most unsuccessful ventures of all time (I still think fondly of the French TV programme he discovered which got no viewing figures at all), the British loved it, because we love collapse and dismay, but when he went to America to publicise it, he found that in the land of success and ambition nobody could understand why he had even wanted to write it.

Again, Diana Rigg put together a book of unfavourable reviews some years back (No Turn Unstoned - wonderful book - out of print - keep an eye open) for which she wrote to all the actors she knew to beg them to reveal their most damning review. British actors, she revealed later, tended to have hoarded their worst notices away, and could usually lay their hands on them. Most Americans refused to admit that they had ever had such a thing. They had been wiped from the memory.

And there is another difference between us which I have only recently noticed. Both countries have humorously aimed competitions in which an award is given to the best worst piece of writing.

We have that award (whose name escapes me) for the worst bureaucratic jargon, in which civil servants and politicians are pilloried for their graceless use of the English language.

We have the Bad Sex Award, in which the Literary Review gives an annual prize to the worst written fictional account of a sexual encounter, taken from a current novel.

Over in America they have the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an award given each year by San Jose University to the worst opening sentence to a new novel. It is named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the largely forgotten author of The Last Days of Pompeii, in honour of the opening of his totally forgotten novel Paul Clifford, which runs as follows:

"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."

They also have a Bad Hemingway contest, and a Faux Faulkner competition, and what makes their literary contests different from ours is that our bad writing has already been committed by someone else, but in America they do their own bad writing.It's a can-do society, where you don't wait for someone to come along and provide you with bad writing, no, sir, you sit right down and do it yourself. You don't go looking for a bad bit of Hemingway, you construct your own bit of bad Hemingway ...!

Well, I have just been looking at some of the past winners of the Bulwer-Lytton prize, and I have to say that although they try very hard to be bad, most of them are really quite eye-catching and readable. See what you think of the 2002 winner, a certain Rephah Berg of Oakland, California, who wrote this:

"On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained."

I rather like that. As I do this, the 1999 winner, written by an Englishman, Dr Chuter of Kingston:

"Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum of 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."

Bad writing? I'll tell you what bad writing is. Tomorrow. After I have consulted my libel lawyer.

Comments