If the Joy is in the Prize, Writers Have Options

Be it jewel or toy, not the prize gives the joy, but the striving to win the prize.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s words of wisdom offer sage counsel to the legions of Minnesota literary giants left in the shadows at the recent Minnesota Book Awards “gala.”  Still, in the likely event that is a misguided hopeful for whom writing is about winning, options abound.

Though a comprehensive review of nontraditional literary awards would be great a fun but futile pursuit, a few strike the fancy and give a sense of the possibilities.  Clearly there is no reason why every one of us should not be strutting our literary stuff sporting a laurel wreath.

** The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest award is arguably the best known of the “other” book awards (http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/  honoring the worst possible first sentence of the worst of all possible novels.  The award was the “brainchild (or Rosemary’s baby)” of Professor Scott Rice who was presumably inspired by the immortal opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The website explanation of the enigmatic name is this:    Sentenced to write a seminar paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose the man with the funny hyphenated name, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was best known for perpetrating The Last Days of Pompeii, Eugene Aram, Rienzi, The Caxtons, The Coming Race, and – not least – Paul Clifford, whose famous opener has been plagiarized repeatedly by the cartoon beagle Snoopy.  No less impressively, Lytton coined phrases that have become common parlance in our language: “the pen is mightier than the sword,” “the great unwashed,” and “the almighty dollar.”

Winner of the 2012 BLFC, Cathy Bryant of Manchester, England, wowed the judges with her entry:  “As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.”  The BLFC honors similar bon mots in categories ranging from the Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award to Children’s Literature, Fantasy, Purple Prose and others.

Since its inception in 1982 the BLFC has been sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University.  Sponsors magnanimously share winning sentences, runners up and dishonorable mentions on their delightful website.

** Then there’s the Lyttle Lytton Contest hosted by Adam Cadre, an American writer best known for his work in interactive fiction.  (http://adamcadre.ac)  What sets the Lyttle-Lytton apart from its predecessor is the brevity requirement of first sentences.  As of 2012 the submission limit was 200 characters.

** The award for this year’s Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year goes to Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop – a “practical” guide to how to “clear your home and garden of goblins and banish them forever.”  Author, Reginald Bakeley’s manual of fairy-proof tips garnered the public vote to win the hearts of voters over competitors How Tea Cosies Changed the World and How to Sharpen Pencils.

Previous weirdly titled tomes include Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, Highlights in the History of Concrete, Bombproof Your Horse and Cooking with Poo.  The first recipient of the Diagram Award went to Proceedings of the Second International Workshop of Nude Mice in 1978.

The Award is sponsored by the Diagram Group, an information and graphics company based in London, and The Bookseller, a British trade magazine for the publishing industry.  A book about the prize,  How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books, was published in 2008 by Aurum Press.

In truth, the intent of the award is serious.  Philip Stone, administrator of the Diagram Award, observes that, on the one hand, a weird title can catch the reader’s eye or frame of reference.  “Books such as A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time all owe a sizeable part of their huge successes to their odd monikers.”  Further, Stone says, “the fact that writers still passionately write such works and their publishers are still willing to invest in them is a marvelous thing that deserves to be celebrated.

* * For the past twenty years the Literary Review has sponsored its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award to the writer who produces the worst description of a sex scene in a novel.  The award was originally established by Rhoda Koenig, a literary critic, and Auberon Waugh, then the magazine’s editor.

The official rationale for the Award is “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.  Recent awardees include Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (2009), Rowan Somerville, The Shape of Her (2010), David Guterson, Ed King, (2011), and Infrared, by Nancy Huston (2012) The late John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 ceremony, after his novel The Widows of Eastwick garnered him a fourth consecutive nomination.

** The Shorty Awards fill an inevitable niche.  The Shorty goes to the year’s best producers of short (fewer than 140 characters) weird content on Twitter.  Entries may be submitted in 26 official categories, one of which is “author” (http://shortyawards.com/category/author)  The fifth annual Shorty Awards event was held April 8 – for the faithful, it’s streamed (http://new.livestream.com/shortyawardslive/ShortyAwards2013)

The list goes on….Award Options Overload set in at the Weird-ass Picture Book Awards, conferred on the producers of books whose “strangeness reaches new heights of art and storytelling.”   I began to ask myself essential questions about mission, sponsorship, finances, criteria, process, benefits and more….

For aspiring writers the moral is clear;  as Edward George Bulwer-Lytton himself might have written:    If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

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One response to “If the Joy is in the Prize, Writers Have Options

  1. Oh, Mary! I appreciate all of your posts! This “struck my fancy”! Lucy

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