The Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize are arguably the most well-known literary prizes in the world. If you’d like to argue it, please feel free to do so!
But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lesser-known literary prizes around the world. From the Hugo Awards, honouring science fiction and fantasy, to the Hans Christian Anderson Awards honouring writing and illustration in children’s books, there are prizes for almost every type of writing, in every language.
There are even awards for bad writing.
Off to a bad start
In 1982, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest was created: “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Although it started small, it now attracts thousands of entries, in several categories such as Western, Science Fiction, Romance and Purple Prose.
The competition is named in honour of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton for the first line of his 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.
Perhaps not too bad really. But the entrants of this competition can do much worse, and some are masterpieces! Only the first sentence exists: it’s left to our imaginations to imagine how bad the rest of the book would be.
Here are a few past winning entries, the first is the 2012 winner, by Cathy Bryant:
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.
And this entry by Sue Fondrie, the 2011 winner:
Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.
To finish off, the runner-up from the Purple Prose division in 2014 is by Terri Meeker:
Cole kissed Anastasia, not in a lingering manner as a connoisseur might sip a glass of ‘82 La Pin, but open-mouthed and desperate, like a hobo wrapping his mouth around a bottle of Strawberry Ripple in the alley behind the 7-11.
Shorter and sweeter
If long sprawling adjective-riddled first sentences aren’t your cup of tea, then try the Little Lytton Contest. It captures the same idea, but with a limit (as of 2012) of 200 characters. Here are some of the past winners and entries:
It was a beautiful night, and the full moon glew like it had never glown before.
As the abandoned temple crumbled, Professor Winston cried, “Utilize your rope!”
Phil’s tears fell softly, carried down his face by the gravity of her unfairness.
Cowboy Bret said to Dave (another cowboy), “Now let’s rustle up these cattles.”
“Caw! Caw!” went the birds as the massacres happened (the birds represent sadness).
Sex done wrong
While the Bulwer-Lytton prizes are for intentionally bad writing, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is presented to legitimate attempts to write a quality sex scene in a novel who have unfortunately missed the mark.
You can read a few of the nominees from 2013 in this article at The Guardian. Beware: sexual imagery and some truly awful metaphor (you can decide for yourself which is worse!)
The Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year (commonly just called the Diagram Prize) is awarded to exactly what it says. These are the sort of titles that make you double-take, wondering what on Earth is actually in the book, or how could a book about that actually exist?
The entire list of past winners is worth reading (the titles I mean, not necessarily the books!), but a few of my personal favourites are
- The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais
- Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way
- The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories
- The Joy of Chickens
- Highlights in the History of Concrete
One was actually written and titled by a computer; can you guess which one?