San Jose State University’s English department sponsors an annual literary competition titled the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which participants are encouraged to come up with the most deliberately bad opening sentences that could possibly begin a fiction novel. To give a small illustration of the cruddy introductory passages that get submitted, the winner of the 2011 race wrote, “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.” Vogon poets would surely be proud.
This yearly race for mediocrity is named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a Victorian era writer who infamously began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the sentence: “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.” The problem with a sentence like this is that it’s far too fascinated with embroidery. The word choices are all very fancy, but so what? Does the reader take away any real substance? Do the arrangements of the words roll off the tongue, or clumsily sputter out of the mouth? Be honest: does this first sentence make you want to continue reading?
I first learned of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest earlier this week in one of my writing classes, and it had never before occurred to me the dire importance of opening sentences in literature. In “The Words,” a writer struggling to get his book published happens upon a used leather briefcase in an antique shop holding a manuscript of an unpublished novel, printed on worn parchment that’s probably survived more than a few years. Extremely little of this novel’s content is revealed to the audience, and only in transient flashes do we get a peek at any of the actual sentences. I happened to catch the first sentence in passing, which was “It was the same song as the night before.” That doesn’t strike me as a particularly attention-grabbing lead-in; in fact, it sounds a bit hacky to my ears. But perhaps the novel picks up the pace after that. Looks can be deceiving, you know.
After all, as the novel’s finder Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) thumbs through the pages, scanning over each row of text with his eyes, he’s stunned speechless by the excellence of the material. His endlessly supportive wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), believing that the novel is one of Rory’s original works, insists that it’s the best thing he’s ever written. How humiliating must it be to have your significant other candidly enlighten you on how impersonal and lacking your other stories are, while you are fully aware of the countless hours of devotion it took you to compose them?
So why not use the mystery novel as a springboard for Rory to launch his career as a fiction writer? He submits a freshly printed copy to a publishing company, gets it approved, and the book becomes a sizeable sensation once it’s released to the public. Rory wins a few literary accolades, guest stars on a couple talk shows, and book clubs all over the country are raving over this modern classic. But then, the Old Man comes into the picture…
The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) is the only handle given to this scraggly gentleman, but names aren’t the matter at hand. Rory meets The Old Man in the park one afternoon, and it’s quite clear to the audience that he’s the true author of the book that Rory is taking all the credit for. A veteran of WWII, The Old Man describes at length his love affair with a French waitress (Nora Arnezeder) following the war, the reason for writing his magnificent story, and the reason as to why he hasn’t written a single thing since.
Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid), a famous novelist, tells all of the above stories to the audience at the public reading of his latest bestseller. Olivia Wilde plays a grad student at Columbia who is attracted to Hammond’s ideas, and possibly even the man himself. Though some parallels are implied between the story and reality later on, I am not quite sure why this arc is included in the film. The main narrative is a viable enough plot to warrant its own film, and I fail to see what this framing device contributes to the big picture. “The Words” teases a few absorbing moral conflicts. It’s unfortunate that it resorts to tired solutions because it doesn’t know how to handle the conflicts with care.