The Bulwer-Lytton Prize is one of the most unusual awards, and one of the most sought-after, in all of literature. Every year since 1982, tens of thousands of writers from all around the world have taken up the challenge “to compose the opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels.”
In 2012, Cathy Bryant offered this:
“As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, noting as she did the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodecids 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.”
It was no contest at all. Ms. Bryant took top honors, and was thereby recognized for one full year as The Worst Writer in the World. Four short years later, she’s slumming with the likes of me as a contributor to One Thousand Words for War. How the mighty have fallen.
The Bulwer-Lytton is one of twenty different literary prizes Bryant has won in the course of publishing dozens upon dozens of short stories and full length works of fiction and non-fiction. She is, by a comfortable margin, the most decorated contributor to the book. The passage above will give you some idea as to why; it takes a hell of a writer to write that badly. Bryant’s gift is the ability to catch lightning in a bottle—to cram maximum literary impact into the shortest possible space, be it serious or humorous, or some combination of both. A Mancunian with a very British literary sensibility, Bryant is what you might get if you shoved Douglas Adams into a trash compactor until he was compressed to roughly one cubic foot in size.
Bryant’s distinction here is that she’s the only contributor to take the concept “One Thousand Words for War” literally. Her contribution, “Maverick”, is a work of flash fiction—the emerging literary form that challenges authors to cram an entire story into a few hundred words. Flash fic is a queer beast, but it’s not hard to see how it evolved. The birth of online communications has created a marketplace in which millions scream simultaneously for attention; this means that attention spans have shrunk at the same time that presses have faced increasing competition for shrinking publication space.
Flash fiction is extremely difficult to do well. There is no space for preliminaries or for scene setting. The characters, world, and plot must be introduced, the conflict established, the action built, the conflict resolved, and the curtain brought down in roughly the length of time it takes the reader to watch a TV commercial. For the same reasons, a good piece of flash fiction is extremely difficult to review without giving the game away; to describe it is, functionally, to repeat it.
Suffice to say that “Maverick” is a very, very good piece of flash fiction, particularly in its accessibility to young readers; a more ideal instructional resource for introducing the genre you’ll never find. Bryant sets up an utterly crazed conflict scenario best summarized as “Ghostbusters in Vietnam,” creates a sense of place through the dialects of her characters, establishes the roles and personalities of her main protagonists—and then unleashes a hellacious plot twist, shattering the expectations of her readers like an ice cube under a hammer. And then she’s out the door, leaving you to paste the remains of your cranium back together.
I’d say more, but this post would wind up longer than the story it’s reviewing. You’ll not get more bang for your buck as a reader than “Maverick” offers. It truly is work worthy of the one-time Worst Writer in the World.