The 2019 Winners

Hello, and welcome to a horrifically belated edition of the Lyttle Lytton Contest, presented months later than usual.  I took a year off from my online projects to focus on making the transition to a day job more in line with my interests, such as those that led me to start this contest.  I figured that if I was going to spend nineteen years over‑explaining jokes, I might as well get the taxpayers of the state of California to pay me to do it.

Anyway, I’m back, so with no further ado, I am pleased to finally present the winner of the 2019 Lyttle Lytton Contest:

“Are you okay?” asks my sister Tlaloc.  “You’re as green as the parrots that inhabit this part of the continent.”

Lachlan Redfern

I’m not as strict as I could be about only rewarding entries that sound like the beginnings of novels, rather than like random sentences in the middle, but I do tend to favor those that demonstrate an effort to follow the instructions.  Here we clearly have a fictional author who thought, “All right, start of the book, gotta establish that we’re in Mesoamerica! How can I work that in without just saying it?” and wound up with some Aztecs who’ve been studing wildlife range maps on Wikipedia.  But awkward as it is, it remains plausible: read some comics from the ’70s and ’80s, with writers attempting to establish the international cast of a team book with a couple of speech balloons per character, and you’ll see a lot of this sort of thing.

In some previous editions of the contest, bad similes like the one above have been featured in their own little section of maybe two or three entries, but for some reason a lot of this year’s stronger entries fell into this category.  For instance:

Sally was fully prepared to slide down the water slide to impress Frank akin to how her eggs slid from her ovaries down her pubescent Fallopian tubes.

Ryan Tang

Some might argue that this is strikingly similar to the Lyttle Lytton sample sentence that has been kicking around the Internet since 2001, but this entry provides a bit more context.  And while it may seem to be a random and cringeworthy simile, it’s easy to imagine an author who’s very impressed with himself for making the link between young Sally’s ovulation and her attempt to attract a mate.  It’s also easy to imagine that author running for Senate in Alabama.

As the fireman entered the burning building, he felt a warm rush blow over him—​like when you open the oven door and get that jet of warm air.

Ben Mackenzie

We’ve seen this trick before, too, and not just in this contest—​Mark Twain, for instance, famously had Huck Finn compare thunder to rolling barrels down a staircase.  (“Where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.”)  But it’s a trick that works, so this one gets an honorable mention.

This one isn’t a simile, exactly, but it is a comparison, so we’ll throw it in here:

Braeden was more handsome than Philip the Handsome, the first Habsburg king of Castile, who ruled for two months before dying of typhoid fever.

Brandon Summers

If you ever look at a portrait of Philip the Handsome, you may wonder what on earth the people who hand out epithets are thinking, but then you look at the other Habsburgs and you realize what kind of curve he’s being graded on.

Humph eyed the corpse, its face split in two in much the same way as the Brexit referendum had divided her native country in 2016.

Christopher Hoult

Still better‑looking than Philip the Handsome’s descendant Charles II.  (In the family tree of Charles II, Philip appears no fewer than fourteen times: twice as his 3×great‑grandfather, six times as his 4×great‑grandfather, and six more times as his 5×great‑grandfather.  The Habsburg family tree looks like a loaf of fougasse bread.)

“To be or not to be” is not the question when one is born onto the lowest rungs of society; one simply has the choice “not to be” thrust upon them like a dirty blanket.

Sarah Stanton

Light flowed like butter into the morning windowpane.

anonymous

These are the sorts of entries that visitors tend not to quote, but I like them because at first they sort of seem to work.  The first one builds an amusingly sententious observation around a not entirely apposite Hamlet quote, but at least the simile seems all right at first glance… and then a moment later you circle back to it and have to ask, wait, is this author under the impression that it’s common for people to fling dirty blankets at each other?  Same story with the second one.  Sometimes sunlight does indeed have a yellow hue not entirely unlike that of melted butter.  But butter doesn’t flow into windowpanes, except maybe at Paula Deen’s house.

Speaking of the morning light:

I woke, my nipples saluting the sultry 7 a.m. sunlight slinking through the blinds to splash across my pert breasts.

Adam Osborn

Here we see the disjunction between levels of narration that folks like Wayne Booth and Seymour Chatman talked about.  The narrator is evidently a woman.  The implied author, however, in having the narrator fixate on her own breasts, is revealed as very likely a lecherous man (and perhaps one of a certain age, in that he does not take pertness for granted) with an unfortunate fondness for alliteration.  Neither is to be confused with the real author, who wrote this in order to enter a comedy contest.

Moving from Booth and Chatman to Laura Mulvey:

Her perfectly formed breasts swayed soothingly as I (also a woman, this isn’t a “male gaze” thing) fell in love with them.

Greg Filpus

Definitely not a “male gaze” thing, except that if there’s one thing that the male gaze prefers to watching women, it’s watching women watching women.  Or so I’ve gathered from Ted Cruz’s Twitter account.

As for the female gaze:

Tiffany had always dreamed of attending the Gathering, but even as Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J stomped triumphantly onstage, she couldn’t take her eyes off Brian.

David Otto

This entry succeeds in being hilariously bad because of its phrasing and structure, but above all, because there are men in their late 40s who actually do go by these names.

Truant children mocked Jack Tranton as he walked.  He could have easily dispatched them with his military training.  But he ignored them.

Max Peake

It was recently pointed out to me that, irrespective of what I might say about my comedic preferences, I am more likely to laugh at a reference than at an original joke.  Maybe so, though I don’t think that laughter is the measure of all things comedic: I might burst out laughing at something mildly funny, while something deeply funny might just make me think, “Wow, that is deeply funny.”  This entry is funny in and of itself, partly in the incongruity of the stimulus and the considered response, partly in the stiff diction (“truant”, “mocked”, “dispatched”), and partly in the way the sentence seems to find the protagonist’s decision not to murder the jeering children a model of heroic restraint.  But I think I liked it just as much for its referential humor, in that it is a standard trope in action stories (particularly comics) for a character’s invincibility in combat to be explained with a handwavey reference to military training (or, even more often, martial arts training).  Throw in the fact that it does sound like the beginning of a novel that some publisher out there might have gone for, and you have this year’s runner‑up.

The canvasser at my doorstep was attractive, but not my type.  I knew as soon as I saw her that she was the kind of leftist who felt her feelings were more important than any facts on the ground.

Shannah McGill

2016’s winner returns with one of this contest’s old standbys, the “I’m gonna publish a right‑wing novel to pwn the libs” entry.  This is a well that entrants have returned to frequently enough that the bar is now set pretty high, but the phrase “facts on the ground” clears it.  (I guess referring to wells and bars in the same sentence makes for a pretty atrocious mixed metaphor, but I’ll go with it—​consider it bonus content.)

On the flip side of the political spectrum:

The POTUS (President of the United States), who was Bernie Sanders instead of Donald Trump, started his job for the day.

Jake Scott

I guess this is where we’d be if The West Wing had lasted a few years longer.

My hand swam into her cinereous hair, sexily greeting the greyish strands with innumerable fingers.

Taylor Eruysal

The resemblance between this entry and some past winners is striking: it borrows “sexily” from the 2018 champion, and “innumerable fingers” isn’t too far off from 2013’s “various smiles”.  You could make an argument that by featuring entries like this I’m just encouraging more contestants to submit variations on what has gone before.  But it’s still funny, and after nineteen years, eliminating every entry that had any sort of resonance with a previous winner would make for some pretty slim pickings.

Here’s another entry that follows a long tradition:

Natalie, an atypical girl, sat reading “Beowulf” as her uneducated girl peers sniggered around her.

anonymous

It seems like every year’s list features a couple of entries about a youthful outcast and her superiority to the in‑crowd, and here’s yet another one.  Why include it, then?  Mainly the phrase “uneducated girl peers”, which has just the right amount of awkwardness.  Here are some others that made the list due to different types of awkwardness, ranging from that arising from the inherent difficulty of communicating spatial relations in text…

The shadowy figure stood alone in the rain on the street corner under the dim yellow streetlight, casting a long thin shadow down the alley perpendicular to him.

Sam

…to the use of an article in place of a possessive pronoun (in a participial phrase that is questionable anyway)…

The dame’s hat lifted off by the wind and settled on the ground, revealing the head.

Logan LeMont

…to a sentence whose use of implied objects stretches the bounds of plausibility, but which I couldn’t resist including anyway:

With my palm perfectly flat, her horse bit me anyway—​any trust for the equine bolted in that moment as surely as it did with the carrot I’d hoped to win its own with.

Seumas Campbell

We have three more in the division for original entries.  This one succeeds for its earnestness in a context that makes that earnestness amusing:

If I’d have known then that it would be my own brother under the clown mask, under the phantom pirate mask, I never would’ve agreed to split up and check it out, not for a million Scooby Snacks.

Gabriel Stevenson

Every year there’s one entry that stands out for making the reader blink and say, “Wait, what?”  What’s especially great about these is that what prompts that response is always new and different, or else it couldn’t really prompt that response.  Here’s this year’s edition:

Manfred, Freya the Viking goddess’s last raid’s 9-months-later surprise, cried for nursing.  Meanwhile Blutdurst, the passionate and devoted battle-axe, urged for sharpening.

Dominikus Plaschg

Wait, what?

Finally, this last one I adore because (a) I don’t recall encountering this precise trick in a Lyttle Lytton entry before, and (b) even though it makes for an unpublishable sentence, I have nevertheless seen this happen in published works more than once!

This is the heart-warming story of Ella and how she accepts the tElla of God’s love, gets rMegannge on her school bullies and achiMegans success in life!

Samantha Pine

This brings us to the division for found entries, and let’s start with the winner:

It was a soft gray night with a half-moon forming a perfect D in the sky.  D for what, Alex wondered.  Danger? Discovery? Or Disaster?  Only time would tell.

Alex Rider: Stormbreaker
quoted by Ben Roberts

Back in my MSTing days I would have called this D for Deep Hurting.  Why so painful?  First, there’s the equation of a half‑lit spheroid and the letter D—​it’s not a perfect match, and never could be, because the resemblance is only approximate even if you’re really into sans‑serif fonts.  Then there’s the fact that language is essentially arbitrary and whether a word starts with D or not is just a matter of historical accident, not cosmic correspondence.  So the notion that the moon could somehow be sending one of these messages to Alex could not possibly be more inane.  Why not guess that it’s trying to call out his name using the Cherokee syllabary?

Papua New Guinea is so violent that more than 820 languages are spoken there.

“Ask E. Jean: My Husband Is Sleeping with My Mother”
quoted by Katherine Morayati

So I guess that when the MPAA says “rated R for violence and language” it’s just being redundant.

The humble mouse has become an extension of our arms as we click fervently from one email to the next.

13 Techie Baby Names That Are Actually Super Cute”
quoted anonymously

“Clicking fervently from one email to the next” sounds like how a TV news reporter in 1991 would describe what all those people with “modems” were doing on the “Internet”.  (Also, while the author suggests that the “humble mouse” may soon be on its way out, isn’t that predicting the past more than predicting the future, even for an article first published in 2016?  I can’t remember the last time I saw someone using a mouse: the laptop people use their touchpads and the phone people just poke at their screens.  I’m enough of a luddite that I still use a tower desktop, but even I haven’t used a mouse in over 25 years—​I’m a trackball guy.)

With her “yes”, Mary became the most influential woman in history.  Without social networks, she became the first “influencer”: the “influencer” of God.

@Pontifex tweet
quoted by Aidan Lockett

And when Pontius Pilate asked whether Jesus or Barabbas should be spared, he became the first “crowdsourcer” of God’s mercy.

One more:

I am Barrister. Barr Johnson Mark a lawyer in Cotonou Benin Republic.  Mr.Jorge., a gold merchant, who was my client died as a result of lung cancer.  Now I want to present you as the next of kin.

Barrister. Barr Johnson Mark, apparently

I suspect that this was actually not intended as a Lyttle Lytton entry, but it showed up in the Lyttle Lytton inbox and I was struck by how appropriate it was for the contest.  It’s got intrigue!  Exotic locales!  An arresting use of the second person!  Heck, on second thought, maybe it’s not appropriate for the contest: as the beginning of a novel, it may actually be too good.  I’m hooked!

That concludes the contest for 2019; the 2020 edition is officially open, with a new deadline (June 15 rather than April 15) that is more in line with the academic year and should therefore prevent another ridiculous delay like this one.  As always, it was tough to draw a line between those entries that made it in and those that were left out; this results page probably could have been twice as long, but I really didn’t want the wait for results to stretch into August.  So, many thanks to all the entrants, as well as to the posters, rebloggers, and retweeters who help to spread the word about this contest.  If you enjoy Lyttle Lytton, please consider supporting it by tossing a few cents at my Patreon account, the proceeds from which pay for my annual spike in hosting fees and allow me to devote at least a few scraps of spare time to this and other projects.  I would be forMeganr grateful!

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