The 2009 Winners

“What? Those are the winners?! Where is my glorious entry? Dammit, you wouldn’t know funny if it bit you on the ass!

No doubt.  This sort of thing is enormously subjective.  It’s hard to draw a line between those that just barely make it in and those which are just barely left out; on another day I might well have chosen a rather different set of winners.  And of course, I wouldn’t know funny if it bit me on the ass.

I will begin with my now-traditional exhortation about what this contest is not.  It is not a “funniest sentence” contest.  It’s relatively easy to make people laugh with you, if you try.  In the past I’ve attached long lists of such entries, but this time I’ll keep it to just three:

  • Larry, the dung beetle, was in tears outside the soda shop, having realized that his dung ball had been stolen while he had been inside enjoying a cola and some dung.

Norm Macdonald, is that you?  No, actually it’s someone named Dave McKenzie, who submitted way too many entries to be considered even if they had been the right sort of thing.  Here’s another of his:

  • The familiar “Arf! Arf! Boom!!” jolted Captain Lance Westwood out of a dream and reminded him that the war against the planet of the dog people wasn’t going well.

And one from longtime contributor Mark Silcox:

  • The slender Zap-gun shivered lewdly in Captain Freck’s hand, then whispered “ka‐pow” and squirted its laser into the damp cave.

Again, what this contest is going for is a simulation of unintentional comedy—​we should be laughing at your entry, not with it.  This is hard to do on purpose.  It’s a lot easier when you’re not trying.  For instance, I just went to the suspiciously heterosexual Amazon bestseller list and pulled up the top book, which was something called Liberty and Tyranny by one Mark Levin.  It begins:

  • There is simply no scientific or mathematical formula that defines conservatism.

See, that could be a winning entry in this year’s contest!  It raises a number of questions: who exactly does the author think he’s disabusing of the notion that a political belief system can be rendered as a “scientific or mathematical formula”?  What distinction does he believe he’s drawing between scientific formulas and mathematical ones?  How deep into this imaginary argument is he that he thinks he needs to add the word “simply”?

Most importantly, it doesn’t make me want to learn the answers to any of these questions.  The first sentence convinces me that the author isn’t going anywhere with this that I have any interest in following.  On the other hand, this entry sounds like a setup:

  • As a secretary, Penny was skilled in answering multi-line phones, receptionist duties, copying, faxing and documenting things, but as her performance evaluation noted, she wasn’t very good at filing.  (John Vent)

The rhythm of this sentence suggests that the author is going somewhere with this.  Heck, I can finish it myself.  “As a secretary, Penny was skilled in answering multi-line phones, receptionist duties, copying, faxing and documenting things, but as her performance evaluation noted, she wasn’t very good at filing.  A memo about the new parking policy might be found under H for ‘horseless carriages’, while a cash payment was likely to end up in the Jaa‐Jal drawer in a folder labeled ‘Jackson, Andrew, portraits of’.  Thus, Penny was fired, and a new secretary brought in who didn’t quite understand the intricacies of the phone system.  And that is how, in attempting to put me on hold, she wound up connecting me to the private conference call in which CEO Avner Wilkrest ordered me killed.”  Or something like that.

Here’s another:

  • At sixteen, Ben understood the emotional depth of the world around him and he had a number of respectable poems to prove it.  (Erin Spradlin)

That would indeed suggest a bad novel if I thought for a moment that the author wasn’t being sardonic.  But since clearly this will be a satire at Ben’s expense, it is just plain funny rather than unintentionally so.  And it’s well-written enough that I’d certainly read on.  Another example:

  • She swabbed her pale neck with alcohol.  “I’m ready,” she cooed.  He licked his canines, anticipating the germ-free surface of her skin and the taste of her blood.  (anonymous)

OCD vampire!  I’m sold!  Clearly this author has a future in comedy!  And that’s why her entry didn’t appear among the winners.  Because that’s not what this contest is about.  We’re not supposed to be laughing with you, but at you, and while, as noted, that’s easy enough to pull off when you’re not trying, it’s harder when you are. And the best example I found this year was the winner of the 2009 Lyttle Lytton Contest:

The mighty frigate Indestructible rounded the Horn of Africa and lurched east’ard.

Pete Wirtala

Now that’s bad!  As soon as you hit the name of the ship you can smell the cheap irony coming, and the “ooh, look how nautical I am!” reference to the Horn of Africa is immediately trumped by the trying-even-harder apostrophe in “east’ard”.

However, I imagine the second-place winner will be more popular:

Pika … chu, thought Pikachu.


Ten years ago that probably would have netted the author a three-book deal worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $600,000.

And speaking of ten years ago, let’s start the honorable mentions, presented in no particular order:

Alex turned to Gertrude, in much the same way Martin Landau turned to Barbara Bain in the opening of Space: 1999.

Alex Dering

A novel whose every simile is a television reference might seem a little unrealistic, but isn’t that basically Bill Simmons’s career?

As long as we’re living in the past, let’s party like it’s 2005, when a paean to a certain beach sport won first prize:

For many, surfing can be a pleasant and enjoyable pastime, if you like surfing, but not Peter.

Cormac Leggatt

I received entries within minutes of each other from about a hundred and fifty Leggatts.  Apparently they were having a little intra-family contest.  Cormac is the winner.  Cormac, if this means you get envy-fueled dinner rolls thrown at you at Thanksgiving, I am sorry.

And now let’s relive those heady days of 2007:

Zamboni doubled—​nay, TRIPLED over in happiness-demolishing agonies.

Leon Arnott

This one wins a mention for “happiness-demolishing”, which isn’t quite as memorable as 2007’s “unending holocaust of pain” but bears the same hallmark.

Speaking of taking a quick jaunt to the past:

I have the ability to go through time, he suddenly remembered while at a bus stop near a tree.

Adam Box

This is what we in the business call “painting a word picture”.  Setting is so important!

Sometimes painting that word picture requires the imperative mood, or the suggestion thereof:

Deep space.  The silence of the void. Shh.

Anthony Hope

I try not to fall for the same gimmicks every year, but here are a few that do some of the usual things well.  Unnecessary explanation:

Deborah walked briskly down the street with pants on her legs.

Susie Thai

Jerry’s wife looked forward to a romantic time with him, Jerry.

Neil Haven

“Ooh la la!” whispered Larry in French.

Jim Van Donsel

The thing that gets me about the third one is that not only is it unnecessary explanation, I’m not entirely sure that “ooh la la” really counts as French.

Near-miss comparison:

Farmer John admired the golden corn, sprouting from the ground like buried treasure.

Drew McWilliams

It seems like it should work!  Corn and treasure are indeed usually roughly the same color.  You do indeed place both in a hole in the ground.  And both do spontaneously erupt from the earth after—​oh, wait, that would be the sticking point, wouldn’t it.

Continuing with matters underfoot:

“Tectonic plates fascinate me,” she says, her eyes swiftly darting from my eyes to the ground, and back again.

Ian Waddell

That’s probably too far over the line into deliberate comedy, but I couldn’t resist.  And let’s conclude the originals with one more:

“I hope I win,” thought Ernest, blinking laboriously; he was proud to represent his country in the Olympics, but “What did it all mean?”

Deborah Grumet

What indeed?  See, winning isn’t everything.  Sometimes it just brings on existential angst.

On to the Found contest.  In the past, most of these have been repurposed from non-fictional sources, but this year a number of entries cited bestselling novels.  I found one myself, which shouldn’t really count because I know Neal Stephenson wouldn’t write a sentence this awful except for his own amusement.  Nonetheless, from The Confusion:

  • Caramba!” exclaimed Diego de Fonseca, “a cucaracha has fallen onto the tortillas of my wife!”

This is the actual beginning of the Mexico City chapter, and in its own way it’s kind of a masterpiece.  I may get married just so I can refer to “the tortillas of my wife”, but only in written contexts where I can apply the italics.

But the winner should not be going for something dire on purpose, so the winner of the Found contest is:

Despite having ascended to the most powerful political office in the world, President Zachary Herney was average in height, with a slender build and narrow shoulders.

Deception Point by Dan Brown
quoted by Scott Silverstein

Wow.  Just… wow.  Yes, I know that presidents tend to be tall, but still… that’s the contrast you're going with?  It reminds me of a story I wrote in which I included a “surprisingly average-sized gang member”, but, like, I was a child then.  Seriously, man, this is supposed to be a prose novel—​try to be less transparent about writing it for the casting agents.  Sheesh.

A leg and part of a torso lay on the sidewalk—​the remains of Alan Tompkins.

Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
quoted by Mark Wells

Mark notes, “Try imagining the scene without guessing as to which part of the torso.”  He also points out “the implication that the viewpoint character has just identified Tompkins from his leg and torso-part.”

Dan Brown and LaHaye/Jenkins are among the bestselling writers of our era.  We are all doomed.

Here’s one from another bestseller, though not a novel:

Huang Lee has a simple mission: deliver an ancient sword to his Uncle Kenny.

the box to Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
quoted anonymously

This raises the question of how often Asian-Americans who themselves have Anglo names like “Kenny” decide to play up the ethnic heritage angle.  Like, if Matt and Lisa Sullivan of Somerville can stick their kid with something like Siobhan, do Tim and Amy Lee of Sunnyvale ever say, “Fuck it—​we’re going with ‘Huang’”?

A more obscure source now:

Org of Otterland was not Duke Og and Duchess Dina’s first child, for that honor belonged to Natalya, brown-haired, eyed, and furred.

Org’s Odyssey by Duke Otterland
quoted anonymously

Fanfic (or in this case a vanity-press novel) is kind of easy pickings, but nostalgia won out here, for this reminded me of the beginning of Stephen Ratliff’s “Time Speeder”: “Lyam Sympton was your average human from the outside.  You would have never guessed that those brown eyes and brown hair covered a obsessed man.”

And hey, suddenly I’m on to the last couple.  This one is one of the old-style repurposings:

No matter what you believe, whether you’re Christian, Muslim, or Jew, this is where it probably happened.

PBS plug for a show about Israel
quoted by Josh Wood

There’s a lot I could say about that one, but for right now I think I’ll just marvel at the placement of the word “probably”.  And here we have someone who may not have been 100% clear on word definitions:

The door, which had been left open a few inches, was ajar.

Ella Manley, quoting something she read somewhere

And that just about covers 2009.  Which means that next year is (ulp) the tenth go-round with this thing.  Yet another occasion upon which to ask, criminy, where the hell did that decade go?

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