While thousands of aspiring authors slave over hot laptops trying to write the great American novel or short story, it’s a whole different breed that attempts bad fiction. Consider the entrants in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest staged by San Jose State University, who strive to invent the worst possible first sentence to a terrible novel. The contest is named for the man who wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night,” Snoopy’s favorite opening line.
A Faux Faulkner contest attracts writers with the soul of the South in their fingertips. But for more than 20 years, the most fearless of writers manque have fashioned themselves as the reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway, and composed short, declarative sentences designed to win the International Imitation Hemingway Competition.
The Los Angeles home of Hemingway parodies, Harry’s Bar & American Grill in Century City, closed last month and will soon be slammed by the wrecking ball poised over the ABC Entertainment Center. Will Papa’s dedicated followers have to abandon their literary pretensions and take up bullfighting?
Nope. The competition that has been held since 1977 at the L.A. replica of Harry’s Bar in Florence, Italy, will continue, but with the restaurant gone, it will be a contest without a home and without part of its tradition.
The contest’s loyal supporters lament that it just won’t be the same without Judgment Night, the evening when a hearty band of hard-drinking, no-frills prose buffs gathered in Century City to choose the literary pretender who would be rewarded with two round-trip tickets to Italy and a free dinner at Harry’s Bar in Florence.
“Harry’s Bar was the perfect place for the contest,” says Bernice Kert, who wrote “The Hemingway Women” (W.W. Norton, 1985) and became the first female judge in 1986. “The judges would rendezvous once a year, read the finalists, argue and laugh a lot. It will be hard to retain the flavor of those evenings somewhere else.”
The contest, which drew up to 25,000 entries in the most fecund years of its first quarter century, launched some very silly parodies, several heroic hangovers and even a book--"The Best of Bad Hemingway: Choice Entries From the Harry’s Bar & American Grill Imitation Hemingway Competition” (Harcourt, 1989).
The idea for the competition came from Paul Keye, an advertising executive who Harry’s Bar owners Jerry Magnin and Larry Mindel engaged to raise the restaurant’s profile. From the time the restaurant opened in 1972, “our customer base was people who worked in Century City and who went to the Shubert Theater,” Magnin recalls. “We wanted to reach out to a wider audience, to let people know we were the sister restaurant of the Harry’s in Florence. Paul pointed out that Harry’s Bar was so associated with Ernest Hemingway and his writing that we should start a competition.”
A single page ad in the New Yorker read: “One very good page of very bad Hemingway will send you and a friend to Italy for dinner.” The contest announcements were the only advertising Harry’s Bar ever ran. Entries had to be a maximum of 500 words, be written in the spare, rhythmic sentences that characterized the bearded writer’s work, be funny and mention Harry’s Bar. Favorably.
Parodies were sent from every state. In the early years, according to Kert, most entrants were knowledgeable Hemingway fans. “They had his style down and were good at satirizing it,” she says. Some of that has fallen off, she says, though the winning entries are still solid.
The core group of judges included Digby Diehl, book editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1969 to 1978, writers Ray Bradbury and Barnaby Conrad and Times columnist Jack Smith. Dean Faulkner Wells, publisher of the Yoknapatawpha Press and a niece of William Faulkner became the second female judge, and, after Smith’s death in 1996, biographer A. Scott Berg signed on. Guest judges, who served short stints, included Hemingway’s son, Jack, and his granddaughter Mariel, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, columnist Herb Caen and writers George Plimpton and Joseph Wambaugh.
Judgment Night was a bacchanal, but a little serious business was accomplished: The judges chose from a group of finalists selected by university literature professors who screened every entry. “One of the first years, there were four television cameras focused on six men sitting at a table, reading and getting drunk,” Diehl says. “Even in the slower years, we’d get 2,500 or 3,000 entries. For a long time, I’d run into people from all walks of life who would tell me that they entered the contest over and over.”
No names ever appeared on the finalists’ work, so the judges had no way of knowing who authored “The Dow Also Rises,” “A Clean, Well-Sighted Ace” or “The Toes of Kilimanjaro.”
Despite Hemingway’s status as an icon of machismo, several women mimicked him well enough to win. In May, Kathryn Bold, an Orange County writer and editor, was awarded the prize for “The Old Man and the Flea,” the tale of a dog.
“It was at times like this that he feared life had no meaning,” she wrote. “What was life anyway, but lying around on one’s blankie, waiting for the next bowl of kibble. Life was nothing. Nada. Nada y nada y pues nada. Woof nada. Then she came along and gave him a treat and for a brief time life was good. Then he puked the treat on the rug and life was bad again.”
For contestants who entered repeatedly, life was bad during the latter half of the ‘80s, when ownership of Harry’s changed twice and the competition was suspended for three years. Diehl, active with PEN Center USA West, persuaded the writer’s organization to adopt the contest. When it resumed in 1992, Judgment Night was again held at the restaurant, the proceeds from ticket sales went to PEN, and American Airlines became a co-sponsor. But American and PEN stepped aside in 1999, then the restaurant closed. The contest seemed doomed.
But Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, which had become a co-sponsor in 2000, said it will continue the annual competition. Each year’s triumphant entry will be published in Hemisphere’s July issue, along with the winner of the annual Faux Faulkner prize.
Hemispheres editor Randy Johnson says United Airlines and the magazine are committed to encouraging bad Hemingway imitators. “I feel confident that we’ll have a place for Judgment Night by next year,” he says. “If not in L.A., then perhaps in Key West.”
Key West, Fla., as any Hemingway aficionado knows, was as legendary a Hemingway haunt as Paris, Havana, Africa or Idaho. The Harry’s Bar Hemingway actually frequented was in Venice, not Florence, according to Hemingway biographer A.E. Hotchner, author of “Papa Hemingway” (Random House, 1966). “It was a little bar on the Grand Canal,” he says. “Hemingway had his own table there, but he mostly liked to hang out at the bar. He frequented it in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Some people think that Hemingway put up the money for the bar, but the money came from a man named Harry. When Harry’s opened, Ernest was struggling, so it’s doubtful he could have lent anyone money.
“I first went there with him in 1948. By then, it had become the hub of cafe life in Venice. ‘Across the River and Into the Trees’ is set in Venice, and the characters in it go to Harry’s Bar.”
What would Hemingway have thought of prizes being awarded to the funniest parodies of his writing? His friend Hotchner says, “He probably would have gone to all the contests and shot everybody on sight.”