As a childhood fan of the Peanuts comic strip, I enjoyed the running gag of Snoopy always beginning his novels with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” It was only much later that I learned that this was a actual opening sentence of an 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:
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.
This overwrought style of writing with run-on sentences is considered so bad that it has become famous and is now the source of the annual Bulwer-Lytton prize, awarded each year by San Jose State University to the writer who can come up with the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. The 2009 prize was won by David McKenzie whose entry was:
Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket Sound from the nor’ east and the dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May,” a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.
It struck me that what we need is a Friedman Prize in honor of Tom Friedman, the world’s worst pundit. What makes him so bad? Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally exposes not only the vapidity of his thinking but also the shallowness of his research.
This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.
Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.'” And off he goes. You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don’t notice that tri-planes don’t have headlights.
Kevin Carey highlights one feature of the Friedman style, as seen above and identified by him in the beginning of a recent Friedman column:
I was at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, a few weeks ago and interviewed Craig Barrett, the former chairman of Intel, about how America should get out of its current economic crisis. His first proposal was this: Any American kid who wants to get a driver’s license has to finish high school. No diploma — no license. Hey, why would we want to put a kid who can barely add, read or write behind the wheel of a car?
As Carey says, “Friedman may not have invented the place-drop/name-drop/facile idea three-step, but he’s certainly perfected it.” So that is one Friedman quality to be emulated by any prize-winning entrant.
Another is the laughably mangled image, as illustrated by Taibbi:
Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.
Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:
“The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”
First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f— is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense?
As Taibbi says in another article, these Friedmanisms are a feature of his writing, not aberrations:
This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It’s not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It’s that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it’s absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that’s guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.
So there we have the guidelines for submissions for the Friedman prize. The entrant has to imagine that he or she is like this self-important pundit and write an opening paragraph for an op-ed on any topic.
Now if only we can get some organization to sponsor the contest and award the prize.
POST SCRIPT: Alternative medicine
That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on homeopathy and all the other forms of alternative medicine.