How to Tell Charles Dickens's Prose From Every Other Dead White Guy's

A statistician's claims that readers can't distinguish Dickens from Edward Bulwer-Lytton is likely overblown—and reflects a wider misunderstanding of literature.
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Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Statistician Mikhail Simkin has made a great discovery. In a much-publicized paper titled "Scientific evaluation of Charles Dickens," published in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, he argues there's no real difference between Charles Dickens, widely considered one of the greatest English-language writers, and his lesser contemporary Edward Bulwer-Lytton, most famous for writing the sentence "It was a dark and stormy night."

Simkin bases his assertion on a quiz he created and posted online. He describes the test and its results as follows:

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in [the] history of letters. An annual wretched writing contest was established in his honor. In contrast, Charles Dickens is one of the best writers ever. Can one tell the difference between their prose? To check this I wrote the "Great prose or not?" quiz. It consists of a dozen of [sic] representative literary passages, written either by Bulwer-Lytton or by Dickens. The takers are to choose the author of each quote. ... The average score is 5.78 or 48.2% correct.

Because of the low accuracy of these results ("our quiz-takers lost to a monkey" is how Simkin puts it), our statistician concludes that the works of "the worst writer" and "one of the best writers" are substantially the same.

The paper is somewhat cheekily written, and we can offer Simkin the benefit of the doubt and assume he underwent this project merely as a thought experiment (though he appears to be making a career out of this sort of thing: In a previous paper, he "proved" there was no difference between Mozart and Salieri). Even so, given the attention it has received in the British press, the paper needs a serious debunking—and, more importantly, so does its underlying, apparently widespread assumption about the literary canon.

First, hardly anyone argues that Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the worst writer of all time. That someone could even think of making that contention in the age of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey boggles the mind. Mediocre he may have been, but a joke contest inspired by seven words that he wrote cannot stand as the sole proof that he was the most awful author ever.

The method of collecting data seems just as shaky. For instance, here's how he backs up his claim that "even educated people can't tell Dickens from Bulwer":

We can address the education issue in a scientific way. Fortunately, the quizzing script records taker's [sic] IP address. From it, one can infer where their computers were located. I selected a subset of scores, which were received by people coming from English-speaking ... universities. ... The average score is 5.76 or 48.0% correct.

So we know we have an educated subset because of their location, even though we have no idea whether the person sitting at any given computer was a professor, a student, or a janitor.

But does the quiz itself have any merit? It's still available online. It's worth noting that only descriptive passages are used; there's virtually nothing involving plot or characterization, even though, as Simkin admits in his paper, these tend to be essential to novels.

This omission puts Dickens, known for strong and unique characterization, at a distinct disadvantage. If any passages had involved the brutal Wackford Squeers, or the grandiloquent Wilkins Micawber, or the grotesque Miss Havisham, quiz-takers just might have done better. Dickens's characters are very hard to mistake for anyone else's characters.

Nonetheless, I took the quiz, and scored 92 percent. Here's how:

Dickens personified things. He ascribed human, or human-like, characteristics to all sorts of objects and conditions. That's why this sentence is the easiest one on the quiz: "I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. " That's so Dickensian, he might as well have autographed it.

Dickens loved repetition. Here's another passage from the quiz: "It was wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; and mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets." This reminded me of the opening of Bleak House, where the word fog is used 13 times in one paragraph; of "Blind, blind, blind!" in David Copperfield; of "Sadly, sadly, the sun rose" in A Tale of Two Cities. Repetition was one of Dickens's favorite ways to emphasize an idea.

Dickens was not an abstract thinker. Here's a third passage: "And every creature that flows upon the tide of the Universal Life of Things, feels upon the ruffled surface, the mighty and solemn change, which is at work within its depths." It would have been highly out of character for Dickens to bloviate about the Universal Life of Things; he thought and wrote in much more concrete terms. That's Bulwer-Lytton all the way.

There were other indicators as well, like this: "There were those signs in the atmosphere which leave the most experienced in doubt, whether the morning may rise in storm or sunshine. . . . The skiey influences seem to tincture the animal life with their own mysterious and wayward spirit of change." Skiey? Dickens may have enjoyed experimenting with words, but he'd have amputated his own hand before he'd have written skiey.

Many seem to have lost the belief that creators of our literary canon had individual styles, worldviews, and strengths. To a reader who has never learned, or never attempted, to distinguish between them, one wall of words looks very much like any other wall of words.

Simkin might point out that I had an advantage because Dickens is my favorite novelist, and I know his books pretty well. But I don't actually have them memorized (remember, I got one answer wrong). It's just a question of knowing what to look for. And this kind of reading comprehension—or literary detective work, to give it a more enticing name—isn't just the province of a few literature buffs. It can be taught to any student who's willing and able to learn it. The question is, are educators still teaching it?

Many of us seem to have lost the belief that the dead white males who created much of our literary canon had individual styles, worldviews, and strengths. To a reader who has never learned, or never attempted, to distinguish between them, one wall of words looks very much like any other wall of words.

But we've reached a new low if we're blaming this increasingly widespread tendency on the writers themselves, rather than on our own cultural illiteracy. Simkin finishes, snarkily: "I began this paper with the question: Are the famous writers different from their obscure colleagues? The answer is: Yes, they have more readers." If an academic can publish that with a straight face, and not grasp that he's just fatally undercut his own argument—why would Dickens have so many more readers if there's no difference between the two?—then perhaps the Victorians weren't the ones who didn't know how to write.

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