Can you tell Charles Dickens's writing from that of Edward Bulwer-Lytton? Take the quiz and find out! I scored 92 percent, which means I got one answer wrong. I won't tell you (yet) which one, but I will say that I hesitated over it for a very long time, and of course am now kicking myself over it.
Mikhail Simkin of UCLA, who came up with the quiz, has published a paper about the results. And he discusses them at the previously linked quiz page. While I find his experiment very interesting, I disagree with some of his premises, as well as his conclusion.
For instance, I can think of very few informed readers who seriously argue that Edward Bulwer-Lytton is "the worst writer in [the] history of letters." Mediocre, perhaps, but the worst? How anyone could make that claim with a straight face in the age of 50 Shades of Grey boggles the mind. The fact that his most famous opening sentence inspired a "wretched-writing contest" is amusing, but that in itself is no reason to call him the worst.
Also -- as Simkin himself acknowledges -- he deliberately chose passages that sounded alike, and that had very little to do with character or plot. Does anyone seriously think that it would be difficult to tell a Dickens character from a Bulwer-Lytton character? And that type of writing has more to do with general writing style than Simkin admits.
The fact that the majority of his quiz-takers couldn't tell Dickens from Bulwer-Lytton is hardly reason to "conclude that the quality of Dickens’ prose is about the same as of that of Bulwer-Lytton." Rather, I would argue, it says something about the modern reader and the quality of his or her education.
Personally, I may have spent the past few years blogging about Dickens, but I don't have all or even most of his work memorized. But I had an idea of the kinds of things to look for, even in the descriptive passages that are far from truly representative of Dickens. And that doesn't mean I'm super-smart, it just means that I had the blessing of good literature teachers.
So in short, Professor Simkin, if I may be so bold -- don't put all the blame on Dickens. Take a good hard look at how we teach reading comprehension, instead, and then maybe use your platform to suggest that we start doing a better job of it.
As for our Dickensblog readers -- go take the quiz and then tell us how you did!