Statistics against irritations: a response to Dickens’s apologists or If high readership is the test of good writing, then 50 Shades of Grey is a work of genius….

Author: Mikhail Simkin

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Charles Dickens, 1858
by Charles Baugniet
Image in the Public Domain

Recently I discussed  my article1 which reported the results of the test where the takers had to tell the prose of Charles Dickens from the prose of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The former is a required reading in school, and the latter has a bad writing contest named after him. Nevertheless, the test-takers performed on the level of random guessing. This research got some media attention.

While Mark Howarth’s article 2 in The Daily Mail is rational, the article 3 by Alison Flood in The Guardian is emotional. She even bills her talking points as “irritations:”

“My first irritation is with the assumption that Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in history. This is just ludicrous. Yes, there might be the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest…”

There might be? There is. I learned about Bulwer-Lytton through this contest. Is it just a peculiarity of my experience? Let us have a look at statistics.

I searched my local library catalogue for Bulwer-Lytton and got 31 results, the first three of which were the collections of “the best (?) from the Bulwer-Lytton Contest.” A similar search for Dickens produced 1,275 results, the first three of which were biographies. Even if we forget the contest and compare the bare numbers, we see that there are forty times more Dickens titles than Bulwer-Lytton titles in the library. This means that they are writers of distinctly different status. You would have to be a specialist in Victorian literature even to be able to name a single Bulwer-Lytton title. Almost everyone who has been through school could name at least five by Dickens. Given just that, are not the test results remarkable?

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Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873)
Image in the Public Domain

Another critic, Gina Dalfonzo from The Atlantic, wrote 4:

“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.”

If nobody argues that Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in the history of letters, why is the worst writer contest (inspired by 58 words that he wrote) named after him? Of course, the badness is in the eye of the beholder and there are other contenders for the title of the worst ever. However, even while denying that Bulwer-Lytton was the worst in the world, Dalfonzo herself calls him “mediocre.” Isn’t it revealing that people can’t tell Dickens from a mediocre writer?

Dalfonzo continues 4:

“The method of collecting data seems just as shaky ….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.”

During all those years on campus, I never saw a janitor at a computer. To make the objection plausible the spoilers should have been secretaries. They had caused trouble before. Richard Nixon’s secretary erased some tapes and the President had to resign his office. They must be the ones to blame for the scandalous results of the quiz as well. Let me give a word to a more diligent commenter, Taylor Malmsheimer from New York Daily News 5:

“Skeptical? We were too, so we asked an English major at Dartmouth, which is allegedly in the Ivy League, to take … [the] quiz…She correctly answered six out of the 12 questions…”

Now let us turn to the second irritation of Alison Flood 3:

“My second irritation is the assumption that the quality of an author can be judged on an extracted sentence.”

I used the passages consisting of several sentences: four, on average. Flood is either unable to count or used a hyperbole. If the latter is true, it is strange that she did not understand my hyperbole “the worst writer in the history of letters,” since she must be familiar with the device.

Dalfonzo has similar concerns 4:

“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.”

To learn the plot one has to read the whole novel. To describe a character one needs several pages. Obviously, I could not make the quiz that long, since nobody would take it. I made a short quiz, which compares prose styles: And it is the prose style that they ridicule Bulwer-Lytton for.

In her Times Literary Supplement article 6 about “Bulwer-Lytton, the great unreadable” Joan Sutherland writes:

“Why does he not even have a single title in the 700-strong catalogues of Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics? The absurdity of his prose style to modern ears would seem to be a main reason.”

I did check the catalogues and found twenty Dickens’s titles in Penguin Classics and fifteen in Oxford. The test results show that Dickens’s and Bulwer-Lytton’s prose styles are of the same quality. Therefore, Sutherland’s answer to her own question is unsatisfactory. Before giving my answer, I’ll quote Dalfonzo for the last time:

“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.”

Interestingly, if you look at the few paragraphs above you will read how Dalfonzo nominates 50 Shades of Grey for the title of the worst ever in place of Bulwer-Lytton’s literary work. However, the novel is on the top of The New York Times bestsellers list.

Remarkably, the large number of readers does not vouch for high prose quality in this case. Why should it do so in the case of Dickens?

How some elements of culture can become much more popular than others even when identical in merit I had explained in the third paragraph of the original article 1. The culprit is that people copy each other’s choices. The articles cited 1 develop appropriate mathematical models. The example that I used, the scientific citations, may be too difficult for literary critics. Here I’ll use a simpler one. In 2011, 20,153 newborn American babies were named 7 Jacob, while only 237 were named Samson. Thus, the name Jacob is 85 times more popular than the name Samson. Is it intrinsically better? If it is not, one should not be surprised that Dickens has 20 titles in Penguin Classics and Bulwer-Lytton has none at the time when a blind reading test finds no difference between the two.

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Mikhail Simkin

Quote:

I Googled "admit" and got, as the first entry, in big letters,

You should not use the word if you need to do internet search to understand what it means. One can admit only something of foreign origin. If the thing is of internal origin one can only emit it.

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Martin Gradwell

Quote:

Quote:

You then admit that your use of the phrase "the worst writer in the history of letters" in connection with Bulwer-Lytton was hyperbole...

I admit? For this to be the case, someone had to accuse me of that.

I Googled "admit" and got, as the first entry, in big letters,

Verb
  1. Confess to be true or to be the case, typically with reluctance.
  2. Confess to (a crime or fault, or one's responsibility for it).

Neither of these definitions requires that the one performing the admission should first be accused of whatever is being admitted. Instead a person might admit to a lesser crime, one with which he has not been charged, in order to be absolved of a greater crime. Thus in this case you admit to hyperbole in order to escape the greater charge that you actually believe (or assume)  Bulwer-Lytton to be the worst writer in history.

PS if you or the editors were wondering why I included the URL of this article in my previous reply - my browser crashed the first time I attempted to reply, so I fetched a backup copy that I had made, and failed to notice that the backup was preceded by a copy of the URL for my own reference.

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Mikhail Simkin

Quote:


You then admit that your use of the phrase "the worst writer in the history of letters" in connection with Bulwer-Lytton was hyperbole. In other words, he probably ISN'T the worst writer in the history of letters. You agree on that. Great! So what is the point on which you and your critics disagree?

I admit? For this to be the case, someone had to accuse me of that. However, the criticesse took the phrase literary.

The other arguments given by the worst thinker in history of logic are equally flimsy.

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Martin Gradwell

http://www.significancemagazine.org/details/webexclusive/4728361/Statistics-against-irritations-a-response-to-Dickenss-apologists-or-If-high-read.html

"Yes, there might be the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest… 

There might be? There is."

Yes, but what has that to do with the assumption that Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in history, which I seem to recall was the main point of contention in that paragraph?

You go on to touch on the relative popularity of the two writers. It is an interesting comparison, but again, what has this to do with the objective quality of their writing?

You then admit that your use of the phrase "the worst writer in the history of letters" in connection with Bulwer-Lytton was hyperbole. In other words, he probably ISN'T the worst writer in the history of letters. You agree on that. Great! So what is the point on which you and your critics disagree?

You probably agree, I hope, that Fifty Shades IS a contender for the title. And Dalfonzo's citing of Fifty Shades and Twilight as examples of bad writing shows that she presumably agrees with you that popularity is NOT a reliable indicator of quality (even if she does go on to undermine herself on that point).

So where IS the point of contention? Why, and on what, do you actually disagree? I think the problem is that you consistently argue against your own points. You say, repeatedly, things like e.g. at the end of your essay on Faulkner, "they had to tell Charles Dickens from the worst writer in history of letters". You call it hyperbole, but you put it in places where a paucity of context makes interpretation of your true meaning and motive next to impossible. You don't really think that Bulwer-Lytton is the worst. You therefore don't think that Dickens is on a par with the worst. But that's the impression you project, and people feel compelled to respond.

You raise rhetorical questions such as "If nobody argues that Bulwer-Lytton is the worst writer in the history of letters, why is the worst writer contest .. named after him?" But you know the answer. You know that it's because people (including the organizers of the contest) get their cultural information from a cartoon beagle. I think that's even the main point you are trying to make, but you hardly ever make it. Instead, you make your critics' points for them, and they make yours for you. (The closest you come to making your own point here is when you say that "people copy each other's choices", but that is only half the story. A fuller analysis would explore why choice-copiers exhibit a preference for cartoon beagles). 

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