Monday, July 11, 2016

Here There Be Purple Prose: Dickens Versus the Worst Writer Ever

When I took the test, I had no idea who Bulwer-Lytton was. I’d never heard of him before and couldn’t say when he lived or what he wrote. Charles Dickens, of course, I knew, but the extent of my knowledge came mostly from Wishbone and the fifteen times I did Oliver!

The quiz explained that Bulwer-Lytton is considered one of the world’s worst writers, and yet when this test was given to over 9,000 university students, it seemed people were only able to attribute correctly 50% of the quotes to each author.

I got a 42%.

Considering that it confirmed my own experience that “good” writing is more about trust and willingness to invest emotions than universal credentials of credibility, I genuinely attempted to take the quiz in the intended way, judging it by its perceived quality and voice rather than thinking about tests in the way I normally do. But that was hard. As much as I wanted to not meta-read, I kept finding myself thinking, “They chose this quote because it looks like bad writing, so it must be Dickens.”

As I checked back the answers, most of my test manipulation was correct—more so than my actual judgement. I figured things like the first question would automatically be Dickens, and they certainly wouldn’t have two Dickens in a row, and ended up second guessing myself, going against my “instinct” because I knew my instinct was pulling from my experience of fudging multiple answer tests from high school.

But the truth was I’ve never had an ear for quality of writing anyway. I did not have faith in what the academics told me was good, and many of my professors had been caught in lies over the years—giving us “masterpieces” they themselves were apathetic about, or gushing about something to look intelligent or unique. They were human, but as a teen, I couldn’t match up with the disconnect. To this day, I can’t take a look at an unfamiliar paragraph and tell you if it came from a reputable author. I don’t believe in quality like that anyway. I certainly could tell you how something made me react, I could say if I liked it, but if you handed me a manuscript and asked me to evaluate it based on the mechanics of speech, the over thinking would cause me to respond differently. None of it would sound natural, and I think that’s pretty common for most readers.

However, I can hear voice pretty well, or at least attitude and ideology. In real life, I don’t recognize people by their physical appearance, but can recall a personality from sixteen years ago the second they open their mouth. Despite not having actually read any of Dickens, some of the quotes I guessed correctly because I could tell which story they would belong to.

I had to wonder if I actually had familiarized myself with Charles Dickens’ work would I have been able to hear the difference? Whether I’d actually read the particular story or not? If I had understood more about Bulwer-Lytton, would I have been better able to speculate who was who?

There have been cases in which someone has misquoted (falsified even) a writer and I instantly recognized it as something the author would have never written or spoken, even if I hadn’t read the actual work itself. I’d learned enough about the artist that the wording or sentiments rang untrue.

In the case of Dickens versus Bulwer-Lytton, I was a prime candidate for the survey because I didn’t have enough wherewithal to supplement who the quote belonged to. I had to merely differentiate between what writing I thought was good and bad, and I did so with less success than a coin would.

I tried. I didn’t expect much. Had I been better read with either of them, perhaps I would have been more disappointed with my results.

After looking up Bulwer-Lytton, however, I realized that the claim of his terrible ability was more or less exaggerated. Or telling, depending on how you look at it.

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual writing award that goes to the person who can write the worst first line of a novel, attributes him to be the one to have coined the phrases “The pen is mightier than the sword,” “The great unwashed,” and “The almighty dollar.” He is also the man who wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

He writes with big words and long sentences, that’s agreed on. The full line from Paul Clifford goes, “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.”

You could easily make fun of him and his writing.

Yet the question becomes why are his winding and long sentences (at least this one) considered terrible while Dickens isn’t? How does a man who has coined several household phrases, appealing enough to be repeated 150 years after his death, get a reputation of being less?

When I was in college, my professors loved Absurdist theatre. I, for one, wasn’t so fond. And yet I knew that many of the works they gave me, after I forced myself to read them and listen to someone else passionately go on about the meaning, I could see their merit. I may not like Jean Genet, but I could argue why he was so successful compared to others. But if someone hadn’t told me he was great, hadn’t demanded that I re-evaluate my immediate impression of him, he would have been no different than my peer writing about Rubric’s Cubes representing the homeless.

How much does reputation—the opinions we hear about the author—affect his quality?

I also wonder if the quiz was changed to simply “Like” or “Dislike” what the results would be. How many would “like” Dickens while “disliking” Bulwer-Lytton?

But actually, the real point was this: I may know of Charles Dickens, but I don’t actually know Charles Dickens. There are many books I’ve been trying to catch up on, but I suppose these works need to be right up there.

So while I can’t say the results of this test surprise me, I’d like to, at very least, be able to pick Dicken’s voice out of a line-up if it so came to it.

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