“Great prose or not”

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, the statement, backed by facts, “famous writers have more readers.”

It has been a while since I crunched some numbers. The idea came this time from an article written by Mikhail Simkin in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics. Using the results of a blind test where readers were presented with anonymous excerpts from the novels of Charles Dickens and Edwin Bulwer-Lytton, Simkin showed that:

  • the results were on the level of random guessing – that is up against a giant panda using a specially adapted panda-friendly keyboard, you would in all likelihood lose.

He then argued that:

  • famous writers are different from their obscure colleagues because they have more readers – the corollary being that the quality of writing does not differentiate between them.

As you can imagine this kicked up a bit of a stooshie, which Simkin summarised in another article in the journal of the American Statistical Society, Significance.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

Simkin then went on to develop his argument using data from the Goodreads website. Looking at the top ratings given by readers to the works of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton, he argued that given the proximity of average top ratings for both writers, once again, what differentiated them was solely the number of readers. All of which got to me  to thinking, what would a similar study show when looking at arch-cultural-rivals Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf. Funnily enough, it would look like this:

Watch those numbers stack up.

Which, when turned into a handy bar chart, looks like this:

The mighty bar chart


The results are very much in line with those that arose from the study carried out by Simkin, namely that:

  • the difference between the number of ratings for the two writers is noticeable: 2,725 – 91,010 for Virginia Woolf and 41 – 1,788 for Arnold Bennett;
  • the average listed rating is very close for both writers: 3.76 for Virginia Woolf and 3.77 for Arnold Bennett;
  •  Virginia Woolf’s advantage as regards 5 star ratings is small: Virginia Woolf’s average being 26.9% and Arnold Bennett’s being 23.8%,

and of course:

  • “…famous writers just have more readers.”

Objections to all of the above are, like the demons of the man from Gadara, legion. Not the least being, I did not carry out a blind test to distinguish extracts from the works of the two writers. But if nothing else, it has made me consider with a little more depth the validity of any notion of an accepted literary canon. I now have it in mind to repeat the same experiment with Joseph Conrad and H.G.Wells.

Coming up next, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

If you were wondering, I scored 8 out of 12 on the test. 

Note: I made corrections 23rd May 2014 to the title of the chart, Virginia Woolf’s average and range of ratings for Arnold Bennett following suggestions made by Mikhail Simkin.


Leave a comment


  1. How did I miss this?! But I did. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, and for applying it to Woolf and Bennett.

  2. As always, I begin something with my tongue in my cheek and then end up thinking “That’s interesting.” I think, above all, I like the simplicity of the analysis and using data that comes from such an easily accessible source. Now, how can we get it out to the Woolf scholars…?


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