A picture shows the stone on the grave of British author Charles Dickens at Westminster Abbey in London on February 7, 2012 with a program detailing a ceremony to mark the bicentenary of Dickens' birth.

One is a giant of English literature, the other ridiculed as a byword for clunky, artless fiction. But can anyone tell the difference?

A study found that people aren’t sure whether they’re reading a Charles Dickens masterpiece or one of the works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, billed as “the worst writer in history”.

More than 9 000 people were given a dozen passages from the novels of the two Victorian authors. They were asked to guess which of the extracts were written by Dickens, and which by his derided contemporary.

The average respondent got only 48 percent of answers correct, meaning they would have done better by simply tossing a coin. Even volunteers from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale only had an average success rate of 50 percent.

Academic Mikhail Simkin, from the University of California, said: “Edward Bulwer-Lytton has an annual wretched writing contest established in his honour.

“In contrast, Charles Dickens is one of the best writers ever. But people can’t appreciate the prose of a famous writer when his name is detached.”

Dickens’s works are regarded as some of the best books written in the English language.

Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton are buried within yards of each other at Westminster Abbey. - Daily Mail