February 18, 2014

Do book awards bring out our inner hipsters?


(Via Shutterstock)

(Via Shutterstock)

There’s been much discussion of literary snobbery in the wake of Eleanor Catton’s essay for New Zealand’s Metro magazine, in which she peruses reviews of literary classics on Goodreads and Amazon and critiques the givers of 1-star reviews for their lack of readerly generosity.

Catton’s argument is that these ratings are the product of the consumerization of literature, in which ratings systems like Goodreads and Amazon encourage readers to view books as products with a responsibility to provide the reader with effortless pleasure.

In this vein of thought, books with a stronger reputation are judged more harshly because their literary barriers of entry are instead viewed by consumers as failings of their purpose as products—or as Catton puts it,

“The idea that a work of literature might require something of its reader in order to be able to provide something to its reader is equivalent, in a consumer context, to the idea that a cut-price mobile phone might require a very expensive charger in order for it to function.”

The notion that a book’s reputation might actually harm its reception in the consumer rating system was confirmed in a recent study by Amanda Sharkey of the University of Chicago and her colleague Balazs Kovacs of the University of Lugano, which found that winning awards opens up books’ reputations to a world of torment and pain.

They found this by selecting 32 pairs of books. Each pair consisted of one award-winning book (for example, the National Book Award) and one book that was nominated but did not win. They then created models of reader ratings based on how readers on Goodreads had rated books in similar categories, and compared those models to how the books were rated before and after the announcements of the awards. They found that, on average, winning an award carved 0.17 points off a book’s 5-point rating.

So what’s the deal? Is it, as hilariously hypothesized in the paper’s introduction, that “the increase in audience size may also have a direct negative effect on evaluations for consumers who devalue popular items” — AKA, “we are all hipsters”?

As much as we love to blame hipsters for everything, the answer this time is unfortunately not. The results instead favor the explanation that, as a book’s popularity grows, it begins to reach a wider audience of readers whose reasoning for picking it up are less based in personal connections to the text, and more in things like wanting to read what everyone else is reading—so really it’s the anti-hipsters’ fault.


Amy Conchie is assistant to the publisher at Melville House.