March 26, 2010

Quarterfinals Recap
Semifinals Preview


Andrew Seal

After a really intelligent discussion about the “voodoo of reading” by John Warner and Kevin Guilfoile, I feel a little bit like this whole statistical analysis racket is in league with the “Cyberdyne netbots,” privileging faceless data over emotional resonance.

I do, in fact, welcome our algorithmic overlords, but I was trying to hide it.

One of the wonderful things about the Tournament of Books is that it allows you to peek over the shoulder of someone who’s reading a book that they, in many if not most cases, would not be reading otherwise. The Tournament proves both that we have reading comfort zones (which are, in fact, much more tightly constricted and constructed than we let on to ourselves), and that these comfort zones are really pretty arbitrary—taking a walk outside them ends up not that frightening at all, most of the time.

Whether that speaks to the inadequacy of our ways of defining, categorizing, and comparing books or to the inadequacy of our knowledge about ourselves I’ll leave to the philosophers, but it is certainly interesting.

The broad trends I’ve outlined over the Opening Round and Quarterfinals—longer books have an edge; more established authors have an edge; certain publishers have an edge, though not in every round—can all be explained ingeniously, and to a large degree convincingly, by arguments that have nothing to do with the idea of comfort zones or norms or any of the other things someone who has read too much Foucault might think. Maybe longer books, as one commenter argued, are better because publishers are less likely to publish longer books the quality of which is in doubt—or as the commenter put it, “that an editor ‘allowed’ a book to progress with a higher page count may indicate there being something special about it.”

Field NotesKeep your lists of books, quotes, and sketches in Field Notes Memo Books. Check our exclusive offer for ToB readers.

Similarly, veteran or established authors might be on average more successful because they’ve simply had more practice—your fifth or sixth “first thought” might in fact be your best thought, not your first “first thought.” And certain publishers might have better track records because they have the resources to find, acquire, and cultivate the best talent and the best manuscripts.

These are likely—and perhaps more satisfying—answers to why our choices about reading material tend to cluster around certain factors rather than disperse among many, but the skeptic in me keeps nudging to say that they don’t explain everything, including why enjoying a book you normally wouldn’t look twice at is such a bizarre and thrilling and rare experience. Such a book teaches us not just that we’re creatures of habit, but that we’re creatures of other people’s habits, and that there are further people beyond those whose tastes we share. Discovering a book in this fashion isn’t just a variety of self-discovery; it’s also a way of discovering that you could be part of a different community of readers, at least momentarily. If that’s not literary voodoo, I don’t know what is.

Now that I’ve besmirched the Tournament’s humanist credentials with my determinist cynicism, let’s look ahead to the Semifinals.

A lot of the variables I’ve been looking at throughout the Tournament are pretty straightforward. Men return to a distinct but not overwhelming advantage in head-to-head matchups with female authors (running at about a 57-percent winning percentage). No. 3 seeds rule the Semis with a perfect record—but only on three trips (and there aren’t any no. 3 seeds left this year anyway). Otherwise, seeding has mattered little, since half of Semifinal matchups have pitted either two no. 1 seeds against one another or two no. 2 seeds against each other. The only time a no. 4 seed made it to the Semifinals, it lost (Half of a Yellow Sun in 2007)—so Marlon James’s Cinderella contender, The Book of Night Women, might finally lose or break her slipper. On the other hand, that’s only one prior case; regardless, it will be interesting to see what party-hard judge Andrew W.K. will say about its matchup with Wolf Hall.

Another factor weighing against Book of Night Women is that other authors’ second novels have fared poorly in the Semifinals—just one has won in three tries. That one exception, however, was also a Riverhead-published book: 2008’s eventual champion, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Our three other remaining titles this year are all written by what I’ve been calling veteran authors—those who have published five or more books. Reversing the trend from the first two rounds, veterans’ novels have not fared well previously when faced with younger competition. Only one—2007’s eventual champion, The Road, which laid waste to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun—has won in the Semifinals in the past five Tournaments.

Career Position Winning Percentage Appearances
Author’s First Book 100.00% 1
Author’s Second Book 33.33% 3
Third or Fourth Book 100.00% 3
≥Fifth Book 38.46% 13

Veteran authors are, however, so common that there have actually been four matchups of one against another, a fact that actually unnaturally boosts this group’s winning percentage.

Random House and Farrar, Straus & Giroux are the only publishers that have sent more than two books to the Semifinals, but their fortunes are very different: Random House has won three of five of its matchups, while FSG has lost all of its three. Here is the full table of all publishers who have been represented in the Semifinals:

Publisher Trend Winning Percentage Appearances
Random House 60.00% 5
FSG 0.00% 3
Houghton Mifflin 50.00% 2
Back Bay 100.00% 2
Simon & Schuster 0.00% 1
Penguin 0.00% 1
Norton 0.00% 1
Nan A. Talese 0.00% 1
Harper 100.00% 1
Picador 100.00% 1
Knopf 100.00% 1
Riverhead 100.00% 1

Page count actually gets pretty interesting in the Semifinals: Not only do longer books see their grip on Tournament success definitively broken (shorter books have won 80 percent of all Semifinal matches), but we see a particular decline in the success of books over 500 pages. The shortest books also, surprisingly, have a perfect record.

Page Count Winning Percentage Appearances
<200 Pages 100.00% 1
>200, <300 Pages 100.00% 2
>300, <400 Pages 42.86% 7
>400, <500 Pages 75.00% 4
>500 Pages 16.67% 6
Longer Books 20.00% 10
Shorter Books 80.00% 10

This sudden turnaround is, I think, the strongest evidence for a so-called “gravitas gap”—particularly when we look at some of the giants that have fallen in the Semifinals:1 Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons—all of these books came into the Tournament enormously hyped or awarded, and that really does seem to be enough to get them past the first two rounds of competition. But I don’t think it’s a mistake or a coincidence that the doorstop/statement type of novel runs out of steam in the same round every year. Which is an interesting commentary on how awards and hype are bestowed in the U.S.

You’ll also notice all of the above-mentioned Biggest Losers are novels well in excess of 500 pages; just Against the Day is 1,120. This skews things quite a bit, but the following Semifinal numbers are still pretty interesting, with or without Pynchon’s tome:

Average Page
2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 Pynchon No Pynchon
Winners 289.5 369.5 336.5 272.5 460 345.6 345.6
Losers 895 468.5 777.5 312 499 590.4 531.5555556
Difference 605.5 99 441 39.5 39 244.8 185.9555556

As you can see, some years are pretty extreme; in others, there is very little difference between the length of the winners and the length of the losers. The page differences between this year’s matchups are 117 between The Book of Night Women and Wolf Hall and 158 between Let the Great World Spin and The Lacuna. Substantial, but none of the books is a lightweight, or, more appropriate for this Tournament, a bantamweight.

There are some interesting new trends for the Semifinals, but maybe this year will be very different. Cyberdyne netbots or literary voodoo, we’ll have to await the judges’ word.

1The one 500-plus page winner was 2005’s eventual champion Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Although it was a no. 1 seed that year, it also was not quite as lauded or as well known as some of its fellow behemoths.

Andrew Seal is a first-year grad student in American Studies, where he usually tries to stay away from numbers, taking shelter in the humanities. Now he knows why. He also blogs at Blographia Literaria.

blog comments powered by Disqus