March 25, 2011

Quarterfinals Recap
Semifinals Preview


Andrew Seal, Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Andrew: Now that we have two rounds in the books, let’s take a look at what is left:

  • All the remaining books are longer than 270 pages; the average page count is 358.75, although that is entirely Freedom’s fault (562 pages). The others are much more modest—273, 292, 308.
  • There are two men and two women.
  • None of the four books is a debut work, or a second, or even a third book. Jennifer Egan, James Hynes, and Jonathan Franzen are all on their fourth novel.1 Aimee Bender is up to her second novel, but fourth work of fiction. Can you guess what the magic number apparently is?
  • Actually, that’s fudging a bit—Egan and Hynes have also published short-story collections, Bender has done a children’s book, and Franzen has published a memoir and a collection of essays, as well as a translation of a play. But I think the point is that there’s a collective preference for experience, but maybe not “wisdom.” Hynes is the oldest and Bender the youngest of the bunch—born in 1955 and 1969, respectively—and their average age is just under 49 years.2
  • All four books were no. 1 or no. 2 seeds—the third time this has happened (2008, 2005). Had Room suppressed Freedom, it would have been a clean sweep for the no. 2 seeds.

Kevin: It is interesting, if not surprising, how debut novelists have been losing to more established authors. I focus on that only because I think it’s kind of a truism in publishing that debut novelists get a disproportionate share of media hype. This makes some sense—when you write your first novel you can be the next Nabokov or Stephen King or Amis or whatever, but when you publish your second novel you’re only the current you, which is a considerably less appealing pitch to the nation’s features editors. None of the four authors is under the age of 40, either.

John: But one advantage debut novels may have (outside the hype factor) is that often they’re the product of many, many years of work, often involving the writing and discarding of failed projects until the breakthrough reaches full realization. My novel took about eight years (though I wasn’t working on it consistently). I know Cast of Shadows was a long time in coming for you, and that maybe there’s a full manuscript in a drawer somewhere that won’t be seeing the light of day until some library acquires your papers in an estate sale.

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As much as marketers might love to hype debut novels once they’re in the marketplace, I think we can agree that an unpublished author managing to hurl a manuscript over the transom signals some exciting quality for the debut. (At least that’s what I’m telling myself.) I think it’s the proverbial sophomore slump to be wary of. The second book often is written in a tighter window when the writer has not yet acquired the full seasoning of experience, and sometimes this strain probably shows.

Experience and time really do seem to be the factors at work here for our semifinalists. There is minimum of four years between books, with Franzen’s last full-length fiction having appeared 10 years ago.

All of them are well established as writers as well, Egan and Franzen to the point where they likely have very little to worry about income-wise between books. They are artists who have the time and space to dedicate to their craft. They also have enough books behind them to know a little bit more about this stuff than they probably did at the beginning. It’s not surprising that they’re writing excellent books.

Andrew: Speaking of that Room versus Freedom matchup, it was, by my calculations, a contest between the most hyped and the second most hyped books in the tournament. That’s probably no surprise, but what might be is that Room actually took the top honor.

How did I come up with that? The fact that it rather strongly contradicts expectations might undermine the following method, but perhaps I can make a case for my formula. I tried to balance elite critical opinion—which I gauged by major awards and reviews in major papers—and popular enthusiasm—assessed from Google results and Amazon and Goodreads reviews. I awarded points based on achievement in each category. Here’s the breakdown.

A major award3 is worth 10 points; a shortlisting is worth seven.

  • A review in the weekend New York Times Book Review is worth five points. A review in the daily New York Times or any review in the Los Angeles Times are each worth three points.
  • The total number of Google results for the exact search of the book’s name AND the author’s name (e.g., “So Much for That” “Lionel Shriver”) using the Google filter “Past Year” was divided by 25,000 to yield a number that made some sense relative to the point totals for reviews and awards.4 Freedom, which totaled 542,000 results, thus got 21.68 points, which certainly dwarfs the 10 points for a major award, but a lot of people were talking about it. On the other hand, Model Home, by Eric Puchner, had 11,300 results, and received just 0.52 points.
  • The total number of Amazon reviews5 was divided by 50 for similar reasons: This time the point totals ranged from 15.82 (again for Freedom) to 0.2 for Anne Carson’s Nox.
  • Since I believe Amazon reviews are a better crude indicator of name recognition than actual reader response, I used Goodreads to refine a better measure of the reception of these books.6 I took the total number of positive reviews (four or five stars), subtracted the number of negative reviews (one or two stars), then divided the difference by 500. This is where Room racked up the points—23.95 to Freedom’s 13.12. (Notably, The Finkler Question had a negative score—it actually has more negative than positive reviews.)

Here are the results, rank-ordered:

Rank Title Author Hype Quotient
1 Room Donoghue, Emma 73.27
2 Freedom Franzen, Jonathan 68.62
3 A Visit From the Goon Squad Egan, Jennifer 25.04
4 The Finkler Question Jacobson, Howard 21.99
5 Skippy Dies Murray, Paul 21.87
6 So Much for That Shriver, Lionel 20.28
7 Super Sad True Love Story Shteyngart, Gary 19.71
8 Lord of Misrule Gordon, Jaimy 18.7
9 Next Hynes, James 12.9
10 The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake Bender, Aimee 10.8
11 Savages Winslow, Don 8.18
12 Bloodroot Greene, Amy 7.73
13 Model Home Puchner, Eric 6.49
14 Nox Carson, Anne 6.28
15 Bad Marie Dermansky, Marcy 4.2
16 Kapitoil Wayne, Teddy 0.95

At the end of the first Bracketology column, I posed a string of questions about “hype” and its effect on the Tournament:

[Can] we even begin to quantify hype in the Tournament of Books? And if we can, can we do so in a helpful way? That is, if we make a reasonable stab at quantifying the “Hype Quotient” of this year’s books, does it have any correlation with the opening round’s results? Is there a preference for underdogs, or a submission to the juggernauts? Is there a level at which too high a hype becomes perilous for a book, leading to backlash?

Well, I suppose I’ll let you all be the judge of whether I’ve devised a reasonable method for quantifying hype, but taking the results as they are, is there some correlation with the tournament’s outcome so far? Well, by this ordering there have been four upsets (a lower-ranked book beating a higher-ranked one) through two rounds, or a third of the matchups, whereas if we were going purely by seed, there have been just three. (This year’s N.C.A.A. tournament, for comparison, has had 13 upsets out of 48 total—non-play-in—games, or 27 percent.) So this formula may be quite imperfect, but in the ballpark, I think.

The list breaks down fairly clearly (this was unorchestrated, I assure you) into four tiers—Room and Freedom in a class by themselves, then a cluster from no. 3 (Egan) through no. 8 (Gordon), a third tier from no. 9 (Hynes) to no. 14 (Carson), and then the stragglers, Dermansky and Wayne. (It should be obvious from the very low score of Kapitoil that this Hype Quotient really isn’t a good indicator of quality, and certainly isn’t meant to be.)

What’s interesting, after we take a look at this stratification, is that the “underachievers,” so to speak, are the books at the tail end of the second tier—Super Sad True Love Story, Lord of Misrule, and So Much for That. Again, this isn’t a judgment of their actual quality, but it does suggest that upsets don’t occur (or rarely occur) to the most hyped books, but rather to the books that have gotten some hype but not enough. They’ve got a target on their back, but that target is low enough to invite a few potshots, and to take some hits.

Kevin: That’s a fascinating methodology, and the results do seem to point toward a trend. I wonder about the “popular reception” score as a measure of hype, however. Certainly some of the most hyped books of all time have received polarizing reviews, especially on the citizen reviewer sites. Amateur critics have been a lot less kind to Freedom than the professional ones, for whatever that’s worth.

It has been interesting to watch the expanding culture of amateur opinion-making as the internet continues to grow. On sites like Amazon and Goodreads, reviewers are competing with one another for attention and “helpful” points and so on, and you wonder if the positive reviews aren’t biased a little more toward being raves and the negative reviews don’t tilt a little more toward being outright pans. Reviewers compete on the basis of the quantity of reviews as well. One of my books received a negative Amazon review before it was even published. Reading it I wondered why the person had bothered to read the book at all, given that he was obviously predisposed not to like it, and also whether he had read the book, given that his grasp of the story was a little limp. I clicked through to his other reviews and saw that in a single day he had reviewed my book, Dove Body Wash, and a stapler. And he didn’t like any of them.

I think it’s great that so many opinions are so easily accessible. And I think the quantity of reviews a book receives is probably related to hype. I’m not sure what we can measure in the aggregate by the quality of those reviews, however. They each have to be considered individually for their credibility.

John: I’m impressed with these metrics as well. Even though they tend to tell us things we already know, to see them quantified is illustrative. I think that Room being more hyped than Freedom discounts the cover-of-Time-magazine factor, which I’m going to arbitrarily say increases a book’s hype by 79 points. On the other hand, that kind of hype probably winds up dragging down a book’s score when it comes to popular reception, since that level of attention likely sets a book up for plenty of one-star disappointment. Maybe what matters in terms of hype isn’t the ratio of positive to negative reviews so much as the sheer volume of reviews. The more attention a book gets, the more attention the book gets, even if some of it is negative.

Isn’t that still hype?

Also, I think we don’t yet know what kind of impact the non-traditional book outlets might have on hyping a book. Outlets like The Millions, or Bookslut, or quarterfinal judge John Williams’s The Second Pass, and any number of established book-centric sites can do a lot for a book’s level of hype. I think you’d find more attention for Kapitoil and Bad Marie and Nox in these places, maybe even enough to bring some books into a higher hype tier.

Kevin: Most people still have to remember they want to read a book from the time they hear about it and make that decision until the time they happen to be in a bookstore, which is one of the reasons we have such an outrageous number of sales going to just a handful of authors. For instance, in the first quarter of 2009, one out of every seven books purchased in this country was written by Stephenie Meyer. I’m sure Stieg Larsson had similar results in 2010. People can only hold so many names in their head and blockbusters happen when hype reaches critical mass and a handful of authors are culturally top of mind.

It will be interesting to see if the continued proliferation of e-books will flatten that curve out in any small way. Obviously I can read about a book on The Millions or The Second Pass and click through to buy it at Powell’s, but with an e-reader I can make an impulse buy in a wine bar when you won’t shut up about this great debut novel you just read.

John: I do think that digital distribution technology is reducing the amount of hype necessary to reach some readers. For me, having a Kindle often puts books on my radar through only one mention since I can immediately send a sample to the device, where it’s waiting for me the next time I need a book. At any given time I have close to 20 samples there, my own personal bookstore. Almost never do I find myself “browsing” the Kindle Store itself because it just isn’t necessary.

But critical mass for a breakthrough of the Dragon Tattoo or Twilight type is still a function of lots of attention from many different corners. We can see it presently in the case of independent writer Amanda Hocking, who was apparently doing just fine and dandy selling her self-published books, primarily through Kindles, but is now looking at a possible seven-figure payday from a traditional print publisher. Without that critical mass of hype, she was amazingly successful. With it, she could be in J.K. Rowling territory.

Andrew: In the semifinals we get what is basically a toss-up (Bender versus Hynes), and we’ll see if somehow Jennifer Egan can aim high enough to hit the tallest remaining target.

Kevin: Certainly the chatter over the weekend will be about next week’s championship-worthy matchup between Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen. This month, after Egan won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times caused a minor internet dust-up when the story of Egan’s victory was accompanied by a photo of Franzen, prompting novelist Ayelet Waldman and others to get all potty-mouthed on the Twitters. I’m also looking forward to the other semifinal match—Next versus Lemon Cake. They are both extremely accomplished novels, but also very contrastable. And after that row we’ll be announcing the contestants for the Zombie Round. It all goes fast from here on in. Just a little more than a week before someone goes home with an angry rooster.

1Assuming we’re calling A Visit From the Goon Squad a novel—as Knopf, her publisher, does on its website.

2Not that age correlates perfectly with the number of books a writer has published or the experience she has gained, but I think it’s notable.

3The Man Booker, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award are the awards used. The Pulitzer Prize will not have been announced until after the tournament finishes.

4All Google results data was collected on March 3, 2011.

5Also collected on March 3, 2011.

6Collected on March 7, 2011.

Andrew Seal is a second-year grad student in American Studies. Fortunately for his career, he’s not called on to work with numbers very often. His research interests include Midwestern literature, the history of consumer culture, and frontier/Western history.

Kevin Guilfoile is the author of two acclaimed novels, Cast of Shadows and The Thousand, which have been translated into more than 20 languages.

John Warner’s novel, The Funny Man, will be released late September of this year by Soho Press. For the time being, he teaches at Clemson University.

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