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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Judging Books By Their Covers - or - Chance Favors the Prepared Meme

Posted by John Holbo on 01/18/06 at 11:38 AM

In "Trees" (PDF) Moretti speculates about literary ‘character’ traits that may confer ‘evolutionary advantage’. A candidate case: the clue as detective fiction device [see figure 3, p. 49]. Moretti sketches a tree. I’ll quote the expository accompaniment:

Two things were immediately clear: the ‘formal’ fact that several of Doyle’s rivals (those on the left) did not use clues - and the ‘historical’ fact that they were all forgotten. It is a good illustration of what the literary market is like: ruthless competition - hinging on form. Readers discover that they like a certain device, and if a story doesn’t seem to include it, they simply don’t read it (and the story becomes extinct). This pressure of cultural selection probably explains the second branching of the tree, where clues are present, but serve no real function: as in ‘Race with the Sun’, for instance, where a clue reveals to the hero that the drug is in the third cup of coffee, and then, when he is offered the third cup, he actually drinks it. Which is indeed ‘perplexing & unintelligible,’ and the only possible explanation is that these writers realized that clues were popular, and tried to smuggle them into their stories - but hadn’t really understood how clues worked, and so didn’t use them very well.

Let me jump a paragraph to an objection Moretti tries to answer. The tree in question assumes morphology is key. "But why should form be the decisive reason for survival? Why not social privilege instead - the fact that Doyle was writing for a well-established magazine and his rivals were not?" Moretti tries to solve for this variable by establishing that Doyle’s choice perch in Strand Magazine was shared by others. Not only that, there was more ‘genetic diversity’ just in Strand than even fig. 3 suggests (see fig. 4).

Very interesting, but let’s step back up into the above paragraph and run a variant objection. "Readers discover that they like a certain device, and if a story doesn’t seem to include it, they simply don’t read it (and the story becomes extinct)." The problem is: Moretti’s tree plots actual inclusions, not seeming ones. And anyway: how does a story set about seeming to include something before you’ve actually read it?

You sell books to people who haven’t read them yet. On the other hand, Doyle’s long durée endurance run is plausibly due in large part to his stories’ winning forms: people like clues. Yes, that’s certainly true.

Let’s be a bit artificial and say the literary competition takes place in two stages: first, a book will be ‘judged by its cover’, and must win; if it wins, it gets the chance to be widely judged for what is between its covers. If it wins again, it ‘avoids extinction’, i.e. becomes a classic (or at least doesn’t flash in the pan.)

Just yesterday Jenny Davidson began her guest post by writing: "Something makes me yearn for certain brand-new books like a smoker plotting how to get her hands on the next cigarette ... I can’t put my finger on exactly what produces that yearning in me ..." And just yesterday I linked to Art Spiegelman’s tale of first love. "She was a paperback cover girl and I couldn’t keep my hands off her." I think we’re all acquainted with some such experience of seeming. It isn’t pure black arts of marketing, I trust. On the other hand, there are such arts. A few weeks ago the Guardian ran a piece about statisticians trying to predict bestsellers not from covers but titles:

The team of three statisticians, helped by programmers, studied 54 years of fiction number ones in the New York Times and the 100 favourite novels in the BBC’s Big Read poll.

Comparing these with a control group of less successful novels by the same authors, they found that the winning books had three common features; they had metaphorical, or figurative titles instead of literal ones; the first word was a pronoun, a verb, an adjective or a greeting; and their grammar patterns took the form either of a possessive case with a noun, or of an adjective and noun or of the words The ... of ...

By this formula the most perfect titles were Agatha Christies’ last thriller Sleeping Murder (1976) and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, both with 83% marks. The poorest was Patricia Cornwell’s thriller Cause of Death, with 9%.

British authors produced the highest-scoring titles in both studies. John Le Carre was the most consistent with Smiley’s People, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Tailor of Panama and others.

Dr Winkler said: "When we tested our model on 700 titles published over 50 years, it correctly predicted whether a book was a bestseller or not for nearly 70% of cases. This is 40% better than random guesswork. It is far from perfect but given the nature of the data and the way tastes change 70% accuracy is surprisingly good."

They missed The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter. Still ... what does Moretti have to say about this sort of thing? (I don’t mean to be insulting, suggesting Moretti has never considered that people read after they buy, that there is such a thing as marketing, etc. I just wonder what he has to say about it.)

And yes, obviously my two stage process is not tidy. Your book needs to be consistently selected to get read. This isn’t just a matter of an eye-catchy cover, or snappy title. It’s also a matter of getting an editor to read you, then select you for prominent placement to be read by many others. It’s a matter of opinion-formers - ‘coolhunters’, first adopters, reviewers, literary cliques, what shelf it gets shelved on, what genre tag gets attached to it, what authors become ‘brand names’. Oprah. Most of this activity indeed has to do with books actually being read, and winning the ‘ruthless competition’ to some degree as Moretti supposes: editors, reviewers, early adopters, Oprah, have to like the form of your book (it’s got clues!) Still, in laying stress on morphology, Moretti risks assuming efficiency in the diffusion of information about morphology. I don’t see a strong reason for believing in this efficiency.

(And be it noted: the evolutionary analogies may still pan out. Someone might say: you can judge a book by its cover, and we do. But natural selection is not such an idle browser: you can’t judge, um, a beetle by its carapace. But of course you can: red means poison (maybe). Covers are as adaptive in nature as on the bookrack; and for the similar reasons: they convey a sense of what’s inside.)

At this point, let me turn to the luck argument. Moretti responds to Tim Burke:

It is certainly possible that dumb luck plays/played a much larger role than we imagine - probably larger and larger as we move back in history, and cultural products can disappear more easily. I will enlarge on this in my reply to Prendergast, but I may as well admit right away that every time I have studied competition, success, and failure, I have never found that luck played a major role (the only one exception I know: Austen’s novels, despite having soldiers, include no reference to war, unlike most of her contemporaries, and the so-called "Hundred Years’ Peace" that begun in 1815 rewarded her enormously for her choice: sheer external luck changing the world, and hence the expectations of generations of readers). (Needless to say, this is not the only ingredient in Austen’s long-term success). But I admire Gould too, and would have liked to find instances of dumb luck. If anyone comes up with convincing examples, I’d love to see them.

Rather than pretend to some dataset at my fingertips, let me just dogmatically opine that J.K. Rowling is lucky. She’s good, but not that good. At some point something tipped. The books came to occupy an oddly favorable position, which cascaded into favor upon favor. Straining a bit, you might say that what you have here is mild cultural ‘lock-in’, on the model of the ‘lock-in’ Microsoft has enjoyed - except that everyone likes Harry. Or the just plain old fashioned ‘lock-in’ of brand names. Harry has come to play a cultural role of sorts. But it could have been a different author whose works lucked into that role.

A large thesis, yes. But significant because, in denying ‘luck’ in the study of "competition, success, and failure" Moretti seems committed to denying the possibility of things we know happen in, say, business. (Don’t we?)

It seems to me obvious that Rowling is not a unique case, merely an extreme one. Many authors occupy cultural niches that others might occupy but don’t happen to. On the other hand, is it right to call this ‘luck’? Rowling is a lucky woman. But ‘dumb luck’ may suggest there is no rational explanation, which is something else. This gets us back to Burke:

But as for how Doyle’s stories set the conventions of a genre and others die, are forgotten, wither, some of that might be simply termed "dumb luck", that the precise location as which crystallization of a genre occurs in a moment where many nascent forms of the genre are present is about the accidents of readership, of circulation, of publication, of imitation, that there is no deeper explanation that needs to cite how Doyle’s particular formulation of the genre more precisely satisfied or represented the desires of a reading public, or how his ability as a writer was more precisely distinguished from any other. I’m echoing Gould’s Wonderful Life here very consciously.

Which is it? No explanation? or we can’t know it? (because its unreconstructable, or just wouldn’t exhibit enough interest?) I push the point because it seems plausible that the explanation in Doyle’s case might be that Holmes got famous through a series of lucky breaks (such as Tim Burke is thinking of); yet these breaks can only be understood with reference to certain ‘morphological’ features, in Moretti’s sense. Chance favors the prepared meme.


But Agatha Christie was “lucky” in some rather similar ways to JK Rowling, which starts making it seem as if something other than luck is at play.  In this sense Conan Doyle is _not_ the best example (and we haven’t gotten into the question of whether stories and novels can be treated the same way), because his stories do seem to be superior--more complex, more satisfying, immediately & unquestioningly culturally dominant--than his peers.  Christie and Rowling are each not nearly as good as their peers, so it’s something ABOUT the formulaic nature of the fiction that gives them this dominant position on the bestseller lists.  i.e. people prefer to read less rather than more demanding novels, at least when we’re talking about people in great numbers.  Now we’re back into cognitive questions about the psychology of reading.  I recently read Victor Nell’s “Lost in a Book” which is a strange but very interesting tome, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the psychology (literally--he’s interested in what’s happening in the brain, eye movements, etc.) of reading for pleasure.

By Jenny D on 01/18/06 at 01:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Who were Agatha Christie’s peers? I have to admit that once I’d read Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” I was never really able to go back from the private eye to the consulting detective (Jeremy Brett as Holmes aside).

Speaking professionally (or what passes for professionally in the SF world — where did I leave that SFWA membership card again?), Rowling gets a bum rap. Her prose is nothing special, she’s pretty bad at pacing, and her world-building isn’t very meticulous, true. (She’s often accused of being unoriginal, but the standard her accusers hold her to in that regard is higher than all but a handful of name genre writers could meet.) But she does good gadgets, and she’s really quite good at characterization and plot; better than many of the writers she’s often said to be “not nearly as good as.” (Another case of chance favoring the prepared meme, perhaps.) The fact that her genre critics don’t give her credit for that has a lot to do with not-invented-here syndrome (and sheer economic jealousy, of course), but also, I think, says some interesting things about the difference between what insider and outsider readers care about.

By David Moles on 01/18/06 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As I’ve written here before, Rowling’s formula differs significantly from those of the other magical-school books I’ve seen—she writes a nearly anarchist distrust of authority, not merely of the school bully and the unsympathetic teacher, but also of the “good” political leader and more subtly, even the “good” headmaster and the various other adults who are supposed to keep children safe and who do not, as well as the entire non-school political system, which by the latest book has become rather similar to a Central American republic during a mid-late 20th century civil war.  I think that is the reason why her formula has succeeded; it appeals to an essential sense of cynicism that prevents the fantasy from becoming too sickeningly sweet.

By on 01/18/06 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s easy to make predictions about the past.  That is, once we see that something has been successful, we can try to explain why, but that’s different from making a prediction that can really be tested.  I really think several things have to be alignment for some “meme” to take off.  This could be called “luck.”

By Jonathan Mayhew on 01/18/06 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Haven’t checked the dates, but when I say Christie’s peers, I mean in particular someone like Margery Allingham (whose output is quite similar in some ways, though to my mind much more interesting) as well as more broadly a writer like Dorothy L. Sayers, whose books are far more interesting in literary terms (I’ve seen “Murder Must Advertise” on syllabi for British modernism, for instance).

David and Rich, I hope I didn’t sound too much like I was just thoughtlessly knocking JRK!  I really like those books, have read most of them more than once & stayed up most of the night reading the latest when it came out.  All I mean to say is that, say, Diana Wynne Jones is a much more talented author in so many ways; her novel “Witch Week” (a school story) is really much better I think than most of the Potter ones, and what I really mean is that I would pick “Howl’s Moving Castle” over any of the Potter books both for rereadability/reader satisfaction and for ‘quality.’ Or Philip Pullman, again much more interesting.  Or Susan Cooper’s books, to go a bit further afield.  I think the Christie/Rowling parallel really is a useful one; both are really extraordinarily talented in certain ways, but complexity and originality are not the main things that draw us to them.

(NB I read Christie avidly as a child, grew impatient with the sketchiness of the psychological detail as a teenager & stopped reading them for 15 years, then rediscovered them at age 30 & love rereading them now, esp. the bizarre post-WWII thrillers; they are addictive, like all light reading, though there are lots of things to disapprove of.  The international thriller ones are more interesting to me than the Poirot/Marple-type ones, which I find virtually unreadable because of the stylized depictions of the detectives.  I recommend “Passenger to Frankfurt” as a good example of what Christie does very well.)

By Jenny D on 01/18/06 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose I’m about to state the obvious, but isn’t this an issue that requires a truly case-by-case analysis?  I accept Jonathan’s point that analyzing past success doesn’t mean we can predict future success, but understanding the conditions of possibility of “success” (which itself means something different from case to case, from selling in quantity to winning prestigious awards) seems like a fruitful research program for the sociology of literature. 

I can’t speak to the genres being discussed here, but let’s look at some examples in the world of American ethnic literatures.  Why, for example, is Leslie Silko so much more successful than Scott Momaday?  We can write off Gerald Vizenor’s marginality as a symptom of the sheer difficulty of his prose, but Momaday’s writing is comparable to Silko’s at that level.  Or take Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman.  Or Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin. 

I’m tempted to say that this isn’t simply a matter of luck, but of a field of cultural production (from university syllabi to talk show divas) that, since the 80s, has privileged ethnic women’s writing over ethnic men’s.  Which means that when it comes to white writers, the normal, male-dominant pattern re-emerges.  Why, for example, is a half-rate like Dave Eggers more popular—even among people with taste—than, say, Johanna Scott, who’s among the very best of our younger writers today? 

Oprah’s Book Club is an excellent example.  I haven’t done the math, but from the top of my head, it seems that Oprah has fed us on a steady diet of brown women and white men, with James Frey the latest. 

Or, as James English argues in regards to *The Bone People*, a writer’s ability to position herself as a “world” writer has a lot to do with form, the trauma-and-recovery pattern being one of the favorites over the past 30 years.  Oddly, though, when a major male novelist does the trauma-and-recovery thang (say, Pynchon’s *Vineland*), he’s regarded as a sell-out—as opposed to Morrison’s *Beloved*, instantly regarded as a classic American novel.

My readings of these examples are admittedly sophomoric, but I do want to keep form—as well as race and gender—on the table when it comes to analyzes of literary success.

By on 01/18/06 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s important in the Doyle example is that it’s a series in a magazine. 

Yes.  Getting the first few Holmes stories published was luck, though not that much luck:  editors needed a flow of stuff to fill their pages.  But after a while, the editor comes to know what people are reading in the magazine.  If a Holmes story is listed on the cover of an issue, that issue sells more copies.  People write in to the editor praising certain features of the magazine (when I was young and naive, I thought these were fake; but now I realize that people do the strangest things).  The editor seeks more Holmes stories.  Doyle’s competitors were initially published by luck, too.  But readers were not so enthused.  Issues listing their stories sold no more than issues which didn’t.  Few wrote in to praise them.  So the editor does not go out of his way to encourage more stories from them. 

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to attribute the readers’ preference to formal factors.

This process, of course, applies only to magazines.  Books work differently.  But magazines are important.  In a recent post on Notional Slurry, Bill Tozier told us:

So this is me drawing a map to the abandoned mines, for you historians and literary types: Go to the magazines. For every piece of classic and important writing you know from books—the stuff that’s been vetted and culled and revised and reprinted over many decades—there are five or ten or a hundred times more pieces that fell by the wayside. They never made it out of the original magazines.

Which sounds very Morettiish

By jim on 01/18/06 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The most rigorous examination of this sort of that that I’m aware of concerns the movie business. In Hollywood Economics Arthur de Vany examined ticket sales over a decade for every movie released by Hollywood. From my Amazon.com review:

In the words of screen writer William Goldman, “nobody knows anything” about what happens to movies once they are released to the theatres. Most movies don’t even break even, much less make a profit - not in theatrical release, which is what De Vany investigates. ... That’s no way to run a business, but the problems are inherent in the nature of movies as a business venture. The deep and ineradicable condition of the business is that there is no reliable way to find out whether or not your movie has a market other than putting it on screens across the country and seeing if people come to watch.

Does having “bankable” names on the marquee guarantee that the movie will make bank? No. Does opening big on thousands of screens with PR from here to the moon guarantee that the movie will make bank? No. Does a small opening mean the film is doomed? No. Hence Goldman’s remark.

But all is not chaos. Or rather it is, but chaos of the mathematical kind. De Vany shows that about 3 or 4 weeks into circulation movie dynamics (that is, the dynamics of people coming to theatres to watch a movie) hit a bifurcation. Most movies enter a trajectory that leads to diminishing attendance and no profits. But a few enter a trajectory that leads to continuing attendance and, eventually, a profit. Among these, a very few become block busters.

This doesn’t mean that there is no significant difference between movies that make a profit and movies that tank. There may well be significant differences between them. But movies are very complex things, they have many many properties. Which of those properties determine success or failure? Whatever they are, they emerge in relationship with the marketplace; in a sense, the marketplace determines the properties a movie possesses—like measurement of a subatomic particle “determines” its position or momentum [this is a WAG*]. The fact that success or failure cannot be predicted ahead of time means that we do not yet have no way of analyzing movies and markets so as to determine their fit. The simplest such procedure that is effective is simply to release the movie into the market and see what happens.

*Wild Ass Guess

By Bill Benzon on 01/18/06 at 11:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jim writes: “It doesn’t seem unreasonable to attribute the readers’ preference to formal factors.”

In my post I should have added ‘popularity’ and ‘word of mouth’ to the list along with editors, coolhunters, reviewers, etc. It’s clear that someone being popular enables them to become MORE popular - ‘to those with much, more is given’. And the magazine format is important here, yes.

I suppose what I was trying to get at is a tension between analysing success in terms of morphology, and in terms of path-dependence. Moretti emphasizes the former, so I was pushing the latter. And of course path-dependence factors are unlikely to be purely independent of morphology. You might say: 90% of all bestsellers have been marketed aggressively. (I just made that up.) Aggressive marketing is almost completely independent of any formal features the books themselves may possess. But publishers don’t pick which books get the aggressive marketing advantage at random.

My question for Moretti would be: how to incorporate appreciation of path-dependence into his morphology-based accounts.

By John Holbo on 01/18/06 at 11:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And the interesting thing about de Vany’s work on movies is that aggressive marketing doesn’t seem to have much of a long-term effect on theatrical success. It has some effect on initial ticket sales, but that effect seems damped out over the longer term (i.e. weeks).

By Bill Benzon on 01/19/06 at 08:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That is interesting, Bill. I should check out de Vany.

By John Holbo on 01/19/06 at 08:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

</i>Caveat postor</i>: I have now read the Moretti works, and love them. And I love the conversation here. But.

I’m finding the conversation fascinating, because as an outsider I have had few such experiences that make me say, “But, of course!” and, “Bah!” as often. I’m too young to say “Bah!” at all. Maybe it’s an affectation. [That in itself is interesting. But not for now.]

The “Bah!” thing is my response to this pervasive mythology of books. Where has it come from? I had no idea that (a) books spring Athena-like from the foreheads of authors and slap directly onto the bookshelves of interested readers, and (b) that authors never speak to one another, do not read one another, and neglect their correspondence so that they may complete their great works in isolation.

And yet it must be so, from what folks in this conversation are saying. Publishers, editors, agents, letters columns, reviewers, circulation of syndication magazines, piracy and the influence of powerful booksellers have been left by the wayside.

And yet here we sit, a pile of authors, talking about a shared interest, no doubt all preparing a slew of new work.

“But, of course!” This is the new social structure. In the old days, they did it differently.

[Monosyllable equivalent to “Bah!"]

By Bill Tozier on 01/19/06 at 08:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

De Vany’s got a blog, John, which I’ve linked in my de Vany post (click on his name). I found out about him through an article in Slate:


The article contains links to some interesting work on the economics of movies and one of those links is to a PDF of a chapter from de Vany’s book. Here’s that link (you’ll have to go to Slate to get the other links):


By Bill Benzon on 01/19/06 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bah tempering: I should point out, on reviewing my comment, that it should be read mainly as an encouragement for scholars in the field to extend their horizons, not as dismissal. Books are very nice. Looking over my shelves, I find that magazines outweigh them. And make the social networks—the ecology of literature that is under discussion—much more visible.

By Bill Tozier on 01/19/06 at 09:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And then there is the web, and all those fan sites devoted to Buffy, Sailor Moon, Battlestar Galactica, and so forth. Very accessible and visible.

By Bill Benzon on 01/19/06 at 10:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: Indeed. Just as the preceding “web” was full of stories of “Mocha Dick”, Jesus, the Wild West, the Ripper, the Crystal Palace, modern invention and Empire.Which somehow seeped into the books, but disappeared from our present-day discussion except as footnotes. All very visible, and accessible to thousands of subscribers.

By Bill Tozier on 01/19/06 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry to make it seem as though I’ve got book blinkers on, Bill. (I take it that’s your point.) I think it was just a sort of sloppy artifact of the post, which moved from stories originally appearing in magazines (but which have since succeeded as books), to bestselling novels. Just the other day I left a comment that read, in part: “Magazines. Given that we have tens of thousands of English professors, I think we are entitled to a lot of intelligent data-gathering about the history of magazines.” I’m a magazine collector myself - well, I used to be before I moved to Singapore - so the little darlins can never be far from my thoughts about the history of print. It’s just that the issue of the post - morphology vs. path-dependence - is sort of orthogonal to the book/magazine axis, so I just slopped over it.

By John Holbo on 01/19/06 at 10:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No blinkers implied. Just pounding on my little drum.

[I have a collection!]

By Bill Tozier on 01/19/06 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One of my fantasies is that one day every hardcopy text will be digitized. Then we can data-mine through the archives reconstructing (a crude approximation to) the evolving ecology underlying literary history.

By Bill Benzon on 01/19/06 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"One of my fantasies is that one day every hardcopy text will be digitized.”

Sounds like a new volunteer! Head on over to Distributed Proofreaders, please, and let us know what you want done next.

By Bill Tozier on 01/19/06 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Woops! That should be http://www.pgdp.net

By Bill Tozier on 01/19/06 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Holbo, I have a recent example of “ideologeme” in the wild that’s going to clear it all up for you. It comes from Jameson’s latest, Archaeologies of the Future: “Greece, the medieval, the Incas, Protestantism: these are the four crucial elements of More’s Utopian text, the four raw materials of its representation. Utopia is a synthesis of these four codes or representational languages, these four ideologemes, but only on condition it be understood that they do not fold back into it without a trace, but retain the dissonances between their distinct identities and origins, revealing the constant effort of a process that seeks to combine them without effacing all traces of what it wishes to unify in the first place” (24-5).

By Jonathan Goodwin on 01/19/06 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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