Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a good novel. We know it’s a good novel because lots of people like it, and because it won the Man Booker, one of the biggest prizes in English-language literature. But here’s the funny thing. After the book won the prize, people didn’t like it as much! Its rating on the site Goodreads took a sudden plunge. And it wasn’t the only book to suffer that fate. A recent paper by sociologists Balázs Kovács and Amanda J. Sharkey studied a group of 32 English-language novels that won major literary awards. After the prize, their ratings on Goodreads dropped from an average of just under 4 to about 3.75. A group of comparably rated novels that were short-listed for prizes, but didn’t win, showed no such diminution.
When a book wins a Booker, that ought to make us think it’s good. Every sociologist—OK, every human being over the age of 12—knows we like things more when we hear that other people like them. So what explains the Booker backlash?
At least in part, it’s a quirk of statistics called Berkson’s fallacy. If you know one thing about correlation, it’s that correlation is not the same as causation. Two variables, like height and math scores in school kids, may be correlated, even though being good at math doesn’t make you taller, or vice versa. What’s going on is that older kids are both taller and better at math. Correlation can arise from a common cause that drives both variables in the same direction.
But that’s not the only way misleading correlations can pop up. Joseph Berkson, the longtime head of the medical statistics division at the Mayo Clinic, observed in 1938 that correlations can also arise from a common effect. Berkson’s research was about medical data in hospitals, but it’s easier to explain the phenomenon in terms of the Great Square of Men.
Suppose you’re a person who dates men. You may have noticed that, among the men in your dating pool, the handsome ones tend not to be nice, and the nice ones tend not to be handsome. Is that because having a symmetrical face makes you cruel? Does it mean that being nice to people makes you ugly? Well, it could be. But it doesn’t have to be.
Behold the Great Square of Men. (And I'd like to note that you can find more stunning hand-drawn illustrations just like this one in How Not to Be Wrong.)
Now, let’s take as a working hypothesis that men are in fact equidistributed all over this square. In particular, there are nice handsome ones, nice ugly ones, mean handsome ones, and mean ugly ones, in roughly equal numbers.
But niceness and handsomeness have a common effect: They put these men in the group of people that you notice. Be honest—the mean uglies are the ones you never even consider. So inside the Great Square is a Smaller Triangle of Acceptable Men:
Now the source of the phenomenon is clear. The handsomest men in your triangle, over on the far right, run the gamut of personalities, from kindest to (almost) cruelest. On average, they are about as nice as the average person in the whole population, which, let’s face it, is not that nice. And by the same token, the nicest men are only averagely handsome. The ugly guys you like, though—they make up a tiny corner of the triangle, and they are pretty darn nice. They have to be, or they wouldn’t be visible to you at all. The negative correlation between looks and personality in your dating pool is absolutely real. But the relation isn’t causal. If you try to improve your boyfriend’s complexion by training him to act mean, you’ve fallen victim to Berkson’s fallacy.
The fallacy works, too, as a driver of literary snobbery. Why are popular novels so terrible? It’s not because the masses don’t appreciate quality. It’s because the novels you read are the ones in the Acceptable Triangle, which are either popular or good. So within that group, the good ones are less likely to be popular, for the same reason the handsomer men are bigger jerks. If you force yourself to read unpopular novels chosen essentially at random—I’ve been on a jury for a literary prize, so I’ve actually done this—you find that most of them, just like the popular ones, are pretty bad. And I imagine if you dated men chosen completely at random from OkCupid, you’d find that the less attractive men were just as jerky as the chiseled hunks. But that’s an experiment I can’t recommend, not even for the sake of mathematical enlightenment.
And now what happened to Julian Barnes is pretty clear. There are two reasons you might have read The Sense of an Ending and rated it on Goodreads. It might be because it’s exactly the kind of novel you’re apt to like. Or it might be because it won the Booker Prize. When a book wins a prize, then its audience expands beyond the core group of fans already predisposed to love it. That’s what every author dreams of, but more frequently read inevitably means less universally liked.
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