Monday, March 12, 2007

Predicting Reading Preferences

I’m off to a dismal start in the ToB Book Bloggers’ Office Pool. I’m zero for two on the first two match-ups. Indeed, the book that I predicted would win the whole thing was knocked out of contention in the very first match of the first round.

The match in question pitted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun against Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, with novelist and short story writer Brady Udall serving as judge. I had Mr. Udall tapped as a reader who was likely to appreciate a good comic novel and predicted the outcome of the match accordingly. His commentary on his ultimate choice suggests that I was correct in my initial surmise. However, he didn’t think that the comic novel in contention in that particular match was a good one, and so laid waste to my prediction of the outcome by choosing Half of Yellow Sun over Absurdistan as the winner.

This particular example has me contemplating the broader hypothesis that readers are apt to be more demanding and hence more critical of books that fit within their preferred category or genre of books than those that fall outside of it. This should have occurred to me before I arrived at my list of ToB predictions since, on reflection, I believe it to be true of myself. It has something to do with the heightened expectations with which I meet a book I expect to like and the disappointment associated with those expectations not being met. It also has to do with the more extensive critical palette yielded by a greater familiarity with a particular category or genre of books. If I’m familiar with the conventions of a genre, I’m well equipped to see where those conventions have been too slavishly adhered to, or where they have been flouted to poor effect. If I’ve already encountered outstanding books within that category, it stands to reason that less accomplished books will suffer by comparison.

This goes some way to explaining why even carefully chosen book gifts and thoughtful book recommendations often miss the mark. It may not be so difficult to predict an individual’s reading preferences in broad terms, but it seems to me that predicting a reader’s response to any particular book is an exercise fraught with peril...

Follow the rest of the fun of the Tournament of Books here.


Quillhill said...

There is no predicting art--thank goodness. And you can't even fix the outcome of art like you can a horse race.

Reader Scott said...

I usually recommend books to people based on how much I liked them, rather than try to predict how much the other person will like them.

You might like the Book & Reading Forums.

Brockman said...

Well, Kate, it's down to you and me! Excellent comeback you've made.

Tomorrow one of us will take the prize. What do you think — does Shytengart have what it takes to go the distance, or will McCarthy trample him?

May the blind-luckiest book blogger win!

Kate S. said...


This is the sort of surprising development for which I love the Tournament of Books. Back from the dead indeed! Alas, I think you've got a decided edge with The Road when I compare the unalloyed praise it has received from the judges in every round with the rough ride Absurdistan got even in its winning round. Then again, I suspect that there are a few Absurdistan fans in the judging pool that have yet to reveal themselves, so you never know... Either way, one lucky reader will be treated to a fine stack of books!