by Alison Flood)
Jane Gardam, Anne Carson and the six other authors shortlisted for the £40,000 Folio prize should brace themselves: new research has found that, if they are announced as winner at next month's awards ceremony, they will face a torrent of negative reviews from readers.
In a paper to be published in the March issue of Administrative Science Quarterly, academics Amanda Sharkey and Balázs Kovács compared 38,817 reader reviews on GoodReads.com of 32 pairs of books. One book in each pair had won an award, such as the Man Booker prize, or America's National Book Award. The other had been shortlisted for the same prize in the same year, but had not gone on to win.
They found that "winning a prestigious prize in the literary world seems to go hand-in-hand with a particularly sharp reduction in ratings of perceived quality".
Julian Barnes, they write, won the Booker prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending, a novel reviewed in the New York Times as "a slim and meditative story of mortality, frustration and regret". Sales soared following the announcement, but "something surprising happened as well: readers' ratings of the book entered a period of protracted decline even though the status of the book had increased", write Sharkey, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Kovács, of the University of Lugano, in their paper. "What happened to Barnes's book flies in the face of much research on the effects of social status."
In January 2012, for example, a couple of months after Barnes won the Booker, one GoodReads writer has it that the novel – which she gives two stars – is "a coming–of–age book in which no one comes of age, regardless of how old time makes them", writing: "Rare for a book to make me angry. But I am. I got angry halfway through this book and I stayed angry." A couple of months later, a reader wrote: "I have to say this book is well-written, but it in no way lives up to all the hype. Please be warned that this is a man book parading as a thoughtful novel/novella."
Sharkey and Kovács believe the phenomenon happens because a book's audience – and thus the personal tastes of its readers – increases considerably after a prize win, so "a larger sampling of readers is drawn to a prize-winning book, not because of any intrinsic personal interest in the book, but because it has an award attached to it".
"A prize-winning book only needs to have some minimal level of fit to reach the threshold at which a person will deem a book as worthy of reading, whereas a book that has not won a prize must distinguish itself as worthy in other ways, such as having underlying attributes that signal attractiveness to the reader," they write.
"The issue here is that readers assume that a book is 'good' because it won an award, but what is 'good' is partly a matter of individual taste. And the reader's taste may not match up with the taste of the critics and others on judging committees who selected the prize-winner," said Sharkey. "As a result, readers who read prize-winning books tend to be disappointed – not because prize-winning books are bad nor even simply because they have higher expectations for prize-winning books – but rather because many readers who are drawn in by prize-winning books tend to have tastes that are simply not predisposed to liking the types of books that win prizes."
But Sharkey advised authors – particularly those shortlisted for major prizes – not to panic. "I don't know if there is anything I'd advise the authors to change. I'm sure the majority of prize-winning authors are thrilled to have won a prize, and I'm sure both they and their publishers and agents are quite happy with the uptick in sales that an award will generate for a book," she said.