The Biblioracle: The danger of award hype

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The Biblioracle believes that the notoriety of writers winning awards draws scrutiny from readers. (Tuomas Kujansuu/Getty Images)

Winning a big literary prize is a bonus in every possible way for a writer — sales, attention, acclaim — except one: Suddenly a whole posse of readers shows up to say how much they hate your book, and quite possibly you and your little dog as well.

This is according to a study titled "The Paradox of Publicity: How Awards Can Negatively Affect the Evaluation of Quality," by two academics, Amanda J. Sharkey of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and Balázs Kovács of the University of Lugano in Switzerland.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


They examined the ratings for books on the social networking site Goodreads before and after the announcement of major awards and compared them with other books that were nominated or finalists for the same award.

The winners saw a marked decline in their overall ratings.

The theory is that the notoriety of winning an award draws the scrutiny of readers who, under normal circumstances, aren't likely to read the book because it is outside their usual preferences. The actual experience of reading confirms this, and, ipso facto, lots of one-star reviews.

Far be it from me to question the eminent researchers from Chicago and Switzerland, but I have to wonder if there isn't an additional, exacerbating factor at work here: the danger of hype.

When you declare ahead of time that you're expecting someone to be impressed, get ready for the opposite.

Mothers across America have learned this when they've tried to set up their sons with that "nice girl I met at the grocery store," and their sons have turned up their noses even when that nice girl was a cross between Gisele Bundchen and Marie Curie.

This is why when I'm scheduled to meet people for the first time and they ask what I look like, I tell them that not everyone turns to stone when gazing at my face.

Hype can be particularly dangerous when it comes to books because, I believe, readers like to be discoverers rather than followers. Sure, when the buzz gets so loud that we can't help ourselves, we'll jump on the bandwagon long enough to check it out — only to jump back off and start shooting at the bandwagon's tires.

When a book is certified by so-called "experts," there can even be a kind of pride in declaring a difference of opinion.

I witness this every year during The Morning News Tournament of Books, a March Madness-style competition for books for which I serve as color commentator. For slightly less than a month, each weekday we pit two books against each other in a head-to-head matchup and ask a judge to tell us which is better. We then let our audience weigh in on the choice with open comments. My favorite part is the howls of protest declaring a particular judge's decision "the worst ever."

Often, the howls are mine. As readers, our personal judgments can't be wrong because they're ours. When a prize-granting institution tilts the scales and we find their choice wanting, it's evidence of elitists trying to cram literary broccoli down our throats.

I've shrugged and scowled and scoffed at more than my share of prizewinners, and if I read a book after it has received its laurels, I can feel my experience being tainted by me wondering if it's really good enough to deserve such an award.

But when I've read the book before it has been recognized by some powers that be, their choice becomes a ratification of my good taste. Of course it's a winner. I knew it all along.

It is not rational nor sensible.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.

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