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The rule of tome? Longer novels are more likely to win literary awards

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Abstract

Longer novels on shortlists are significantly more likely to win literary awards. This relationship is shown using all shortlisted novels for three prestigious prizes—the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award for Fiction, over the time period 1963–2021. The result is robust to controlling for author gender and Goodreads rating, and to whether one uses absolute length (in pages) or relative length on the shortlist. The size of the effect suggests other valid cues are underweighted in the process of selecting a winner. Judgment and decision-making research suggests several causes of the apparent bias. One is the representativeness heuristic: longer novels resemble the tomes that constitute the foundations of the Western canon, and this similarity may subconsciously sway judges. Other explanations include an effort heuristic and the effects of accountability on decisions. These results may explain previous findings that Booker Prize winners are not higher quality than shortlisted novels. The findings cast doubt on the validity of awards as signals of literary merit and have broader implications for the inferred quality of expert judgment.

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Notes

  1. One common objection is that awards miss the point of art. Another one is that awards rarely go to the highest quality entry, as judged by posterity (Ginsburgh & Weyers, 1999, 2014).

  2. This paper uses the definition of ‘expert’ suggested by Shanteau (1992)—“those who have been recognized within their profession as having the necessary skills and abilities”.

  3. The twenty greatest works of literature of all time, as compiled in a meta-list on thegreatestbooks.org (Sherman, 2022) have an average word count above 200,000 words, whereas the average contemporary novel has a word count of approximately 100,000 words. See Table A2 in Supplementary Information for details.

  4. Versions of this remark has been attributed to Blaise Pascal and Mark Twain.

  5. The majority of research in expert judgment uses tasks like forecasting where performance can be objectively measured (e.g. Tetlock, 2009; Camerer & Johnson, 1991).

  6. One exception is Doris Lessing (Nobel winner in 2007), who was nominated three times for the Booker Prize. Only once did she lose to a shorter novel: in 1971 her entry was 278 pages long and the winner’s was 247 (that winner, V.S Naipaul, also went on to win the Nobel). The other exception is the 2021 winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was nominated for the Booker in 1994 for his novel Paradise (length: 256 pages), which lost out to How Late It Was, How Late (length: 384 pages). See Table A1 in the Supplementary Information for the full list of Nobel winners.

  7. The analysis does not begin from 1950 for three reasons. First, doing so would create a large imbalance in the panel, with half the observations coming from one award. Second, many novels on the shortlist in the 1950-1963 period are not available on Goodreads with ratings. Third, the shift in the shortlist number may have been accompanied by other changes, but without knowing these details it is precautionary to analyze the period within which unobservables regarding the ethos of the award are less likely to have changed.

  8. Incidentally, word count is not a perfect measure of length either, as novels with lots of short words will be pushed up by this metric relative to ones with a preponderance of lengthy “ten-dollar” words, as Hemingway derisively put it in 1950 (adjusting for inflation, those words now cost $124). Character count is the perfect measure, but the resource-intensity of gathering this metric outweighs the marginal benefit.

  9. For example, if a shortlist mean length was 400 pages and the lengths of the five novels were 250, 300, 350, 500 and 600 pages, the relative length scores would be − 150, − 100, − 50, + 100, + 200.

  10. For example, choosing Grand Central Station as a meeting place in New York City. Research on the ability of people to coordinate shows that focal points are not naturally salient (i.e. are not chosen when there is no incentive to match the choice of another person) but become so once there is some payoff to coordination (Mehta et al., 1994).

  11. I thank an anonymous reviewer for making this suggestion.

  12. For example, if there were 100 judges, who each committed to reading 30 novels, then each entry on a shortlist of 150 would be read by 20 judges.

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Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to Conor Brennan, John O'Hagan, Pete Lunn, Eleanor Denny, Deirdre Robertson and Shane Timmons for thoughtful feedback on an early draft, which greatly improved the paper. I also thank the three anonymous Reviewers for valuable comments and suggestions. I thank the Irish Research Council for PhD funding (grant GOIPG/2019/66).

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Correspondence to Féidhlim P. McGowan.

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McGowan, F.P. The rule of tome? Longer novels are more likely to win literary awards. J Cult Econ 48, 311–329 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10824-023-09488-5

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