Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Time for an internet literary prize?

Literary prizes.

They aren't born equal. In France, there is the annual Goncourt prize, the Renaudot, the Prix Femina, and quite a few others. But the French are openly admirative of the prize from accross the pond, the Booker, the prize to make all prizes blush and stammer. The selection process seems more open, more meritocratic, and of course a good part of French would like for everyone to accept that books can be both popular, legible and of high literary merit, that there's no innate contradiction there.

Of course, the Booker is not as open as all that. For one, it's publishers that put forward their champions. You couldn't get a (*obligatory gasp*) self-published author in the run.

Would a self-published author stand any chance, anyway? Probably not. Still, I'd like to imagine a literary prize structure in which any author's progeny could bubble up (sorry, I'm an IT professional) in some virtuous algorithm that lets quality shoot up and crap descend magestically.

Never one to underestimate the overwhelming amount of work ahead of me, I can think of a few, out of hand.

1. New novels come to light before we get through the existing ones.

Let's say we imagine a kind of sorting algorithm where a bunch of books are listed online and people vote for the ones they prefer. Leave aside for the moment that there are a myriad ways the voting could be implemented: allow one vote per person, or as many votes as there are books in the list, allow/disallow downvotes, etc., a huge obstacle to this is that readers would have to read everything on the list.


Everyone can't read everything. Reading 50 pages a day, one can get through perhaps one or two books a week, and this estimate, I think, relates to the above-average reader. So figure maybe 50-100 books a year for serious readers (I don't mean people reading serious work, just people reading a good quantity of it). Any serious list representing any yearly production would have thousands of titles on it, so there's no way you could get everyone to read everything.

This is what truly sets books apart from other media, in my opinion. A top-of-the-charts for pop music doesn't have this problem, really. It's not unfeasible to have people listen to more or less complete lists of pop songs. Film, too, for that matter: although a film takes a good few hours to watch, film production is expensive enough that the yearly batch can be "consummed" by serious film buffs.

So what's the solution? From an algorithmic perspective, you either chop the list into sublists, by genre, year, country, etc. and then again chop each sublist into smaller sublists, or you chop the books up and have readers read a small portion of each.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I think I'd go for the sublist feature. What we'd need to do is divide the literary universe into countries, provinces, cities, and apply the best of what we've learned of democracy, and of course leave out the worst.

I don't have the solution yet, though I am thinking about it. This is where I'd start: no author can get everyone to read his work, but most authors can at least get their friends to read their work. So authors could group into subgroups of varying size, among which the books written are voted upon and the winner "pushed up" (again, the pushing algorithm yet to be specified), with as much weight as there are authors in the subgroup.

My next point would concern the system needed to implement the voting process, and how to make it failsafe and fraud-resistant. But this post ist starting to get a little lengthy, so maybe I'll just stop here for today.

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