First Things’ Joe Carter is running an amusing contest pitting great (and not so great) novels against one another, knock-out tournament style. As of this writing, he’s up to Round 3 (Round 2, Round 1). Download the latest standings here.
Blog readers vote on the paired comparisons each round, the winning novel progressing. The novel that wins eventually will not necessarily be the best, nor (obviously) will it likely be your favorite. What is fun about this contest is that it highlights a particular form of (statistical) experimental design that is often used to rate preferences when the number of choices is large. In marketing, it goes by the name “paired comparisons” or “choice modeling.”
The initial seeding plays a large part in who or what will win. In this contest, for example, To Kill A Mockingbird was initially pitted against Pride and Prejudice. Most consider these classic works, perhaps either is likely to win the title; yet because they face each other in the first round, only one progresses. Meanwhile, the first volume in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novel, Master and Commander, easily romps past Orson Scott Card’s padded-out Ender’s Game.
The thing to take away is that all tournaments are not fair. And neither is life. In statistics, the tournaments can be made fairer—but never fair—by mixing up the seeding, presenting a different set of initial conditions to each survey respondent. The hope is that by asking enough people, some sort of rough order will emerge. This kind of trick is not always possible: for example, in basketball’s March Madness, and in the playoff structure of professional sports. There just isn’t the time, money, or stamina to design a better system to judge who is truly “the best.”
To the novels! I have no idea how Carter picked his entrants. It couldn’t have been by internet poll, because Ayn Rand’s oeuvre is missing, and The Hobbit is there but not The Lord of the Rings. Some form of list padding is evident: A Prayer for Owen Meany (Irving) and The Road (McCarthy) make appearances. But where is Mark Twain? This highlights another problem with tournament designs: you are stuck with what you have. Criticizing missing entries, or arguing about who scrapped by and made the cut is useless.
What we can chew on are the results, but only because we can run the tournament ourselves. I have done so, and not just in the positive sense—picking winners—but I did so in the negative sense and picked the loser of each round. So at the end, I have the “best” of list and the “worst” of the list, where those two terms are limited to their tournament interpretations. You are invited to do the same.
I disagree with little in the First Round, though I can’t imagine how The Hobbit (Tolikien) won out over One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (Solzhenitsyn), unless it was a contest of bulk. If you haven’t read Solzhenitsyn’s classic, do so. It shows what a good day means to a man living under the glorious restrictions of socialism. I also had A Confederacy of Dunces (Toole) edging out Charlotte’s Web—but both books are best read young.
My vote also differed with Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky) over Brideshead Revisited (Waugh), Foundation (Asimov) over Something Wicked This Way Comes (Bradbury), and Quo Vadis (Sienkiewicz) easily winning over The Road.
After this, we’re into the guts of the tournament, round upon round. Some choices are easy—1984 (Orwell) breaks no sweat against A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller)—but the races tighten considerably by the third round. Moby Dick (Mellville) versus Pride and Prejudice is a close fight, Jane beating Herman at the bell.
At the finish, it’s Pride and Prejudice versus Jane Eyre (Brontë), with Austen taking the laurels. And Ender’s Game (Card) just beat out Infinite Jest (Wallace)—but emphasis on the “just”—for worst novel in the tournament. Card wins because his work did better as a short story (as it was originally published), though I could be talked easily into changing my vote for that self-indulgent darling of graduate students (always suckers for the pseudo profound) David Foster Wallace.
Those are my results. What are yours?
Postscript: Better rush out and grab these novels while you can. Even The New Republic agrees that bookstores are fast disappearing.
My favorite (Master and Commander) is not the winner, but only because it is the first of the twenty-volume series.