First Things’ Tournament of Novels: Get ’em While You Can

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. Tournament of Novels

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.


  1. Speed

    Briggs said, “I have no idea how Carter picked his entrants. It couldn’t have been by internet poll … ”

    Comment and response from round three:

    Joe, how did you arrive at the original 64 contenders?

    We took nominations at the first of the month which gave up about 500 contenders. Then we had another round where the readers chose their top five from that list. Out of that result I took the 64 with the most votes.

  2. Speed

    Briggs said “The Hobbit is there but not The Lord of the Rings

    From a comment …

    The reason LOTR is not on the list is that it blew the competition out of the water last year. No point having a repeat of the same in this tournament, which is what would surely happen.

  3. Ari

    Some great typos this time!

    “I also had Confederacy of Dunes (Toole) edging out Charlotte’s Web—but both books are best read young.”

    So, is the first one a story about multiple planets with the spice?

    I can’t imagine the spice would be all that valuable if there were a whole group of planets with it…

  4. DAV

    I often wonder at the point of these “contests”. Which is better: ice cream or pie? Even if one is preferred by more over the other why would that make that selection “better”? So is Foundation (specifically — or the entire series?) better than Something Wicked …? Is jack Daniels better than a Porsche? Is the Pope Catholic?

    This would be a lot worse if run by a publisher interested in selling as many copies of anything without giving a rat’s behind about quality. It’s the reason why “good” television is replaced by the banal. Why isn’t The Marching Morons at the forefront here. It’s most apropos.

  5. Well done, Joe! I have some unsung favorites to add to next year’s tourney.

    And the general concept is ab fab. How about a Tournament of Statisticians? Pick your all-time favorite. Or paintings? Is the Mona Lisa really the best? The possibilities are endless…

  6. How about a Tournament of Evil Corporations, to pick the most evil capitalist consortium on the planet? Some nominations to kick things off:

    Government Motors
    Goldman Sachs
    Bank of America
    Georgia Pacific
    United Airlines …

    I know. It’s been done before, sort of. Not sure if the emphasis on EVIL has been played.
    We’ll need 64 to fill out the brackets. More nominations anyone?

  7. Or we could just skip to final four: Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, GE, and the the Asian Development Bank.

  8. Ari

    Mike D,

    Consumerist does something like that every year. Usually the winner is a bank or Comcast.

    Mostly Comcast.

  9. michel

    Well, one knew that the effect of Great Books courses was to disable all critical thought, but this!

    The point of the novel in English literature (its a bit different in other cultures) has been essentially moral. The point is to answer the question: how we should live. Anna Karenina is far better than War and Peace in this respect. Waugh doesn’t even come up for consideration. Pride and Prejudice, read the first chapter carefully several times and think why exactly she chooses those words. ‘Rightful property’. You know that she wrote and rewrote over and over again. She knew what she meant by that. And also by that transition when Mrs Bennett starts talking to her husband, who too had been at one time ‘rightful property’. This is not a love story, this is serious mind reflecting on how to live in the society around her.

    If you wanted a list which would start forming taste and the ability to discriminate, then Pride and Prejudice would certainly be on the list. War and Peace not. Anna Karenina, Middlemarch. Some Checkov. Some EM Forster. Some Conrad short stories, the Secret Sharer for instance. Late Henry James not. Joyce not.

    And no, its not a question of what I or you like. Its a question of what is good. Its about forming taste. Brideshead is complete trash, self indulgent ramblings by someone who did not even know what a novel is. Yes, it made a profitable TV series. Like most TV series, either based on trash, or turning what it was based on into trash.

    As for Asimov etc. There is nothing wrong with it in its place, but its not in the same category. If you put them together, you need to start by learning to read, that is, slowly going over the words on the page and figuring out what is meant by what is said. In the cases which don’t make the grade, the writing dissolves when you do this. In those which do, you realize that there is more and different from what you had thought, and that this quality of deliberate design goes on all the way through the thing.

    Read in Anna Karenina the part where Vronsky takes up art. Classic.

  10. The Man

    I believe that “Confederacy of Dunes” is actually a reference to “A Confederacy of Dunces.”

  11. I’ve been wondering about something similar regarding drug testing. We tend to think of drug trials in isolation, but they’re really embedded in a sort of implicit tournament.

    What’s the most efficient way to find the best of N drugs? Instead of a tournament, you could do an enormous (adaptively) randomized trial of all N drugs at once. But the problem of the winner not actually being the best remains.

    Are analogous problems handled intelligently outside of medicine?

  12. j ferguson

    Thank you for your very useful observations. I find as I age (68) that my reading is slowing down. I write (maybe too) frequent blog comments and have discovered that not only do they not always communicate what I had in mind, but often reveal that what i thought i had in mind wasn’t really there either.

    Having been king in my career domain for at least the last decades seems to have dampened the feedback my writing should have received. I really do wonder what must have been concluded about some of things I wrote.

    My reaction has been to read more carefully. I’ve spent months with a couple of recent books whose prose had such conceptual density that i could only unravel a page or two at a time.

    Books offer the opportunity to savor the thoughts of very great minds.

    Blogs like this one let us surround ourselves with very bright and thoughtful people, the sorts who showed up only occasionally in my life prior to retirement.

    Thank you again, and to our host, a wonderful guy who can manage expressions such as “exceedingly brief” whatever that meant.

  13. Speed

    Briggs said,

    “The novel that wins eventually will not necessarily be the best … 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.”

    Substitute “candidate” for “novel” and we have the race for president of the United States. The current process frequently (usually?) ends in a contest between dumb and dumber.

  14. Adam H

    The tournament winner obviously won’t be the “best novel” (partly because there’s no such thing and partly because the wisdom of crowds fails when it comes to matters of intellect), but will the winner even be the most popular? It would be interesting to compare the tournament results with the original top 64 vote.

  15. j ferguson

    How do we get from “not the best” to worst? Isn’t how you characterize the results of a “statistical” process at least as important as the methods employed in the process?

  16. Briggs

    j ferguson,

    Well, “worst” means “worst of those included in the tournament and abiding by the rules of the tournament.” It’s possible to analyze this type of structure in depth. I’ll give one example, the simplest. Suppose each novel had a (universally agreed on) score, higher being better. Then the best, i.e. the highest scoring, will always win the tournament. The worst will always drop out in the first round (with N/2 – 1 other novels). What makes it difficult is when the score is not constant, when it varies by time and is only probabilistically know. It’s still possible to analyze the tournament, but it would take too long to explain here.

  17. j ferguson

    I thought some more about what I wrote above and confess that i still am not comfortable. It may be that i am attaching an incorrect meaning to “worst.” Is “least best” same as “worst?” I think i thought not.

    My confusion may be that in rankings, I’m supposing that you can rank among the “worst” and rank among the “best” but the two populations cannot be combined. Maybe this is too picky.

    It may also be that had the question been “which is worse?” the result might not rank inversely. I realize that these thoughts may attempt to make more of the baggage which comes with “worst” than makes any sense.

    Having raised a soimilar issue at another blog and had no response, I thought that if one is concerned about his sanity, he need not worry until people stop telling him he’s crazy.

  18. bill r

    >> In marketing, it goes by the name “paired comparisons” or “choice modeling.”
    Some of us also use BIBs or PBIBs or round robins or cyclic designs which can be quite fair and we know about things like the various types of stochastic cancellation and stochastic transitivity, as well as Ranking and Selection procedures for optimal decisions.

  19. j ferguson

    If I might belabor this a bit more. Think about what the worst of the best books means or for that matter, the best of the worst books. To me, these populations would not be the same.

    When i was in graduate school, Murray Weidenbaum was running the B School. He was scheduled to teach a graduate level course. Although in architecture school, I was permitted to enroll.

    He showed up for one class, complained of an inability among his graduate students to write clearly, announced the solution was more study of symbolic logic, introduced the instructor and left.

    I had no previous exposure to this subject whatever. i asked one of my classmates to recommend a book that I might try to come up to speed. i bought it and struggled with what seemed a mixture of the very obvious with the quite obscure. And so, I soldiered on.

    After two classes, i could see what the problem was. Many of my classmates were unable to convert a symbolically parsed statement to simple discrete English which excluded any alternate interpretation.

    I was able to keep up for four classes but then saw that bridging the gap between knowing nothing of the subject and the situation of my classmates would be a full time pursuit for which I didn’t have time and remembering that I had really wanted to hear what the Great One had to say, i dropped it.

    And i really did drop it. i suppose the economics course enrolled in and not timely dropped and the discovery of continued enrollment the night before the final still figures in the nightmares many of us suffer from time to time. Why is it always economics?

  20. j ferguson

    Forgive me Murray, it must surely have been the Economics Department.

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