Downplaying the Classics: Further Evidence

Tuesday , 13, January 2015 5 Comments

I’m in the process of taking a more comprehensive look at the past 60 years of science fiction or so (ending at 2010 for now, to avoid the potential noise of the recent ebook explosion, independent press, and general diversification of the market), but an intriguing development has emerged.

Have you ever retired a human by mistake?

Some have argued that one of the reasons that the 1960s may rank so well among readers is because the best from that era has been given enough time for nostalgic fans to have forgotten the forgettable but popular books of the moment, and the cream of the crop is the only set that attracts attention. This “Classic Effect” unfairly pits a settled canon of supernovels against today’s as yet unfiltered greats. It boils down to: “The good old days were not as good as we think they were, and today’s era will be the good old days…given enough time.”

I have uncovered a tantalizing bit of evidence that appears to argue the opposite.

GoodReads, a social media site for book lovers, draws upon thousands and even hundreds of thousands of apparent user and other reviews in order to rank its books. It also contains lists of books about which the participants are particularly fanatical. The users there have a user ranked “Best of Each Decade” list that we are examining for head-to-head comparison.

My side theory to this has been that if the “Classic Effect” is true, then the most recent decade (2000-2009) should suffer from “unsettled canon” drag upon reader ratings, while the settled stuff from the 1960s should have the benefit of less political argument and more zealous “pure” fans. The Classic Effect anticipates that the now-Classics from 1960-1969 will necessarily rank higher than the unsettled recent ones.

According to GoodReads, they don’t.

Looking at GoodReads top 15 Classics from the 1960s, the novels rank an average of 4.0 stars by users there. This is identical to the GoodReads ranks of the 2000s: 4.0 stars.

The “Classic Effect” does not show up there, and, because it does not, I suspect it is not a reasonable explanation for any discrepancies that may occur at Amazon. After all, if nostalgia should have an impact, it is more likely to occur at place for book fans who don’t have to have purchased the book to opine on it, rather than a place for book buyers, like Amazon. (Note: I realize that you can rate a book at Amazon without buying it, as well, but it is weighted toward verified purchasers.)

But that calm equivalence is actually where the chaos begins.

Not only are there some remarkable discrepancies on the GoodReads lists from both eras — for example, Stranger in A Strange Land “ranks” number #2 on the user list, but if you were to rank the list purely by user rating, the novel falls out of the top 10 altogether, and in the contemporary era, a similar thing happens to Perdido Street Station — but there is not one book from the 1960s list whose GoodReads star rating is higher than its correlated Amazon Star Rating. In fact, Classics Lord of Light (Zelazny), A Clockwork Orange (Burgess) and The Stainless Steel Rat (Harrison) lose more than a half-star from their high at Amazon, to their drop at GoodReads.

The 2000s do not suffer this effect. Where both eras enjoy an identical star rating at GoodReads, the reviewers at Amazon expose a significant gulf: The average star rating for 60s Bests is 4.3 at Amazon. For Contemporaries? 4.0

In other words, if anything, GoodReads is burying the Classics by comparison, providing a false sense that the overall quality of the best of each era has not declined. Their lists are hiding more than a quarter of a star on average from beloved old books. This is the opposite of the “Classic Effect”. Call it “Contemporary Bias” instead.

The evidence:

Best of the 1960s (According to GoodReads)

GoodReads List Author GoodReads Rating GoodReads Rank GR Rating Rank Amazon Rating Difference from GR to Amazon
Dune Frank Herbert 4.1 1 3 4.5 -0.4
Stranger in a Strange Land Robert A. Heinlein 3.9 2 14 4.0 -0.1
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick 4.1 3 6 4.3 -0.3
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula Le Guin 4.0 4 8 4.2 -0.2
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Robert A. Heinlein 4.2 5 2 4.5 -0.3
Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut 4.0 6 9 4.2 -0.2
2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke 4.1 7 7 4.5 -0.5
The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick 3.8 8 15 4.0 -0.2
Lord of Light Roger Zelazny 4.1 9 4 4.6 -0.5
A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess 4.0 10 12 4.6 -0.6
Ubik Philip K. Dick 4.1 11 5 4.3 -0.2
Way Station Clifford D. Simak 4.0 12 10 4.4 -0.4
The Stainless Steel Rat Harry Harrison 3.9 13 13 4.6 -0.7
Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut 4.2 14 1 4.3 -0.1
Stand on Zanzibar John Brunner 4.0 15 11 4.2 -0.2
Average 4.0 4.3 -0.3

Best of the 2000s (According to GoodReads)

GoodReads List Author GoodReads Rating GoodReads Rank GR Rating Rank Amazon Rating Difference from GR to Amazon
Old Man’s War John Scalzi 4.2 1 2 4.4 -0.2
Altered Carbon Richard K. Morgan 4.1 2 4 4.2 -0.1
Perdido Street Station China Mieville 3.9 3 11 3.9 0.0
Revelation Space Alastair Reynolds 4.0 4 9 3.7 0.3
The City & the City China Mieville 3.9 5 13 3.8 0.1
The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins 4.4 6 1 4.6 -0.2
Blindsight Peter Watts 4.0 7 10 4.0 0.0
Anathem Neal Stephenson 4.2 8 3 4.0 0.2
Spin Robert Charles Wilson 4.0 9 6 4.1 -0.1
Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood 4.0 10 8 4.0 0.0
The Road Cormac McCarthy 3.9 11 12 4.0 -0.1
The Ghost Brigades John Scalzi 4.1 12 5 4.4 -0.3
Rainbows End Vernor Vinge 3.7 13 15 3.6 0.1
Illium Dan Simmons 4.0 14 7 4.2 -0.2
Hominids Robert J. Sawyer 3.8 15 14 3.7 0.1
Average 4.0 4.0 0.0
5 Comments
  • Nathan says:

    Unfortunately, as articles on Tor.com and i09 have pointed out, the Golden Age is heavily politicized by today’s readership to the point where books written over twenty years ago are shunned as “having too high a bar of entry” for new sff readers. (Recommendations quickly become a lovefest between a group of current writers that do nothing but recommend each other’s works.)

    • Daniel says:

      Which is quite obviously preposterous. Interestingly, among the Classics, the ones that have the lowest level of Contemporary Bias degradation happen to be:

      Stranger in a Strange Land
      Cat’s Cradle
      Left Hand of Darkness
      Slaughterhouse Five
      Man in the High Castle
      Ubik

      All of them, including those two by PKD, are modern literary darlings, even though not one of them is among the top 5 on the Classic Amazon list.

      By readers, Stranger is not even considered to be the best Heinlein, much less worthy of an all-time top 10 of the genre.

  • lp9 says:

    How expansive and impressive! Rock On Gentlemen

  • Hmm. Spitballing some ideas:

    -Readers aren’t really aware of Golden Age awesomeness. My main conception of SciFi of yore for a long time was of fairly simple, straightforward novels, as of Heinlein juveniles and Asimov. The complexity of Dune, The Stars My Destination, and Null-A blindsided me when I finally got around to reading them.

    -Politics has turned on them. Despite not having much in the way of racial descriptions, the Lensmen books are touted as being racist for not including “PoC”. Never mind the fact that everyone might be black or a golden nutty brown at that point.

    -It might just be that the quality is suffering. I find that hard to swallow, though; we have John C. Wright. Peter F. Hamilton and James SA Corey are turning out great reads. Hannu Rajaniemi turned out a great cyberpunk space opera with the Jean Le Flambeur books. Or it might be that I tend towards a certain sort of high-tech space opera that’s not suffering as badly.

    • Daniel says:

      Or, it might be that your interests have diverged strongly with the media and award-promoted lists. Where you may have had something in common with 1960s Hugo voters…you are galaxies apart from the current ones.

      My argument isn’t that SF has left the building. It is that outsiders have infiltrated the gates of SF, and are trying desperately to get people to read and believe that something other than core SF (“Blue”) creates the sum total of the reality of the genre.

      The Decline I point to is the difference between what the old traditional SF publishers want to believe about their readership, and what their readership actually wants. It really isn’t a new thought: after all, if traditional publishing had done its job in the 1990s and 2000s in satisfying market demands, there would have been no explosion in the independent SF press in recent years.

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