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Meritocracy
Thursday, 2017-08-24, 1:03 AM
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Novels with Personalities

Do Novels Have Personalities?

(07 October 2007)

There are few industries where a flagship product can be regarded as unadulterated drivel by almost half of its consumers and still be hailed as a glorious success. Welcome to the wacky world of publishing.

Last year, Labyrinth by Kate Mosse won the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year Award, and sold in excess of one million copies in the UK. Yet if you analyse the reviews of this novel on Amazon’s website, you will discover an astonishing hidden truth. Over forty-five percent of the reviewers awarded it either one or two stars (out of five), with comments such as: ‘one of the worst books I have read’; ‘badly written and eminently unreadable’; ‘pathetic’; ‘tripe’; ‘howling disappointment’; ‘do not buy this book’; ‘schoolgirl use of language’; ‘avoid like the plague’; ‘very boring’; ‘don’t bother’; ‘badly in need of an editor’; ‘hype and no substance’; ‘waste of time and money’; ‘tedious’; ‘how bad can it get?’; ‘rubbish’; ‘a truly dreadful read’; ‘awful in every way possible’; ‘please spare us’; ‘disaster’; ‘lost my will to live’.

I must confess that these opinions reflect my own assessment of this novel. However, to be fair, over forty percent of reviewers awarded it either four or five stars and heaped extravagant praise on it. How can this range of opinions be explained? How can a novel simultaneously be held up as an example of wonderful writing and traduced as shockingly inept?

Is it possible that novels have personality types (or invariably reflect the personality type of their author) and just as there are certain people whom we dislike for no other reason than that their personality clashes with ours, there are certain books we’re sure to dislike because they don’t mesh well with our personality type? If this is true, the implications are dramatic. For starters, since there’s no criterion for privileging one personality type over another, all judgements concerning the quality of a novel must be deemed subjective. Thus, for example, when Salman Rushdie declares that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a book for people who don’t like books, perhaps he’s doing nothing more than annunciating the literary taste associated with his own personality type rather than making a credible and objective critique of Dan Brown’s writing.

Personally, I find Salman Rushdie’s oeuvre unengaging and, frankly, unreadable whereas I admire Dan Brown’s ability to make me turn the page. I would bet that my personality type is similar to Brown’s and markedly different from Mr Rushdie’s. I would go so far as to conjecture that Rushdie is incapable of writing any novel that I could ever enjoy. What he ought to have said is: ‘The Da Vinci Code is a book for people who don’t like Salman Rushdie’s books.’

The crime writer Val McDermid endorsed Labyrinth with the comment: ‘Eat your heart out, Dan Brown, this is the real thing.’ I don’t know what far-distant planet McDermid was visiting when she offered this opinion but that, in a sense, is my whole point. Her personality type allowed her to see in Labyrinth some quality I certainly didn’t see, and Dan Brown’s merits are apparently invisible to her.

Can we pin down the personality type of novelists and, by extension, their novels? Myers and Briggs, extending the pioneering work of Carl Jung, have produced the most well-known personality categorising system (see, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers-Briggs_Type_Indicator). They identify sixteen separate types, based on four pairs of personality traits: extraversion/introversion; sensing/intuition; thinking/feeling; judging/perceiving.

Part of their methodology involves defining people according to whether they live predominantly in the moment and focus on information taken in by their senses (the sensing type), or whether they are future-orientated, and focus on information, patterns and insights generated by their own conscious and subconscious thought processes (the intuitive type). The sensing types outnumber the intuitive types by three to one according to some estimates.

Since these types perceive the world in distinct ways, will their taste in novels be different? Given that intuitive types tune into future possibilities, perhaps they will be attracted to genres such as science fiction, fantasy and high-concept thrillers. Perhaps they’ll be more drawn to plot-driven fiction than character-based fiction because plot is more abstract, future-directed and less sensual.

The literary establishment (Rushdie et al) derides these genres. Literary fiction rarely features anything that can be described as a compelling plot or a cutting-edge idea; it spends an inordinate amount of time trying to bring the moment to life by the use of elaborate description to conjure up smells, tastes, sights, sounds, how things feel to the touch. Simile and metaphor are heavily employed to further enhance the intensity of the moment. It tends to revolve around character as the vehicle for experiencing the world of sensations and feelings rather than plot as the means of exploring intuitions and ideas.

In highly plotted, page-turning fiction, characters exist mainly for the purpose of advancing the plot and expressing the ideas of the central theme rather than as characters-in-themselves. Dan Brown’s characters are ridiculed as paper thin. So what? I’ve enjoyed all of his novels yet I haven’t cared about any of his characters. I read his books for the plots and ideas, not for the characterisation. Many people in the literary world seem unable to grasp that a novel doesn’t have to be about character. Is non-character-centric fiction challenging for people in whom sensing and feeling are dominant? It seems that if they don’t have a character in the novel to do their sensing and feeling for them then they switch off from the story. Conversely, intuitive types zone out if they’re presented with a character who does nothing other than sense and feel the fictional world he inhabits.

Imagine that all the literary novelists in the world took a Myers-Briggs test and were revealed to have exactly the same personality type. Thriller writers, chick-lit authors, crime novelists, horror writers, science fiction writers: perhaps a clear-cut personality type exists for each of these categories of writer.

Presumably Labyrinth underwent structural and copy editing and yet, to my eyes and those of many Amazon reviewers, it appeared not to have been edited at all. What does this say about the value of the editing process? Can it be claimed to add any value if it doesn’t seem to offer a demonstrable improvement in a novel’s quality? For many readers of Labyrinth, its author and editor failed spectacularly, yet this was the biggest publishing success of the year in the UK. Its author will secure a huge advance for her next novel, her editor will get a large bonus, and her publishing company will seek new authors of this ilk. No one pays any attention to the fact, or cares, that if one million people read this novel then, extrapolating from the Amazon results, a staggering 450,000 loathed it, and presumably won’t be reading Ms Mosse ever again. (I know I won’t.)

If those people who hated Labyrinth worked in the publishing industry and this manuscript crossed their desks, it would have been rejected out of hand with an accompanying message along the lines of ‘don’t give up the day job.’ Labyrinth, luckily for its author, didn’t encounter these critical responses when it was submitted. However, can’t we conclude that there are many potentially successful manuscripts out there that might have made the grade, if not for the fact that they fell foul of unfairly adverse feedback at an early stage (i.e. feedback from an unresponsive personality type)?

It’s well-known that men are switching off from fiction in droves. Is this in any way connected with the publishing industry being increasingly controlled by women? Are male personality types being systematically marginalized in the fiction world? The vast majority of men involved in fiction are hardly what you would call men’s men. How many traditional men can relate to someone like Salman Rushdie? Yet I’m sure most would have no difficulty in identifying with codes, puzzles, mysteries, secret societies, conspiracy theories etc i.e. all of Dan Brown’s interests. How many people in the publishing industry have a high opinion of Dan Brown? The literary snobs despise him just as much as they do Stephen King.

The publishing industry may be nothing but a vehicle for promoting the tastes of the particular personality types of those (mostly women, and men ‘in touch with their feminine side’) who work in the industry. Many readers with different personality types may consequently feel excluded and find books a complete turn-off; or, rather, have no interest in the types of books being foisted on them. This is a serious commercial issue for the publishing industry.

The reality is that the British publishing industry is controlled by a narrow metropolitan London elite of probably no more than a couple of hundred people. Agents and publishers tend to come from very similar backgrounds (indeed many agents are ex-publishers); they are usually from the Home Counties, public school and Oxbridge educated, with degrees in English literature. How many Britons share this background? If we were to subject all of the main players in the British publishing industry to Myers-Briggs testing, would we find that they all had the same personality type? If so, we can be confident that all of the people in Britain who don’t belong to that personality type are being ill-served.

Do all the clients of a literary agent belong to the same personality type as the agent? (If so, there’s no point in applying to that agent to become one of her clients unless you belong to her personality type.) Are all the books selected by specific commissioning editors written by authors of a specific personality type? Are commissioning editors systematically rejecting certain novels not because those novels aren’t any good but simply because they’re not in accord with the commissioning editor’s personality type? This would imply a catastrophic failure on the commissioning editor’s part – they might be ignoring whole sectors of the book-buying public, at great commercial cost to their employers. (The most commonly quoted reason a commissioning editor gives for rejecting a novel is that she does not ‘love’ it sufficiently. Surely ‘love’ is the last thing that should enter a commercial person’s consideration. The real issue is whether or not the novel will sell. The commissioning editor’s personal tastes ought to be irrelevant.)

Is the winner of the Man Booker Prize entirely dependent on the Myers-Briggs composition of the judging panel? If two different Man Booker Prize panels, reflecting different personality types, were selected in a particular year and reached radically different decisions regarding the long-list, the short-list and the ultimate winner, wouldn’t the Man Booker Prize be exposed as a meaningless farce?

I was chatting to one of the UK’s top agents not so long ago and he remarked, echoing William Goldman’s famous remark concerning Hollywood, that no one knows anything about books. I thought this was an amazing assertion from a highly successful professional in the industry. Surely, you would think, he had sure-fire methods for identifying top-notch manuscripts. As he freely admitted, he doesn’t. It all comes down to luck. Usually, his taste accords with that of publishers, and he can often secure huge advances for his clients. On other occasions, his taste isn’t matched, and his client gets nothing and never gets published.

The point here is that the agent has no idea in advance which of his recommendations will be picked up by publishers and which won’t. To some extent, he doesn’t care because he can make a fine living out of those clients who succeed. His success isn’t based on his dazzling sales technique but simply on the fortunate fact that he has a personality type in high accord with those of commissioning editors. But what of his clients who fail? Their manuscripts, from the agent’s point of view, were every bit as likely to succeed as those that actually did. He had no means to identify beforehand which would ‘work’ and which wouldn’t. Personality profiling could revolutionise this situation and save everyone a lot of time and effort by ensuring that agents submitted the right material to the right agents, based on a match of personality types.

In fact, the publishing industry could dispense altogether with the cosy, long-lunch relationship between agents and commissioning editors and switch to a model based on psychological profiling and focus groups i.e. finally introduce a quasi-scientific approach to the luvvie world of publishing. As things stand, the only attribute you must possess to be a successful agent is to have the same taste as commissioning editors. No matter how good you are in every other way, if you’re lacking in this respect, you will fail. Same for aspiring novelists. If you don’t have a similar personality type to commissioning editors, you will not be commissioned.

Some people complain that publishing houses are increasingly run along the lines of supermarkets. If that’s the case why is it that commissioning editors must ‘love’ a novel before they’ll publish it? The senior managers of Tesco need to neither love nor like baked beans in order to sell them. It’s this notion of ‘love’ that guarantees that publishing will always produce far more misses than hits since there’s no way the London luvvies will ever accurately reflect the tastes of  the outside world. (Can you imagine whatTesco’s profits would be like if its purchasing managers were airy-fairy Oxbridge manqué artists who thought commerce should be subservient to their personal tastes?) A disproportionate amount of commercially unviable ‘fine’ novels will always be produced, reflecting the English lit obsessions of their authors and commissioning editors. In the supermarket environment, such unprofitable lines would have been killed off long ago. Why hasn’t hard commercial reality achieved the same in publishing?

Commissioning editors who imagine that they can somehow gauge the taste of the public and pick sure-fire winners ought to bear in mind the salutary example of the fund management industry. There, it was discovered that the vast majority of lavishly rewarded and lauded fund managers consistently failed to outperform index tracking funds selected by computer program and requiring no human intervention whatsoever. In fact, it was demonstrated that stock selections chosen at random usually fared far better than most fund managers’ expensively assembled choices. I bet that focus groups comprised of ordinary members of the public would commission vastly more hits than highly paid commissioning editors. Why? For the blindingly obvious reason that by simply being who they are they would provide a more accurate barometer of the tastes of the general public.

Appalled? In complete agreement? If you have an intuitive personality type, you may sympathise with most of what I’ve said here, but if you’re one of those pesky sensing types, and I’m placing most of the literary establishment in this bracket, you probably won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. To hijack one of Shaw’s most famous quotations, commissioning editors and readers are frequently two different personality types separated by a common language.

When it comes to assessing a novel’s likely commercial appeal, a group selected from the general public will always be better at determining this than agents and commissioning editors. Hence, a smart publishing company looking to maximise its profits should find a way to dispense with the services of agents and commissioning editors and take the radical step of involving the public in the commissioning phase. Focus groups accurately reflecting the Myers-Briggs personality types of the general public should be utilised. Their ‘hit’ rate will inevitably be markedly superior to that of even the most successful commissioning editor.

The stark truth is that a novel’s quality is like beauty – it’s not inherent but is very much in the eye of the beholder, or, to be more accurate, in the Myers-Briggs personality type of the reader.