Einstein didn’t believe that the physical world, at the smallest of levels, could be dictated by randomness. He and his friend Neils Bohr had animated arguments over the mysteries of quantum mechanics. As it stands today, it appears that Einstein was wrong and that God does indeed play dice. And this may be just as true for art as it is for subatomic particles.
The great writer Paul Auster once said, “The world is governed by chance. Randomness stalks us every day of our lives.” As a wildly successful writer, perhaps Paul could intuit what researches have recently confirmed: There is an element of chance in what works of art succeed and what works go unnoticed.
I highly, strongly, stomping-my-feet recommend that you listen to this short piece from NPR before reading along any further. You should also read the show notes here. Don’t worry, it won’t take long and it’ll totally be worth it.
For those who didn’t read or listen, a quick rundown of the research: A Princeton professor, baffled by why the Mona Lisa is the most popular (or famous) work of art in the world, set out to create several identical worlds populated with the same set of little-known songs to see if the same music would be favorably rated. For a control, he had one group of students rate the music without those ratings being visible to others. The rest of the groups could see how other people rated songs. What he found was that minor differences in popularity were accentuated in the groups where cross-talk was possible. Seeing what others liked increased the chance that you would like it (except for the occasional hipster, of course). The songs that rose to the top did not correlate across his identical worlds. And it’s worth mentioning that his sample size of listeners was huge: 30,000 listeners across the 9 worlds, so variance in taste can’t explain the results.
This research might disturb some while bringing comfort to others. For me, it helps explain the wild popularity of one of my books, which seems disproportionate to its worth. It also explains why many fantastic works can suffer in obscurity. It also reinforces the enormous power of word-of-mouth. In my line of work, reader recommendations are everything. This would also indicate that online reader reviews are more important than reviews from lone critics in more traditional outlets.
I’ve noticed this with my iTunes shopping habits. While scrolling through albums, my eyes (and mouse) are drawn to the songs with the longest popularity bars. I’m more likely to listen to these, and therefore to buy them, and therefore to recommend the songs to others. Small variations beget large differences in outcome. The butterfly doesn’t just flap her wings, she judges art. Or to twist another phrase: I might not know art, but I know what you like.
What do we do with this knowledge? There are some things we already do to counter this effect. We temper expectations when we see things very highly rated. I watched Disney’s Frozen expecting massive disappointment, because all I’d heard was how awesome the film is (and it was). But is it good to go into a work as a critic, armored against amusement? Possibly not. I’m reading a novel right now with a massive reputation and a huge endorsement from my mother, and all I can do is see the flaws. I’d rather not have heard a thing about the work. Previews ruin films for me. And when my friend Chris recommends anything (a comic, video game, film), he wants to go into all the things I’ll like about it. I have to beg him to stop. His recommendation is enough. Don’t prime me; just let me experience it.
This may be impossible to do when it comes to discovering new works of art. We rely on one another to help sort through the massive options in all forms of media. But maybe we should limit how much information we take in before we give a work a try. And perhaps we should pepper our samplings with some number of unknown works to give other artists a random chance. Free book samples allow us to do both of these things without a penny spent. And it can take less time (and be more enjoyable) to read a sample chapter than to sort through a dozen reviews before making up our mind. If the work captures your attention, read to the end of the sample and then give it a purchase.
For artists, the Princeton research can be a balm or a torment. That undiscovered work may never be discovered. God’s dice simply came up snake-eyes. If that makes us uncomfortable, Einstein would say that we’re in good company, that this is not how the world should work. Bohr would say that God cares not if we approve of how He made the world. I would say that undiscovered works should be given plenty of time to have their chance. New cohorts of readers are coming into being all the time, just as with the 9 worlds Princeton researchers concocted. Or go the nuclear option: Unpublish those unloved books and put them back up with a new cover and title, and give your piece a chance.