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Going to a new source

Gronas mines the Web for literary tastes

The Internet, according to Mikhail Gronas, has opened a door to new avenues of literary study. According to him, there are volumes of unexplored, non-professional literary criticism at Amazon.com, in the form of customer reviews, which are ripe for academic scrutiny.

Mikhail Gronas
Mikhail Gronas, Assistant Professor of Russion Language and Literature (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Gronas, an Assistant Professor of Russian Language and Literature, is interested in literary tastes. He wants to know why people read certain books, what drives those reading decisions, and what lies behind readers' reactions. Sociological surveys are fine, he says, but the answers are shaped by the questions. With online book reviews, like those at Amazon.com, he can begin to get a quantitative measure of taste (from the number of stars assigned by readers to a book) along with a qualitative assessment (from the personal commentary provided by readers). 

"The book reviews are not based on literary theory," he says. "They are written by everyday readers, not scholars, who bring a new perspective to the topic of taste. Since online reviews are voluntary, they offer more honest opinions as well as provide materials that support that opinion. We can capture quantitative scores, and we can also study more subjective reactions to books."

With help from a colleague, Maksim Yegorov, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, who wrote a computer program to collect the information, Gronas studies the ratings that are assigned to books by Amazon.com customers. The "classics" usually get consistently high grades, in the four- or five-star range, albeit from fewer reviewers. Classics also have fewer detractors, or "taste dissenters," than other categories of books. Books with a large fan base, such as the books in the Harry Potter series, usually attract thousands of online reviewers, who also dispense high grades. The grade analysis produces predictable and regular patterns of taste.

"I can plot the grades of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment and see similarities, and do the same for the Harry Potter books," says Gronas. "Similar books have similar audiences that react in similar ways. It's surprising how consistent the results are."

"I am introducing a palpable, probabilistic approach to literary criticism. That's what makes it fun."

- Mikhail Gronas

On Amazon.com, there are also books that have what Gronas calls a high "index of controversiality." It's a measure that indicates varying opinions. The overall grade average of the books may be similar, but because the grades are more spread out, the index most often suggests a topic where opinions diverge and controversy arises. Take, for example, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot by Al Franken and The Way Things Ought to Be by Rush Limbaugh.

"Each of these books," says Gronas, "reflects opposing views, and probably they each attract a different audience, so you might conclude that they have little in common. Their grade profile, however, is remarkably similar. I suspect that books that have a high index of controversiality are more likely to sell better."

Gronas also digs deeper into the reviews to understand the more qualitative or subjective elements of literary taste. He says that the reviews usually contain some language that implies a visceral effect, say if a book makes a reader happy or depressed. Readers often comment about how long a book took to get through or whether a book was boring. Some of the reviews, according to Gronas, have a blog-like quality to them. They contain short sentences with quick exclamations as well as slang. Some are witty and creative.

"Scholars have divided aesthetic tastes into high-brow and low-brow taste zones," he says. "I've observed that the most common taste profile of an Amazon.com reader is actually neither. Rather, the typical reader values a mixture of both zones, a combination of both visceral, emotional effects and depth."

Gronas says that the online review community is a virtually untapped wealth of information that provides insight into what shapes opinions and cultural preferences.

"I am introducing a palpable, probabilistic approach to literary criticism. That's what makes it fun."

By SUSAN KNAPP

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08