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Judging the Booker

WHEN THE WINNER of this year's Man Booker Prize for the best novel in the English language (excluding works by Americans) was announced earlier this month, the London literary world erupted with the usual furor. This year, the prize went to a dark-horse candidate: "Vernon God Little," by D.B.C. Pierre, a profane, witty, satire on modern life -- modern American life, ironically enough -- whose protagonist is falsely accused of taking part in a Columbine-like slaughter of fellow high-school students in a podunk Texas town.

A critic for The Evening Standard called it the "wackiest choice" in nearly two decades. Pierre, it transpired, is a former drug addict and chronic gambler who once scammed a man out of $46,000. He has claimed he wrote "Vernon God Little" in a desperate bid to pay off his debts. The judges denied that his life story played any part in their deliberations.

Perhaps the Booker wars would end if the participants realized that, according to a recent study by one economist, very little is at stake: Judges in aesthetic competitions, according to Victor Ginsburgh, a professor at the University of Brussels, are simply not very good at identifying art works that future generations will acknowledge as great.

In an article in the summer issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives titled "Awards, Success, and Aesthetic Quality in the Arts," Ginsburgh looks at the Booker Prize, movie awards, and a Belgium-based international piano competition and attempts to measure whether the judgments of "experts" will withstand "the test of time" -- the criterion that, according to the philosopher David Hume, is the only way to sort out the faddish from the truly enduring.

Ginsburgh begins his inquiry by comparing the shortlisted Booker titles, and the winners of that prize, from 1969 to 1982. In the case of literary novels, he somewhat hazardously assumes that "aesthetic quality" will equate with popularity over the long run. ("War and Peace," after all, sells better than most other books written in the late 1860s.) Since sales figures are tightly held by publishers, he counts each book's number of editions.

By that admittedly flawed measure, Booker Prize winners don't seem to do any better than their shortlisted peers. The very first Booker honoree, for instance, 1969's "Something to Answer For," by P.H. Newby, saw only one edition and has long been out of print. Four books shortlisted that year, including Iris Murdoch's "The Nice and the Good" and Muriel Spark's "The Public Image," have since outsold it.

Ginsburgh tries another tack with the movies. Looking at the years 1950-80, Ginsburgh compares several expert groups' annual picks for "best film of the year" with three end-of-the-century lists compiled by similar experts' groups (the best-known being the American Film Institute's "100 Greatest Movies"). It turns out that only 26 percent of the films (eight of 31) that won a Best Picture Oscar from 1950 to 1980 wound up on all three top-100 lists at the end of the century.

"Singing in the Rain," for example, slipped by the Oscar voters in 1952 and yet it appears on all three best-100 lists today. Meanwhile, "The Greatest Show on Earth," the Best Picture winner of that year, is zero-for-three on the lists of all-time classics. "Ben Hur," heralded now mainly for the cheesiness of Charlton Heston's thespianism, won a Best Picture award over two undisputed classics: "North by Northwest" and "Some Like it Hot." (Interestingly, the Academy voters, often mocked for their philistinism, were better prophets than any other expert group Ginsburgh studied: The more exclusive New York Film Critics Circle picked only four films from 1950 to 1980 that ended up on all three top-100 lists.)

Those who rely on critics may be most rattled by Ginsburgh's discussion of the Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition, which is held annually in his native Brussels. This highly prestigious competition has helped ignite the careers of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Leon Fleischer, and Emanuel Ax, among others. It's extremely rigorous: In the finals, the pianists perform a concerto written especially for the occasion, which they've studied for only a week. Yet in his statistical analysis of the years from 1952 to 1991, Ginsburgh uncovered a troubling pattern: The players who perform last in any given evening, or late in the week-long contest, disproportionately get the best marks. In other words, the judges tend to rate highest whomever they've just heard. Clearly, something besides artistic merit is swaying their decisions.

This raises some alarming questions: Who among our greatest classical musicians got a big bounce at the start of their careers simply through the luck of the draw? And were any potential geniuses unfairly derailed? Perhaps critics' blurbs on CDs should come with a disclaimer.

Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. E-mail:

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