Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

The latest study on the readability of literary fiction versus genre fiction appeared on the population’s mobile phones and tablets. People had to scroll down to read it. There were lots of words and plenty of numbers. Loads of numbers in fact.  And statistics.

Eyes rolled. Thumbs moved over keypads. The study didn’t trend; it didn’t survive in the blogosphere. Which was a shame, because it concluded that literary fiction was no more difficult to read than genre fiction. Luckily, two people on the planet did bother to read it as they travelled on a train together.

Vladimir ran his hand over his head searching for hair. “It’s a shame that lovers of genre fiction don’t get to grips with literary fiction. If only they would concentrate, put down their burgers.”

Barbara pulled a face. “It’s hard to concentrate when the author takes the first two thousand words to move the protagonist one space forward in the post office queue, and all the while the author is making incomprehensible references to the structure of other texts.”

“That’s a very long sentence. Not like you at all, with your pages of dialogue, and…” Vladimir trailed off.

“And what? Clichéd characters? At least my books have a plot, setting and action.”

“In a very narrow universe,” murmured her companion. But he didn’t wish to argue, and he positioned his tablet on his knee so they could read together. “Let’s have a good look at this.”

The study’s author, a male scientist and writer, had taken extracts from nine literary novels and nine genre fiction novels, and then analysed the texts for ease of reading, number of paragraphs, and proportion of dialogue.

The literary authors and novels were Ian McEwan (Atonement, Enduring Love, Amsterdam), JM Coetzee (Disgrace, Diary of a Bad Year, Youth), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Carole Shields (Useless) and Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March).

The genre authors were Stephen King (It, Bag of Bones, Salem’s Lot), Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, Angels and Demons), JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), Stephanie Myers (Twilight) and Dean Koontz (Frankenstein Dead or Alive).

Then they got to the Results.  “Oh, look at all these numbers!” The train rattled on.

The first 921 words (range 850-1034) of the text (in most cases the initial chapters) were taken as complete paragraphs from internet sources and pasted into online readability calculators. A manual analysis of the structure of the extracts was also performed. Data is presented as mean, standard deviation (SD), n=9 in each sample. Differences in mean scores are analysed using Student’s t test and accepted as significant if p<0.05.

“Who would do such a thing?” marvelled Vladimir.

“Do you think he even likes reading?” asked Barbara.

Both authors ploughed through the numbers; neither wanted to give up and lose face.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade level scores were on average 11.2 (SD 2.6) for literary, and 9.3 (SD 1.4) for genre, where a score of 10 suggested the piece was readable by a student aged 15-16 in the 10th grade.

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scores were 50.5 (SD 8.4) for literary and 55.0 (SD 7.5) for genre, where a score of 60-70 was easily understandable by 13-15 year old students.

Gunning-Fog Index scores were 10.9 (SD 1.8) for literary and 9.3 (SD 1.6) for genre, where 10 is the number of years in full-time education required to understand the text.

None of these differences in reading scores were significant (p>0.05).

There were quiet sighs of relief at this sentence, which was also a call-out quote in the margin of the report.

“So there’s no difference between literary and genre?” exclaimed Barbara.

Vladimir wasn’t so sure. “Wait.  There’s more.  Look at this.”

Genre extracts contained more paragraphs (mean 22.7, SD 11.3) than literary extracts (mean 9.6, SD 4.1, p=0.005).  Genre extracts also contained significantly more paragraphs with dialogue (mean 7.2, SD 7.2) than literary extracts (mean 1.2, SD 2.3), p=0.03,

“Ha!  I thought so!” trumpeted Vladimir.  “Look at how you have to make it easy for them!”

“No, darling, I think it just means we know how to keep the pages turning.”  Barbara patted his hand.  “Honestly, what can you make of a study that evencounts the commas and full stops!”

The average number of major punctuation marks used was similar: genre 67.0 (SD 15.7), vs. literary: 55.6 (SD 14.7). The number of three syllable words was also similar: genre 79.9 (SD vs. literary: 88.6 (SD 16.3).

They shook their heads and were thankful to reach the conclusion.

In summary, there was no statistical difference in three widely used reading scores between literary and genre fiction or in the use of punctuation or longer words. However, genre fiction was distinguished by a tendency towards shorter paragraphs and a greater frequency of dialogue. No doubt the content matters;

“Do you think so?” asked Barbara.

“Unbelievable!” said Vladimir.

…tales of boy wizards and vampire romances, however one-dimensional, may be more appealing than the recycled life experiences of the author dressed up as the protagonist.

“Cheeky bugger!” Vladimir turned the screen off and looked out of the window, staring past his reflection. He wondered whether he should write more dialogue.

Barbara closed her eyes and scenes from her childhood appeared; perhaps she could weave some in for extra depth in her characters?

Then the train entered a tunnel and they thought about something else.

© Mark Carew 2013



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