Michael J. Price Lab for Digital Humanities

The Goodreads Project

The Goodreads Project

Prestige, Popularity, and the Valences of Positive Reception

Jim English

John Welsh Centennial Professor of English; Director, Penn Humanities Forum; Interim Director, Price Lab for Digital Humanities

Lyle Ungar

Professor of Computer and Information Science

Tianli Han

Gradutae Student, Computer and Information Science

Scott Enderle

Digital Humanities Specialist, Penn Libraries

Funding Period: 
May, 2016October, 2016

Project Manager: James Pawelski
Director of Education and Senior Scholar, Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program

Assistant: Daniel Sample
CAS '18 (English, Statistics)

Supported by the Price Lab for Digital Humanities in partnership with the Positive Psychology Center and the World Well-Being Project.

A fundamental distinction for scholars of literary reception – whose work addresses the habits, experiences, and judgments of readers – is that between status and sales, critical prestige and mass popularity. A novel may sell in the millions yet attract no serious critical regard, while another novel earns high esteem among academics and distinguished authors but enjoys little commercial success. It was once assumed that these two different forms of positive reception correlate with two distinct and non-overlapping readerships, a passive and unschooled mass readership and a critically engaged, highly educated “serious” readership. But there is ample evidence that some readers enjoyably consume both prestigious and popular fiction. What we don’t know much about are the affective inflections of these presumably different but equally positive experiences of reading. This project is a first attempt to explore those different valences via computational analysis of online reader reviews in the largest repository of such reviews: the Goodreads social reading site. We have scraped 2 million reviews from the site, corresponding to the novels being used in the Contemporary Fiction Database Project, a parallel stream of research supported by Price Lab.  Many tests have already been run on the reviews alone. We are now beginning to compare results run on the reviews with the same tests run on the novels reviewed. 

Sample Figure I:  Words that correlate positively with 4 or 5 star reviews of prize-nominated novels and negatively with 4 or 5 star reviews of bestsellers. Larger font = stronger correlation. Only reviewers who have written 4 or 5 star reviews of both kinds of novel are included.  For each included reviewer an equal number of bestseller reviews and prize-novel reviews is used. (Blue/red signals word frequency across all the reviews, with more red = more frequent.)