Now scientists have discovered the ‘snob effect’, can we forgive the snobby?

When a book wins a prize, reader reviews of it don’t go up, they go down

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Snobs are everywhere if you know how to look. In the best seats of a small café, on the hunt for a local butcher, browsing vintage sneaker blogs. As far as I see it, the term “snob” has unfurled, sailing away from its 18th-century roots in social haughtiness to the current latitude where it can be applied to almost anyone who has a nose and isn’t afraid of looking down it. I consider myself an apprentice book snob. The real pros you spot on trains. Novel in lap, brows furrowed, reading a John Williams that isn’t Stoner, or some choice cut from the 1993 Booker longlist. To be frank, I have to stop myself applauding every time I see one.

Real snobbery takes guts. And as of this month, we know a bit more about what else it requires. A study to be published in the Administrative Science Quarterly has traced the way readers respond when a book wins a literary prize. To anyone who isn’t a snob themselves (“It is impossible”, wrote William Thackeray in 1848, “for any Briton not to be a snob, to some degree”) the conclusion of this study might sound counter-intuitive: to snobs, it will make perfect sense. When a book wins a prize, reader reviews of it don’t go up, they go down. Of 64 books analysed, the example provided is of Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winner, The Sense of an Ending. After the accolade was awarded to Barnes’s thin novel – which is fine, if not a favourite of mine (said like a true snob!) – users of goodreads.com reported on it more harshly.

Two theories are offered. One, that the award brings a new audience to the work, who might not be bookworms so much as bandwagon-riders. More interesting is the second theory. This suggests that a ‘snob effect’ kicks in, and readers who enjoyed the book before get spooked by the masses of newcomers reading it, turning cold as everyone else turns hot. If you’re Julian Barnes, such a reaction might strike you as fickle (if you’re any of the authors beaten to the 2011 Booker by Julian Barnes, it could offer some consolation). But to anyone who likes novels without being able to write them, the ‘snob effect’ is both understandable and, you might say, absolutely necessary.

Understandable because falling for a novel, like falling for a person, is traditionally a one-to-one relationship. It tricks the brain into feeling unique. You might share the pleasure with like-minded people, but what a pickle it puts the snob in to discover that everyone is like-minded, and they are not a snob at all. Moving on becomes a matter of pride. And this moving on, you also might say, is necessary to keep the arts in good shape. Because if snobs didn’t keep turning the page on old favourites, we’d still have the Rolling Stones headlining Glastonbury and… oh, well you get the point.

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