How much does an author’s or artist’s identity influence our perceptions of quality? By now you’ve probably heard that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling quietly published a detective novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The book received good reviews but sold poorly until the author’s true identity was revealed. (Stephen King had a similar experience with his Richard Bachman pseudonym some years ago.)
In commenting on the above, the biologist Jerry Coyne raises an interesting question on his blog:
So here’s a conundrum for you, one that I’ve asked some of my artistic friends. Imagine that Beethoven had never written his Fifth Symphony. But then, a few years ago, someone finds the score of that piece in a stack of old papers—written by someone other than Beethoven, say, one Gustav Biederstücker. What would happen?
Obviously, it should be recognized as a masterpiece, but Coyne thinks it would probably be ignored; same thing if someone wrote it today, except that it would be criticized as a musical anachronism. He asks,
Is the intrinsic (as opposed to the dollar) value of a work of art so dependent on who writes it, rather than on what it expresses?
There’s no doubt that we’re influenced by reputation. The history journal I edit, as is typical for peer-reviewed publications, sends manuscripts for review by qualified scholars before publication. Following standard practice, I remove the author’s name so as not to bias the reviewer by the author’s reputation or credentials. But at a conference a few years ago, I was surprised when a university press editor told me her press did not follow this practice. The author’s identity was considered too important to omit from any stage of the decision-making process; it had a lot to do with potential sales and potential grants and underwriting of the book’s production costs.
In the same way, I’ve noticed that people tend to think more highly of articles once they are printed and bound than when they are merely in manuscript form–even if the article has required little or no editing. Packaging and presentation really do influence people’s perceptions of quality. A bookseller I know tells of buying unsold remainders of an old title that failed to attract buyers even when marked down to a dollar. He stripped the dated-looking jackets, had a new one designed, marked them up to something like $20, and sold the lot.
What’s going on in all of these anecdotes? Judging quality can be harder than you think. Sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult to say just why one thing is better than another. Often–as with so much of our thinking–we rely on mental shortcuts in the form of superficial cues that usually guide us with at least fair accuracy. For example, anyone can produce a manuscript (or write a blog!), but relatively few can convince an editor to publish their work, so seeing that same work with the imprimatur of a known publisher tells us that some professional gatekeeper thought it was worth publishing. It may still be junk, but the odds of it being a work of quality have improved.
We’re also social creatures, and relying on reputation and the opinions of others is a shortcut when we’re deciding how to spend our limited time and money. (My wife and I have said, only partly joking, that we don’t know which movies to see since Roger Ebert died; we found that we usually ended up agreeing with his reviews.)
But this can easily turn into mental laziness and conformity, and I think that’s what Coyne is getting at. Everyone knows that a Beethoven composition is supposed to be great (though even this great maestro cranked out a number of potboilers to pay the bills), but all we would know about Gustav Biederstücker, if there had really been such a composer, would be his present obscurity. What would be the likelihood of an obscure composer writing such a work? So we would have some reason for skepticism, at least before we heard the symphony.
But what about after? Is Coyne right? Would we underrate it, at least at first, because we didn’t know we were supposed to consider it a masterpiece?