Taste Test #1
the results of Jam Tarts' first online taste test
Taste Test #1
During the month of January 2015, I conducted the magazine's first online "taste test". I sent friends and friends of friends -- and I paid to advertise over Facebook -- the following invitation to a wide-ranging, public audience:
"Which do you prefer -- line A or line B?" Please take part in our first-ever literary taste test by clicking on the link below. 5 questions, 4 minutes, 1 choice -- yours."
Since I was looking for gut reactions, respondents had only 40 seconds for each question, which provided two or more sets of lines or sentences for comparison. Doing so, I hoped to discourage people from researching the authors of the lines, which were anonymous. (All information from the survey online was also recorded anonymously -- so I don't know who voted for what.) If the respondent didn't make a selection within 40 seconds, the survey automatically advanced to the next question, and the back button was disabled. IP addresses were saved and blocked to keep people from re-taking the survey.
The invitation reached 18, 684 people, 71 started the survey and 64 people (8% dropout rate) completed the survey (0.3425% of the total reached). The reach-to-results ratio was low but the completion rate was high; while a lot of people were invited to take the taste test, only a third of 1% of them opened the link. Yet of those who opened the invitation, all of them began the survey and 92% completed it.
You can view a summary of the responses here.
As you can see from this summary, more people preferred lines from Plath's "Daddy" (68%) than lines from Jewel's song by the same name (32%); more people preferred lines from T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" (65%) than lines that imitate T.S. Eliot's style, taken from Henry Reid's satirical poem "Chard Whitlow (Mr. Eliot's Sunday Evening Postscript)"; and more than two thirds of respondents preferred Oscar Wilde's original, witty phrasing about cheap editions/men (77%) than the fabricated phrases I wrote solely for the purposes of this survey, distraction phrases which are semantically similar but syntactically different.
These were the results regarding the works originally written in English, which respondents were asked to compare.
In terms of translations from other languages into English:
For Catullus 85 (Odi et amo), people were split between the straight-forward translation provided by Peter Whigham in 1966 and anthologized by Penguin Editions (48%), and the translations by Ezra Pound or Frank Bidart, who together represented the other 52% of people's preference. Between the two translations that were not Whigham's -- that is to say, which were less literal, less straight-forward translations, people preferred Bidart's metaphoric translation (33%) to Pound's ironic translation (18%).
The last line of Eugenio Montale's Portami il girasole produced a wider spectrum of results -- but there were also more versions to choose from. 42% of respondents preferred "bring me the sunflower mad with light" (Antonino Mazza, Mosaic Press 1983); 20% preferred "Bring me that flower impassioned of the light" (Maurice English, New Directions 1965); 20% preferred some version of J. Gallasi's translation, with 13% preferring the version that's erroneously missing a comma after the word sunflower: "Bring me the sunflower crazed with the love of light", vs. only 7% for the original Gallasi translation that has a comma after the word sunflower: "Bring me the sunflower, crazed with the love of light." Last but not least, 18% of respondents said they preferred William Arrowsmith's version of the line: "Bring me the sunflower crazed with light." Of the significant differences, it appears that respondents slightly prefer "mad" as an modifier (42%) vs. "crazed" (38%) or "impassioned" (20%). Just looking at prepositions, more respondents (80%) prefer some form combination of mad/crazed "with" light vs. impassioned "of" the light (20%). When just looking at the two "crazed" formulations of this translated phrase, respondents are split between Arrowsmith's simply worded "crazed with light" and some version of Gallassi's compounded version -- "crazed with the love of light" (with or without comma), the main difference being the additional phrase "the love of" in Gallassi's. Speaking of additional words, a combination of 60% of respondents appear to prefer the shorter phrasing of Mazza's "mad with light" or Arrowsmith's "crazed with light") to the longer phrasing found in the other translations.
What can I say: this was a fun and interesting experiment. Some respondents wrote to ask: What are you getting at with this taste test? What's your motive? Well, now I can say what my true motive was -- and it was nothing, really; I had no impulse other than to experiment with a taste test like this, as product marketers do all the time with samples of food in grocery stores. If any insights were to come from these comparisons, I thought, that'd be great. But this was the first time I had done something like this, so my expectations were low -- and of course I tried to approach the activity as objectively as I could, given limited resources. (Objectively, not scientifically -- I don't claim that my process meets the threshold for scientific research.)
OK, great, so it was worthless then, right? Hold on, now. There were some interesting tid-bits, too. Some insights I think we can glean. Here are a few I gathered, which I want to share:
1. Phrasing matters. It's not just what we write, but how. Form can indeed trump content, in terms of what we prefer to read or hear. This insight isn't groundbreaking, but it's a nice reassurance in our fast-paced, digital age when the push for quantity can overrun quality. What the Oscar Wilde quote shows us is that, even if you capture the same meaning (semantics), how that meaning is expressed (syntax, stance, cadence) adds to the experience, something enjoyable to the mix. A two-thirds majority (77%) preferred Wilde's original, witty, well paced phrasing of "Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable" to either of my semantically similar but less eloquent fabrications -- "While cheap editions of great books may cause delight, cheap editions of great men cause detestation"; and "Cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable, even if we sometimes find that cheap editions of great books are delightful."
It's possible, of course, that more people recognized the original Wilde phrasing, and so made their selection accordingly. But I would venture a guess that if respondents did recognize this quote from 1891, perhaps from their school days, then there's something to the quote itself that stands the test of time, that the phrase itself is memory-worthy . . . whereas my versions, although carrying a similar meaning as Wilde's original quote, are forgettable. Phrasing, in short, matters to how we take-in and remember meaning.
2. Originality matters. Building on the observations above, we can also say that respondents recognized and rewarded Wilde's original phrasing over my lesser imitations; whether or not they remembered the quote itself, folks voted for his words over mine. A similar insight can be gleans from the Plath/Jewel and the T.S. Eliot/Henry Reed comparisons, where in both cases respondents prefer the original author's words to those of the later imitator.
On the other hand, since the survey presented the phrases anonymously, some (most?) people probably weren't aware which was the original and which was the imitator. One could argue that people merely prefer lines that have to do with vampires (Plath) and grasshoppers (Eliot) instead of psycho-analysis (Jewel) and purgatory (Reed). That's fair, and perhaps just as accurate an insight, given the small sample size of the survey. I tried to find comparable lines that lined up content-wise. And in future taste tests I hope to find more examples that are closer in nature, so that I can test this insight further.
3. Simplicity matters. Reading the results of this survey, one could claim that people seem to prefer simple, straight-forward phrasing and short words with clear meanings. In general, the simpler, more plain-spoken translations garnered more votes. And one could argue that the word "emollient" in Reed's lines may have been a strike against him. Indeed, "emollient" is the kind of big word one often associates with elite poets, like Eliot; but the most complex word in this sample from "Ash Wednesday" is the word "Prophesy", a relatively middle-of-the road word -- and once you get past it, the real complexity of Eliot's lines takes place not in any single word but in the artful repetition of the simple (monosyllabic, common) word "wind".
Lastly, one could say simplicity matters because of the results of the Wilde quote -- his language appears simple, effortless, whereas mine does not (oh, but I tried!). Simplicity, of course, is not easily achieved in literature. Perhaps, then, it's right to be rewarded.
Phrasing, yes. Originality, probably. Simplicity, maybe. But there is one more insight that's missing from this analysis, which I also want to share: It has to do with separating my preferences for favored artists from preferences for specific phrases, words, and lines. You see, in putting the survey together I'll confess I found lines from Jewel (and other pop performers) which I strongly preferred to lines from poets I admire more than all the pop performers combined. Similarly, after conducting the survey and reviewing the results, I'm more convinced of the effectiveness of the word "mad" in the Montale line, whereas I have for the past 15 years been firmly in the "crazed with light" camp, without questioning it. In other words, my own tastes were tested in the process. And it's my sincere hope that those who took this taste test were likewise confronted with a similar situation in which, absent any information about authorship or any context, they also found themselves questioning what they like and why they like it.
It's like when you're on an editorial board of a magazine, for example, and some troublemaker on the board passes around a lesser-known poem by a great literary figure, anonymously, only to have it trashed by everyone in the room. Or, the opposite: an amazing short story from a writer who is universally reviled by those who claim to have "good taste." In the reveal, in the moments afterwards, after you know who wrote that thing you liked -- no, really . . . so-and-so wrote that?! -- the question is plain: Am I more a lover of poetry or of poets? Of lines or bylines? Of stories or story-tellers?
And this core question, I would argue, can be a very fruitful one. And so, I have put it at the very center of Jam Tarts. This is the magazine's ethos: questioning tastes.
I hope you'll continue this questioning with us. Taste Test #1 was just the first in what I hope will be a running series of surveys that will continue to draw results from larger, more diverse audiences. Till the next time, thank you for your continued support and for all your input.