Author Recognition Survey Results

METHODOLOGY: On May 26, 2005, during lunch hour, surveyor Edward Champion asked various people in the Embarcadero Center (a multi-block shopping center in San Francisco’s Financial District), if they had heard of eleven authors. The surveyor tried not to discriminate by age, gender, race, or class. Among the participants were a smug investment banker who claimed to be “a literary type” (and who was only able to identify two authors) and a down-to-earth cable car operator catching a smoke between runs.

Ten women and nine men were asked in person by the surveyor to offer a “yes” or “no” answer if they recognized the name of the author. (The gender makeup was tracked separately from the data, so as not to corrupt it. I should again point out that this was an informal study that tried to extend across demographics without preference to makeup.) If they knew of the author’s name, they were then asked to name a book that the author had written.

The surveyor remained impartial, so as not to intimidate the participants, only stepping in at times to urge the participants, “Don’t beat yourself up,” pointing out that there were no right or wrong answers and that this was just an informal survey.


Six authors recognized (1)

  • One could not name a single book by the authors recognized.

Four authors recognized (2)

  • One could name a book correctly by one of the authors recognized.
  • One could not name a single book by the authors recognized.

Three authors recognized (6)

  • Two could not name a single book by the authors recognized.
  • One could name a book correctly by two of the authors recognized.
  • Three could name a book correctly by one of the authors recognized.

Two authors recognized (3)

  • Three could name books correctly by two of the authors recognized.

One author recognized (6)

  • Four could not name a single book by the authors recognized.
  • Two could name a book correctly by the one author recognized.

No authors recognized (1)

Authors Recognized by Name:

Margaret Atwood (12)

  • The Handmaid’s Tale: 2
  • Cat’s Eye: 1
  • Wilderness Tips: 1
  • “I heard her on NPR”: 1
  • “Cheesy paperbacks”: 1
  • No Book Title Offered: 6

David Gardner (8)

  • “I heard him speak”: 1
  • No Book Title Offered: 7

Philip Roth (7)

  • “Confessions of a Communist”: 1
  • “‘Red’ in one of the titles”: 1
  • “American something”: 1
  • No Book Title Offered: 4

James Robison (6)

  • No Book Title Offered: 6

Michael Chabon (5)

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: 2
  • “Comic book novel”: 1
  • “Is he the guy who writes gay novels?”: 1
  • No Book Title Offered: 1

Kate Atkinson (1)

  • No Book Title Recognized: 1

Joanne Mitchell (1)

  • No Book Title Offered: 1

Chris Clarke (1)

  • No Book Title Offered: 1

Erik White (1)

  • No Book Title Offered: 1

William T. Vollmann (0)

Sue Monk Kidd (0)


The results here are quite interesting. I didn’t realize that Atwood would not only be so known, but that the participants would name books beyond The Handmaid’s Tale. Given his work with the Motley Fool, David Gardner’s recognition in the Financial District isn’t much of a surprise. His book titles, apparently, slip through the mind like a sieve. James Robison’s unfortunate success on the Trinity Broadcasting Network probably plays a hand in name recognition. Since Michael Chabon lives in Berkeley, I had thought he would do better. But participants were able to name a book by him better than the others. Philip Roth was quite the reverse. Participants knew his name, but really couldn’t remember a book title by him. Even more interesting, they came close to mentioning the novel, I Married a Communist, but weren’t quite able to do so. All this despite the alleged critical and popular success of The Plot Against America.

And, of course, I weep for Vollmann.

But does all this mean that a literary crisis is at hand? You make the call. Try this excercise in your neighborhood and see how the results stack up.

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  1. I won’t have my data (such as it is) until next week. At least we’ll have some small city: big city data to compare.

  2. Surprised about Sue Monk Kidd. We sold about a million copies of her book at the bookstore where I worked.

  3. Maybe what this says is that literary fiction continues to appeal to a thin sliver of American readers? With books marketed primarily to writers and MFA students, why would the “man on the street” know the works of these writers?

    It’s a “chicken or the egg” dilemma. The recent uproar at the National Book Awards (an elitist award to begin with) asks us whether it’s good to promote worthy books or recognize books that are more likely to be read by a wider audience. Of course, the mechanism for choosing which are the “best” books is a questionable endeavor to begin with.

  4. Point taken, W.S. But then how do you explain Margaret Atwood? The only real movie made of her work (and an unsuccessful one at that) was “The Handmaid’s Tale” and that was fifteen or so years ago. Yet people recognized her name more than the fundy and the capitalist. I actually thought the results were more encouraging. I was, frankly, expecting a lot worse.

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