EVERY MAN HIS OWN CRITIC
The Culture of Amazon.com
12:00 AM, Aug 16, 1999 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
So you want to buy a book. Maybe you're too busy to stop off at the local bookshop. There's a funny moment in Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, the charming 1970 collection of letters between a New York writer and the London bookstore manager from whom she would order books by mail, in which Hanff explains that England only seems a long way from lower Manhattan; in fact, walking to the mailbox is a lot easier than trekking all the way uptown to Barnes & Noble.
Or maybe you're not even sure which book you want. So you boot up your computer, dial in to your Internet provider, and connect to Amazon.com -- the book-selling Web site that claims to have "Earth's Biggest Selection." It's there on the welcome screen that you'll see a list of the current "Hot Books," on which you can find a novel you've vaguely heard of but never got around to reading: Arthur S. Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, now out in paperback, for example.
But that's not all. Click your mouse on the selection, and a posse of readers waits to advise you on your choice. Bookstore clerks can't do this for you anymore, so why should you walk all the way down to your local Borders? One of the readers who has helpfully posted his thoughts on Amazon explains that Golden "uses an incredible amount of metaphors, adjectives, and can never just describe something the easy way." Fancy that from a novelist.
Another reader feels that there "needs to be a better way to learn about [a] geisha" than plowing through this book. Yes, there probably does. You've been saved.
Here's a sign of the times. Click on an Internet search for the number of sites bearing some earthly link to "opinion," and watch your results to the tune of 1,129,942 hits, give or take a few thousand. Everyone wants to know: "What do you think?"
And we find a fair index to this faith in the critical acumen of the American Everyman in the chatty precincts of the review pages of Amazon.com, the Internet bookstore whose convenience has already altered the purchasing habits of book buyers. By the beginning of this year, Amazon had three million titles in its catalogue, along with 125,000 CDs, figures to strike fear into the hearts of retailers everywhere.
Of course, some unconnected Luddites still complain that electronic commerce isn't like browsing in an actual store. But Amazon is not to be outdone. We can in fact browse, and talk to others, in a manner of speaking, just as though we were cruising the aisles at Barnes & Noble. But there's an even greater innovation: a people's republic of book reviewing.
Here's how it works. If you've done business with Amazon before, you're greeted by name -- still a little eerie, if you're not used to it. Even before you can ask for a selection, Amazon reports it has some "recommendations" tailored just for you, a reading list that the great cranium has constructed by cogitating on your past purchases. (When I click on mine, I discover Amazon has a decently high estimation of me. They think I'll enjoy Poor Richard's Almanack, A Century of Arts & Letters, New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music, and The Oxford Book of Comic Verse. They also think I'll take a shine to something called Being Digital. I'm sure it's a fine book, but I can't imagine what I did to deserve it.)
When you click on one of these book titles to call up the essentials of price and availability, you're also treated to a list entitled "Customers who bought this book also bought . . . ," an up-sell bid to make sure we don't miss out on all the related goodies we weren't smart enough to recognize before. Smoothly written review summaries and plot synopses (from Kirkus Reviews, for instance) are provided for the more popular titles, affording the barest information about the book, often mincingly worded for commercial effect.
Then comes the treat: "Customer Comments," the online reviews from fellow readers. You can't scroll these pages without a certain fresh optimism as common, nonprofessional voices speak within a large and open forum, blithely unencumbered by editorial midwives, able at last to shout and be heard. They're like birds freed from a cage, and it's only with difficulty that you escape the feeling that far too many Americans have far too much time on their hands.
You might suppose that this liberation from the exclusions of the "media elite" would encourage flights of free-thinking. But the average reviewer ends up trying to sound like the media elite. John Grisham has a ready-made fan club for his latest legal-mystery best-seller, The Testament. One reader gushes that this is "not his usual New Orleans based novel, but wow!!! What a great book. . . . I finished the book in three days, I couldn't put it down. You can't go wrong with this book." Another chimes in: "The story itself is just great: Money, hatred, love, religion, . . . everything is involved. A great book worth reading, John Grisham has done it again!!!!!!!" (F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that using exclamation marks is like laughing at your own jokes -- which, come to think of it, most of us do these days.) Although not professionals, the Amazon readers strain to compose professional-sounding blurbs: "Highly recommended." "I can't recommend it highly enough." "One of Grisham's Best." They could be written in neon.
And then there's another category of comment where we get freethinking with a vengeance: the niggling grouch. One example will do -- you know this guy; you sat next to him in high school. Pronouncing Grisham's latest "boring," he explains that the book was "written for a reader with below-average intelligence or reading skills, the characters . . . are flat and boring, it's WAY too long." He continues: "If I'm reading a book I really like, I'll finish it in a few days. But this book took me almost a month, not because it's hard, but because it almost felt like a chore . . . Don't waste your time."
It's true that, along with all the slim or clumsily malicious reviews, you can occasionally find sensible voices on Amazon. Responding to complaints that Michael Ondaatje's historical novel The English Patient isn't historical enough, one reader balked:
I am amazed by the amateur "critics." . . . Did they fail to see the lyric language and full, beautiful characters? If every novel was written with immaculate historical content, it would be non-fiction; perhaps people should review the definitions of fiction and literature so that they might appreciate this book (and the author!) for the beauty and brilliance they capture.
You might disagree with this particular reader's critical assessment (as I do), but at least this is the stuff of discussion. Such equitable voices are not so scarce among the Amazon reviews, but their presence beside the more careless, not to say imbecilic, ones does create a dissonance that will leave the thoughtful book buyer unwilling to wade into the swamp.
Authors can leave messages on Amazon's cosmic bulletin board as well; in fact, they're strongly encouraged to, with a special clickable option on every book's page reading "I am the Author, and I want to comment on my book." There's a competition that's emerged in the publishing circles of New York and Washington that involves comparing the "Amazon.com Sales Rank" that the Web site cruelly provides for each book it sells. Does Wendy Shalit's attack on the modern condition of women, A Return to Modesty, currently have an "Amazon.com Sales Rank" of 7,352? Well, Danielle Crittenden's What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us is at 3,292. (The game ceases to be much fun when you reach the sales level of books like Grisham's The Testament, now at 31.)
But though they may sign on to get their latest sales rank, authors seem for the most part to have resisted the temptation to post messages about their books. It's like writing to a magazine to complain about a review of your book: There's almost no way to do it without sounding ridiculous. Click on Amazon's entry for The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy -- where you'll find an author's message that begins, "In reply to the reader from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, who complained that my book couldn't be much good" -- and you can only cringe.
And then there's this nugget from the author of a new edition of Dante: "In 1957 C. S. Lewis read my thesis about him and congratulated me, . . . 'I hope we shall have some really useful critical works from your hand.' With [my latest translation], Lewis's hope seems to be fulfilled." Her own book, she concludes, is "the clearest, most accurate, and most readable edition" of Dante "ever published in English."
Amazon does provide snippets from the book journals and published reviews to help readers. David Lehman, impresario to contemporary American poets as general editor of the Best American Poetry series, published a work last year that has met with some acclaim, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, an examination of the combo of John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, four poets who bestrode the American literary landscape from the 1940s to the 1960s. After a long and helpful summary of the book, Amazon follows up with a couple selections from the press. David Yezzi of the New York Times Book Review asserts that Lehman "has a spirited story to tell and he tells it with spirit," a professional blurb seemingly calculated for its uselessness. Booklist tells us that "this is how to write about poetry." We also learn that the poets of the New York School were "playful, irreverent, tradition-shattering, and brilliant," the last word ostensibly summing up the other three.
But then Amazon turns to the customer reviews -- and we walk through the looking glass. "Disregard carping snob academics. This book is the real goods," writes someone from Brooklyn, ending with the obligatory "Highly recommended." But another fellow, tagging himself a Ph.D. lest we think him just another Gitane-smoking bohemian, writes cryptically, "Again, Mr. Lehman infests our shelves w/ less Apollonious [sic] than should be allowed. That is the effect when a writer of a few Spenserian means tackles subjects, heroes, beyond his artistic mettle." Another reader explains that Lehman's The Last Avant-Garde evokes "art" -- "art as savage as a lion in the living room or a tiger on the fire escape."
But we haven't reached Ultima Thule yet. Another reviewer, whose motives for writing transcend any we could credit in a sober moment, holds forth:
You just can't put [this book] down, simply because you can't have enough of the drama and color of a period when poetry walked barefoot with a hard-on. One really feels like taking the next flight to The Big Apple and hunkering down to a cold pint and cigarettes in a dive with the windows steamed over with blue smoke. Today's poetic scenario stops looking like a dry dog turd on the road; possibilities heat up in you, hands seeking the comfort of paint squeezed from a tube.
"You feel," he decides, "like painting, writing, sculpting, even turning gay ALL IN THE SAME DAMNED SITTING (no pun intended)." (None taken.) Amazon says it scans these reviews for content and propriety, but the Web site's criteria are anybody's guess. The reader concludes: "Buy this book if you want a miracle -- it gave me strength in a period when everything hurt." Well, who could object to that? This isn't a book so much as a therapeutic experience.
The critic Joseph Epstein once defined a good book review as simply an interesting mind reading a book, which sounds cloying until you ponder it. Some of the minds on Amazon are certainly "interesting," but perhaps not in quite the way Epstein meant. It helps if a little authority and competence, not to mention sobriety, get thrown into the mix.
Amazon.com has at last provided America with the true democratic forum to talk about books -- a world where everyone's a critic and all voices are equal. And mostly what it shows is the fragility and frequent worthlessness of opinion. T. S. Eliot once claimed that the purpose of criticism was "the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste." In our gabby age, elucidation and correction are the first to be sucked down into the mud of opinion. And with "Earth's Largest Selection," Amazon.com makes the perfect bog.
Tracy Lee Simmons is director of the Dow Program in Journalism at Hillsdale College in Michigan.