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EVERY MAN HIS OWN CRITIC

The Culture of Amazon.com

12:00 AM, Aug 16, 1999 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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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 If every novel was written with immaculate historical content, it would be non-fiction; perhaps people should review the definitions of fiction and literature so that they might appreciate this book (and the author!)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."