EVERY MAN HIS OWN CRITIC
The Culture of Amazon.com
12:00 AM, Aug 16, 1999 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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.