Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tough at the top

I'm not in a position to question how anyone else uses their time and talent, but some of what goes on at amazon.com highlights the lengths to which people will go to stand out on our crowded little world.

First, there's the top reviewer, Harriet Klausner, whose reviews number in the mind-boggling five digits. After skimming some of HK's reviews, I noticed that:

• She reads a lot of genre fiction that neither a typical book lover nor a member of the literati would be interested in.

• Her reviews are formulaic and and are not truly reviews. Generally, there are two paragraphs of plot summary, which some claim is incorrect in many cases, and one paragraph of what the book does well or other simplified commentary.

• It probably takes her 15-20 minutes to bang each of them out; it probably takes her longer than that to submit them to all the Web sites in which she participates.

• For a librarian and a reader, HK's spelling and grammar seem remarkably bad. Some reviews that I read bordered on nonsensical due to poorly written and unedited run-on sentences.

• Many of HK's reviews have garnered a large number of "not helpful" votes, partly because, like anyone else at the top, she has detractors who look for her reviews for the purpose of voting against them. It's fair to say, however, that the reviews I read are not helpful; they are more like publishers' promotional blurbs than critical commentary.

• She averages 6 helpful votes per review.

Another top reviewer, Grady Harp, writes what seem to be reasonably helpful reviews. GH’s reviews, however, are notorious for generating dozens of positive votes in very short periods of time; several of his recent reviews picked up 60+ positive votes within a day or two of posting. The general idea is that Grady has a network of supporters who vote immediately whenever he posts a review, making his reviews seem more popular than they actually are and launching him into his status as a top reviewer.

HK and GH each have found a way to be a star of much notoriety and little merit, mass producing reviews and votes so they will be noticed by a world whose attention span is short, scattered, and fickle. To some extent it works; HK has been interviewed by reporters who don't have the courage to point out that her reviews seem to be less about being helpful and more about maintaining her status. In no less than TIME magazine Lev Grossman gushed:

Without the web, Harriet Klausner would be just an ordinary human being with an extraordinary talent. Instead she is one of the world's most prolific and influential book reviewers. . . . Klausner is part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made. The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don't care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see. They're increasingly likely to pay attention to amateur online reviewers, bloggers and Amazon critics like Klausner. Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can't match. They're not fancy. They don't have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do. Publishers treat Klausner as a pro, sending her free books—50 a week—in hopes of getting her attention. . . . Like any other good critic, Klausner has her share of enemies. "Harriet, please get a life," someone begged her on a message board, "and leave us poor Amazon customers alone."

I found this fascinating. HK's only extraordinary talent appears to be speed reading, which she shares with millions. It is certainly neither writing nor criticism. How "influential" is she? Not very, judging by the number of votes her reviews get, positive and negative. While Grossman classes her as an authentic "amateur," he follows up by saying publishers treat her like a "pro." Surely that negates some of the "authenticity." Finally, he attributes any enmity to HK's status as a "good critic," which is highly debatable from both objective and subjective perspectives. I'm not a "Harriet-hater," as these enemies are known. I simply don't think she has any special talents or that she is a good reviewer, amateur or professional.

I started to write reviews for several reasons: (1) to improve my critical thinking and writing skills, (2) to help me remember more about the books I've read (I'm both a slow reader and a forgetful person), and (3) to provide what I hope is balanced commentary for people interested in the same types of books I am.

I admit that I enjoy getting positive votes from strangers and that I'm disappointed when a review I'm proud of, for example, my commentary on Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, is deemed "unhelpful." I recognize that this may reflect disagreement rather than degree of helpfulness, but it is discouraging nonetheless.

That said, I've never thought of reviewing as a competitive sport or other reviewers as competitors.

If I have intrigued someone about a relatively obscure novel like In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse, made someone think a little more critically about Henry Miller, steered someone away from the muddy and muddled feminism of Naomi Wolf, interested someone in finding out more about Zitkala-Sa or the Trail of Tears, or helped someone to enjoy 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories, then I have accomplished much of what I set out to do. I will leave HK to churn out dozens of reviews a month and GH to savor his dozens of positive votes a day.

I suppose this means I can’t expect TIME magazine to call. Newsweek, perhaps?

Postscript: According to Wikipedia, "In 2007, [Harriet Klausner] was named by TIME magazine as one of the 15 of the 'Web generation’s movers and shakers.'" What a sad comment on the state of journalism. Shame on TIME.

2 comments:

  1. I really liked reading this post, especially for the way in which you take apart that disingenuous nonsense from Time.

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  2. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about Harriet Klausner, and have felt that way about her since she first started writing so many reviews for Amazon, around eight years ago. I expect a review to provide a bit of insight as to whether I might enjoy a particular book. I don't need a plot summary from her - the publisher's info just up the page provides that just fine - and her comments on an actual book are rarely worthwhile. Even if she is a speed reader, that doesn't mean that she's a (good) speed writer.

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