I’LL KILL YOU! Amazon, Goodreads, and the Death of Criticism
It starts as a Facebook Wallpost:
-Why did you only give my last book three stars on Goodreads?
-I liked it, but it wasn’t my favorite of your books.
-How dare you, you fucking ungrateful little shit! I gave you FIVE STARS for your last book. FIVE. FUCKING. STARS.
-I told you I liked it, there were certain things that didn’t jell for me.
-I don’t care if you didn’t like ‘certain things’! I gave you five stars! I GAVE YOU FIVE FUCKING STARS, SO YOU DO THE SAME!
-I’m deleting this before you make a bigger ass of yourself.
Obviously the little interaction above is a dramatization. When it originally happened, it was far wordier, there were a lot more expletives, and it was by far a much longer thread. No, I won’t say who the authors were. They’re both writers who I respect and enjoy reading, and I’ll freely admit I got quite the belly laugh out of watching it unfold. In the same breath, it also made me sad. It made me lose a little respect for the author who initiated the exchange; it made me sad that the writer who wrote the review couldn’t be honest or forthcoming with his opinion. But more than anything else, it made me realize that I truly hate the politics of modern book selling.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Amazon. I know it’s not in vogue for writers to admit they love the book selling giant, that I should instead revile it; I should be stomping my kindle to pieces and screaming: “Print forever!”; I should be openly booing and spitting on Amazon while simultaneously earning the bulk of my writing income from it. (Quick non-writing/non-reading observation: Don’t Americans always end up hating what they love? Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and most likely Apple in the near future, are all Frankensteins that we created. But as soon as our little dandelions of commercial joy start becoming too big, we grab the torches and pitchforks, and start spouting how we’ve always hated such and such company, even though chances are while spewing our hatred, we are doing so on a product created or sold by these monoliths of savings and convenience. Okay, end of tangent.) Yes, I should be singing the virtues of independent bookstores and their hardworking, underpaid booksellers.
And I do this folks. I love the independent. I love discovering them, browsing them, talking with the staff, and finding little nuggets of temporary joy on its shelves from their recommendations. The fact is I love all bookstores, even the formerly hated, but the now much beloved and failing Barnes & Noble. (Americans also love underdog stories.) But, can I make it to these stores on a daily basis like I do with Amazon? (I’ll be the first to admit I have an Amazon problem. It’s the website I most consistently go to when I’m bored at work, or when I'm simply browsing the internet. Like I said, I’m a Book Lover, capital B and L on that one, people.) The answer is no, because most of my “area” indies aren’t exactly in my area. They’re actually an hour away from my happy little suburban home. So, yeah, the bulk of my book buying occurs online and on Amazon.
But over the years, the one thing I’ve come to dislike about Amazon are the customer reviews. Don’t get me wrong, I dig it that the reader has a voice, but I’m also a fan of criticism. (My go-to book for whenever writers block is kicking my head in is Jonathan Lethem’s book of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, which is largely composed of literary criticism.) I like cogent, thoughtful, detailed analysis of books and authors, and 90% of all Amazon reviews are as akin to the form as a Whopper is to anything made of meat. By extension, Goodreads reviews are the same. However with Goodreads, I’ll narrow the field and say 70% of Goodreads reviews are shit. But I get it, the bulk of the people writing the reviews aren’t critics, they’re just folks who loved something enough that they took time out of their day to put their opinion out there hoping other people will love it, too,
My real beef isn’t the random Amazon reviewer, but the commodified Amazon/Goodreads reviewer.
It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that a writer's first audience is their buddies. You send out copies to your buddies because, hey, maybe they’ll like it enough to give you a quick review or blurb, and better chance than not, they’ll do it because there’s a relationship. And no, there’s nothing wrong with this. But over the years of Amazon’s widespread existence, there are authors who’ve cultivated groups of readers who will most likely give a positive review even if the work is subpar. Copies go out, five star reviews are written.
I can hear the arguments about this already from authors. They’ll describe it as relationship building; but for the writers out there, ask yourself this: Would you send a copy of your next book to someone who publicly state they didn’t like your last book? Or would you leave them off the mailing list? Or would you go after them on social media or via e-mail? (By the way, gang, I’ll be the first to admit, I was caught up with this kind of behavior at one time, and I’ve had more than a few try to bring me into their fold of influence. Thankfully I’ve gotten to the point that if I don’t like something, I simply don’t review it whether I know the writer or not.)
Anyway, I could charge further into the other reasons why I dislike the online review system, like clowns such as one-star troll champion Chris Roberts or the shenanigans committed by British novelist R.J. Ellroy. But what I really want is your opinion. Do you read Amazon reviews? Do they help you form your opinion on what to read and buy? Do you read reviews outside of Amazon from venues such as the New York Times and lit websites such as LitReactor? Do you write reviews? And if so, will you write a negative one if you don’t like a book? And if you’re getting the book from the author, do you fear a poor review will sour your relationship with the author? If you’re a pro/semi-pro critic, what are your thoughts on customer reviews?
More or less, anything goes, just don’t be a dick, so let ‘er rip.
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