I first delved into the reviews posted by readers on Amazon.com for utilitarian reasons. I will soon be publishing a serious nonfiction book; I wanted to know what kind of attention such a book could expect to get from this particular sample of the reading public. My case study, I decided, would be Susan Faludi's Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.
I came, I clicked, I read. Stiffed, as of this writing, has been reviewed by 75 Amazon.com users. Quite a few pieces were thoughtful and well-turned, often outstripping in quality the capsule reviews that run in outlets like Booklist and Library Journal. I began availing myself of the feature that lets you see all the other pieces a particular reviewer has posted, and a brief autobiography. There was the man who has devoted his retirement to the study and practice of social criticism; the "graying engineer" who recommended Stiffed to his fellow Promise Keepers; the environmental science student at Rice University whose searching reviews of such works as the Koran, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and an entire shelfful of books attempting to refute the theory of evolution provided a moving portrait of a sensitive mind composing itself into maturity. The part of me that instinctively defends Average America against charges of numskullery--my inner populist--was gratified indeed.
Then I was visited by my inner Reinhold Niebuhr. That happened when one anonymous writer, after several insightful paragraphs on the Faludi book's pros and cons, veered off into an unhinged rant about the evils of the alimony system. I now glanced over the 75 reviewers with different eyes, saw that many of them, perhaps a plurality, were eaten away by resentments of "this new matriarchy we are suffering with" and "another foaming-at-the-mouth denunciation of men." But they, too, got me going: Plumbing such depths is something a chair-bound intellectual anxious about losing touch with the real world can always enjoy.
I was, at any rate, hooked. Amazon.com was interesting. I spent the better part of a month absorbed within what can fairly be called its culture.
Amazon ranks its reviewers via a complex algorithm based on the number and popularity of their reviews, and, besotted by Malcolm Gladwell-think, I hit upon the brilliant idea of finding reviewers to whom--through whom--I might promote my own book. I soon discovered that top Amazonians are far too busy to countenance such a nuisance. The first-place reviewer earned a profile in People by reviewing over 670 books in five years--15 over one five-day stretch. Another's reading is booked through the next decade. A third clawed his way to 17th place by writing word-splicing reviews in analytic philosophy mode, 22 in the month of May alone, on the likes of Spinoza and Hume. ("If his distinction between 'personal' and 'impersonal' values is also found wanting," he observed of Thomas Nagel, "then his argument is an extended ignoratio elenchi." But you knew that.)
I wondered why they did it. So I began to get to know them. Some are possessed of a simple sense of craft and calling. One of my favorites, a Proust fan and student of superstring theory, described to me the centerpiece of his elaborate reading room: a sculpted recumbent leather chair that holds him "sort of in a spaceship takeoff position." He marvels that house guests see nothing in wandering in and engaging him in conversation when he is so ensconced. "I suppose to most Americans," he complains, "reading is what you do when you haven't anything better to do."
Others' motives are not so pure. A general contractor who calls himself Toolpig--people review all kinds of consumer products on Amazon, not just books--explained to me that he had been happily rating tools for years simply for the pleasure of helping others. Then, this spring, he received an e-mail from Amazon honchos informing him that they would soon be inaugurating the rankings program and that he was among the site's top reviewers. Before that, he was planning to retire. "Now it's different," he says. "I've been ranked. I love competition."
From writers Amazon.com often gets poor reviews. "It may mark an excessive surrender to the anonymous mind-suckers who inhabit the Internet these days to give any credit to the amateur 'reviewers' who comment on new books via Amazon.com," wrote novelist Rosellen Brown in a recent issue of The Women's Review of Books, "but they're a nasty fact." I can see from whence her anger springs. Brown's novels harvest praise in Time and The New York Times Book Review, blurbs from people like Cynthia Ozick and Anne Tyler, but on Amazon, she's something of a goat. "Shallow and somewhat insulting," is one typical verdict; "so frustrating in its obviousness that the novel is almost unreadable," is another. Amazon wears away all those insulating cushions--reviews by relatively thoughtful professionals, cosseting praise from friends and family, readings before fans (never critics)--that have ever protected authors from the outrageous opinions of poor, indifferent, or even hostile readers. Who are perhaps, even, the majority of readers. Our public: Take them or leave them.
Though a surprising number of Amazon reviewers are professional writers themselves. Did I mention one of the reviewers of Stiffed was Nation columnist Katha Pollitt? Her 14 reviews of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and children's books are enough to earn her 1,966th place in the Amazon rankings--only 256 spots behind Newt Gingrich.
It's the glaring, almost structural, discontinuity of interest between readers with clout and readers on Amazon that is most fascinating. You see it again and again: Books reviewed "everywhere"--the kind of books a print addict feels like he or she has read even without cracking the spine--do not make a ripple here. Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas, a ballyhooed title from the spiffy new conglomerate Talk Miramax, has been reviewed once.
The gap may be widest in the realm of politics. The Amazon page for Paul Berman's '60s study, A Tale of Two Utopias, excerpts five glowing reviews from newspapers and magazines but not a single one from an Amazonian; John Judis's new book has six print reviews to one Amazonian. Books about Clintons and Reagans are well-covered. Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the White House has been reviewed on Amazon 70 times, garnering, like most conservative books, 80 percent five-star ratings and 20 percent one-star, as opposed to pro-Clinton books, which receive 20 percent five-star, 80 percent one-star. In both cases, the quality tends to be as debased as ... well, the typical political campaign. We get the political reviews we deserve.
Amazon rewards its top reviewers with gift certificates and "Amazon.com Top Reviewer" knickknacks. No surprise; this is their sales force. But it is also so much more: a political commons, a fairly extraordinary congeries of demotic expertise, a semi-spontaneous system of pools, eddies, and currents--the more dynamic the more people participate. Writers stake out niches--five-star business books, fine collectibles guides, Regency romances, the Final Solution. University of Massachusetts economist Herb Gintis's page constitutes an excellent lesson plan for the student of evolutionary game theory, an increasingly important sub-neck-of-the-woods for social scientists. Some cater to still more esoteric tastes--like Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, who uses his presence in the top 100 to promote a site featuring "the Web's most extensive FAQ on cases of reincarnation from the Holocaust period." Barron Laycock is a daunting expert in twentieth-century European history (whose other reviews, however, draw hate mail from feminists); Duwayne Anderson is on a mission to spread the word on all the science books he has discovered since abandoning the intellectual strictures of his former Mormon faith.
At first it hardly seemed romantic to imagine the site might go on of its own steam, even if the commercial enterprise were to collapse tomorrow. But then I heard from a few late respondents. Amazon's volunteers are constrained from the start, it emerges. All reviews are evaluated by corporate personnel before they are posted. Personal attacks are (imperfectly) screened out; more portentously, negative reviews are often disallowed unless the writer recommends some alternative purchase. As for the ranking of reviewers, thoughtful observers are beginning to agree--even as they are left unclear how this occult scheme actually works--that it is becoming irredeemably corroded by various ways of gaming the system. (Attract, for example, a flock of friends to praise your two-word review, "cool music," and you advance dramatically.) "The reviewers were invited to become a community," one of them told me, "and then the community was handed over to thugs."
Our Amazonians, ourselves--honorable, vulnerable, both. "If men were angels," said James Madison, "no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Whether as book reviewers or as citizens, people are as good as the rules they work within; make the rules progressively worse--as excessive concern for money tends to do--and "cool music" (or, to take another example, campaign finance hogs like Senator Mitch McConnell) soon enough set the standard. We, meanwhile, are left to our own critical faculties to find richness among the ruins--which is all we ever had. And if there's a new book on World War II you want to size up, let me recommend to you a visit to Barron Laycock's page on Amazon, because he's already been there. ¤