High standards in publishing

Here’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (1952), which imagines a world in which managers and engineers run the world.  A woman is explaining why she has become a prostitute.  Turns out her husband is an unsuccessful novelist.  In this world, all novels are reviewed by the National Council of Arts and Letters.

“Anyway,” said the girl, “my husband’s book was rejected by the Council.”

“Badly written,”  said Halyard primly.  “The standards are high.”

“Beautifully written,” she said patiently.  “But it was 27 pages longer than the maximum length, its readability quotient was 26.3, and–”

“No club will touch anything with an R.Q. above 17,” explained Halyard.

“And,” the girl continued, “it had an antimachine theme.”

Halyard’s eyebrows arched high.  “Well!  I should hope they wouldn’t print it!  What on earth does he think he’s doing?  Good lord, he’s lucky if he isn’t behind bars, inciting to advocate the commission of sabotage like that…”

The writer is ordered to go into public relations rather than fiction-writing, and he refuses.

“This husband of yours, he’d rather have his wife a– Rather, have her–” Halyard cleared his throat “–than go into public relations?”

“I’m proud to say,” said the girl, “that he’s one of the few men on earth with a little self-respect left.”

This comes to mind when reading this story, about Amazon removing a novel from sale because it had too many hyphens:

“When they ran an automated spell check against the manuscript they found that over 100 words in the 90,000-word novel contained that dreaded little line,” he says. “This, apparently ‘significantly impacts the readability of your book’ and, as a result, ‘We have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers.’”

Reynolds complained, pointing out “that the use of a hyphen to join two words together was perfectly valid in the English language”, and says he was told by Amazon: “As quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience, we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected … Once you correct hyphenated words, please republish your book and make it available for sale.”

This article treats the issue humorously, but it does play into the doomsday predictions of writers like Ursula K. LeGuin that Amazon is aiming to control who and what we can read. After all, if they can control the number of hyphens in a novel, can’t they control its readability quotient?

Well, sure. But the difference between our world and Vonnegut’s is that Amazon has competition (at least, so far) and will respond to a public outcry (again, so far).  I can imagine a world where this would be different, but that dystopian future is not here yet.

(By the way, I found Player Piano much less compelling than it was when I first read it.  Vonnegut hadn’t quite found his voice yet.)

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Great books, bad Amazon reviews

Here‘s a delightful article that simply quotes one-star reviews of great books on Amazon.  (I read about it in the Boston Globe this morning and assumed it was recent–but it’s actually from way back in 2005.)

Some of the reviews just kinda miss the point, like this one of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“In the novel, they often speak of a planet called Tralfamadore, where he was displayed in a zoo with a former movie star by the name of Montana Wildhack. I thought that the very concept of a man who was kidnapped by aliens was truly unbelievable and a tad ludicrous. I did not find the idea of aliens kidnapping a human and putting them in a zoo very plausible. While some of the Tralfamadorians’ concept of death and living in a moment would be comforting for a war veteran, I found it relatively odd. I do not believe that an alien can kidnap someone and house them in a zoo for years at a time, while it is only a microsecond on earth. I also do not believe that a person has seven parents.”

Some of them simply employ different critical standards from the rest of us. Here’s a one-sentence pan of Lord of the Rings:

“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

And some of them do have a point.  Here’s a takedown of Gravity’s Rainbow:

“When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.”

And this one pretty well sums up The Sun Also Rises:

“Here’s the first half of the book: ‘We had dinner and a few drinks. We went to a cafe and talked and had some drinks. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. Dinner. Drinks. More dinner. More drinks. We took a cab here (or there) in Paris and had some drinks, and maybe we danced and flirted and talked sh*t about somebody. More dinner. More drinks. I love you, I hate you, maybe you should come up to my room, no you can’t’… I flipped through the second half of the book a day or two later and saw the words ‘dinner’ and ‘drinks’ on nearly every page and figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”

I just love that last sentence.

I wonder if you could chart a book’s reputation over time by the customer reviews.  The Sun Also Rises has 621 reviews; On the Road has 811; Slaughterhouse-Five has 911. That’s getting to be a reasonable sample size.  In any case, writers can take comfort that you can’t please everyone; some people are bound to hate even the best books.  Everybody likes To Kill a Mockingbird, right?  It now has 87 one-star reviews in Amazon.  Here’s one:

i had to read this book in 9th grade. i heard that it was supposed to be this wonderful american classic, and i actually looked forward to reading it. well, all i’m gonna say is that it sucked. it was just like any other book, nothing special. yes, the prejudice part was good, i think it could show people that we need to accept our differences, but it just wasn’t that deep. i got bored after 20 pages. all in all, i was very disappointed and to whoever gets an assignment to read this, good luck.