I get a two-star customer review on Amazon, and I brood about the nature of fiction

Here I described a review of Senator that started badly but it ended up full of praise.  I love trick endings like that!

But now I’ve got a review of Dover Beach that goes in the opposite direction.  Look:

Great plot…..excellent writing……FINALLY a believable private eye……interesting, unforgettable characters…..surprising twists……All this to say that I believe here is an author we will hear more from in the future.

So why did I give it only 2 stars? Because of his world-view. His main character is living in a destroyed world as a result of nuclear war — yet Bowker thinks humanism is going to rebuild it all????

Have long though[t] that good Science Fiction asks the right questions, but am afraid Bowker comes up with wrong answers. I don’t buy the humanist philosophy and if his next book has “Humanistic Science Fiction” on the cover I for one won’t be spend[ing] a dime on it.

I guess we shouldn’t have put that quote from Locus (“Humanist science fiction of a high order”) on the cover!  But anyway, I was brooding about that four-question-mark question in the review’s second paragraph.  Do I believe what the reviewer says I believe?  I do not.  But further, I have never even considered the question.  Even further, if the novel suggests that I have an opinion about the matter–or about anything, in fact–I’d consider that a flaw.  The purpose of fiction is to give pleasure, not to give answers–to strive for beauty, not for truth.  For me, the pleasure of Dover Beach was in plopping down a conventional literary genre in an unconventional setting, and exploring the tensions that resulted.  This may cause notions of humanism to creep in, because private eyes deal with human-scale issues.  But the private eye in Dover Beach isn’t going to save the world he inhabits–he is lucky if he’ll be able to save himself.

This gives me a chance to copy John Keats’s definition of negative capability, which we should all read every year or so:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

Words for a writer to live by.

Here’s a five-star review to make me feel better:

What a treasure. Amazing how smoothly this author leads the reader into his jagged, apocalyptic world to reveal what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and leaves you to decide if such a world is worth saving or even living in. I was particularly impressed with his skill at giving you his characters bit by bit throughout to let them become gems of many facets, like a skilled diamond cutter. This is one P.I. whom you will never forget.



Bad reviews: They don’t matter. Really they don’t. I’m sure they don’t.

One of my rules for writing, now cast in stone, is that you should get people to read your stuff.  But of course this applies before you have unleashed your creation upon the entire world.  After that, you don’t have much choice.  People will read your creation, or not.  They’ll like it, or they won’t.  And nowadays, they are happy to tell you what they think.

This is a new phenomenon.  I have received a couple of fan letters in my life, and there have been a number of reviews (almost all favorable), but mostly I haven’t heard anything from anyone about what I’ve written.  But now I’m up to 17 customer reviews of Senator on Amazon, there are several on iTunes, and there are probably some others lurking out there. My other books have also had a few reviews.  And, strangely, not every review is entirely positive.  I quoted from a really positive review of Senator a while back.  Now, in the interest of equal time, let’s take a look at a couple of two-star Kindle reviews (no one-star reviews yet!).  This one is titled “boring,” and the semicolon is there in the original:

I stopped after 50 pages, the book was too predictable. Nothing much new here. It was not esp;ecially well written or exciting.

And this person disliked the book so much he needed to tell the world in ALL CAPS:


Of course, my initial reaction is to argue with these fine folks: my characters do too have a spec of notion about their interrrelation with the other characters.  That’s what the friggin’ book is all about, darn it to heck.

But that way madness lies.  It helps that far better novels than mine have gotten worse reviews than these.  But ultimately, great writers or not, we should all follow the advice of the immortal Rick Nelson: You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

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.

Answering readers’ questions about fake ebook reviews

Actually, more like the questions I imagine readers asking . . .

You titled your post yesterday “Fake ebook reviews: Worse than plagiarism?” But you never answered your own question.  What’s up with that?

I got sleepy.  Here’s a writing rule: Avoid blogging when you’re sleepy.  Bad things are bound to happen.

Are you sleepy now?  Will you answer your question?

No. Yes. Writing (or obtaining) fake reviews for your ebook is obviously not as bad as plagiarizing your ebook.  Don’t be an idiot.  But it has the potential to do much more harm.  I can’t imagine that many writers plagiarize to any great extent.  But faking ebook reviews is easy to do, could have a major upside for the individual writer, and has a huge downside for the whole ebook enterprise.  If readers start questioning the validity of those customer reviews, it will become a lot harder for good writers to get their attention.

What does the blog “Lawyers, Guns, & Money” have to say about this?

Oh, do you read Lawyers, Guns, & Money too? They ponder the larger issue of whether this is a part of the breakdown of our faith in the crowd, and may lead us back to a reliance on expertise:

For that matter, is there any reason to believe any kind of customer review online? This Times piece on professional “reviewers” being paid by self-published authors to give positive reviews, a process that seems to lead to increased sales for many, suggests to me that we, even the most supposedly savvy of us, are as manipulated now as ever. The crowd and the empowered individual does not protect us in any way, in fact, it may make us more vulnerable as our confidence lets our guard down.

On Twitter, Matt Zeitlin (@MattZeitlin) said about the Times article, “Possible future scenario: online customer reviews are ruined, publishers become more authoritative.” I thought that was interesting. Does the fact that anyone can say anything mean that all statements become equally worthless without some kind of expertise to back it up? For that matter, could we see a future where, as a broader society, we see the pendulum swing back toward expertise and institutionalized leadership in books, politics, or all the other ways in which we distrust expertise today?

Doesn’t xkcd have a funny strip about online ratings?

Yes, it does.  And here it is:

Are there any good fake ebook reviews?

Well, it depends on what you mean by good.  Have you seen the reviews for the pink “BIC for her” pen on Amazon UK?  I guess they’re not fake, but they aren’t exactly “real.”  And they’re awfully funny:

I bought this pen (in error, evidently) to write my reports of each day’s tree felling activities in my job as a lumberjack. It is no good. It slips from between my calloused, gnarly fingers like a gossamer thread gently descending to earth between two giant redwood trunks.

If I get (or think up) more questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.

Fake Ebook Reviews: Worse Than Plagiarism?

For an ebook to be successful, it needs to get good customer reviews.  I now have half a dozen reviews of Senator on Amazon, all of them five stars.  Yay!  But three of them are from people I know.  Should I feel guilty about that?  Maybe.  But those people really liked the book!  I think.  (Of my other three ebooks, two have only one review on Amazon, and Pontiff has none.  C’mon, guys!)

Asking your friends for reviews is at most a venial sin, I think.  But faking reviews gets us into a bad place.  I suppose I always understood that some reviews might be fake, but a couple of recent articles suggest that this is actually a pretty pervasive problem.

This Times article describes a service that, for a while, provided authors with favorable reviews in bulk, for a price. The article quotes a data mining expert as estimating that . . .

. . . about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

The service that the article describes was run by a guy named Todd Rutherford, and for a while he was wildly successful.  And he made authors successful as well.

One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.

The second article, in Forbes, is titled “Fake Reviews: Amazon’s Rotten Core.” It focuses on an author with the odd name of Stephen Leather, who has “admitted to creating accounts on Amazon under assumed names in order to leave positive reviews of his own work. He also does the same on Twitter and other forums.” He says:

I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…

The article notes that there’s also a phenomenon of malicious negative reviews.  I noticed that with Matthew Yglesias’s The Rent is Too Damn High.  As I understand it, Yglesias offended the right-wing Breitbart crowd about something or other, and in return they carpet-bombed him with one-star reviews, with the result that the book’s average rating is a little over two stars.

What’s to be done about it?  The Forbes article points out that Amazon is complicit in the problem, which makes it harder to solve:

Unfortunately, there is also no motivation for Amazon, or other online booksellers, to clean up their own acts. Amazon exists to sell stuff. They will only begin to care about this if it starts to threaten sales, despite the fact that they could, if they wanted to, make it much harder for people to fake reviews.

And authors like Stephen Leather are unlikely to be harmed by the furor, even if they admit (or brag about) what they’ve done.  Average readers aren’t going to have any idea he’s gaming the system.  (I read the first chapter of one of Leather’s novels.  It seems like a standard-issue military thriller, with something of a comma deficiency.  It’s the sort of thing you’ll probably like, if you like that sort of thing. I also went to his web site; he seems fond of wearing leather jackets and striking a serious pose.)

All this leaves me feeling a bit like a moderately good baseball player in the 1980s who didn’t take steroids.  I’m not interested in gaming the system or doing anything unethical, but it’s annoying when you see other writers are becoming successful by doing so.  Where’s the World Anti-Doping Agency when you need it?

The solution, of course, is for all of you to read my books, love them, and write great reviews out of the goodness of your heart.  That will make me forget all about Stephen Leather.