Terrors of the Amazon

A writer journeys into the strange, savage land of his readers and finds himself performing unspeakable acts.

Topics: Amazon.com,

When my first novel, “Warp,” was published in late 1997, I was hungry for feedback: reviews, e-mail, sales figures, whatever objective confirmation I could get that I was in fact finally a published author. Like a fetishist in a shoe store, I fondled copies of my own book in Barnes & Noble. Following the example of Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys,” I even listed my e-mail address on the cover. And I fell into the habit of obsessively checking and rechecking the page on which my book is listed on Amazon.com.

Why? Because although to the average surfer the pages of Amazon.com are just so much browser-window dressing, for an attention-starved author they are tiny peepholes through which a writer can eavesdrop, voyeuristically, on his or her book as it interacts with the real world. And that has some serious consequences. It’s turning Amazon into a powerful force, a force that’s changing the very structure of literary culture as we know it — a force, dear reader, that made me do terrible, terrible things.

Right off the bat I clicked on “I am the author, and I want to comment on my book,” and I even spent some time leafing through Amazon’s pages to see which of my fellow authors were experimenting with this brand-new literary form. My brief survey turned up the work of Rebecca Wells (of “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” fame), Christopher Morse (on his “Island of the Sequined Love Nun”: “It’s one thing to watch some guy on National Geographic living with the natives, it’s quite another to do it yourself”) and the innovative English novelist and essayist Alain de Botton, author of “On Love” and “How Proust Can Change Your Life.”

De Botton says he came across Amazon when he was just starting out online, and it had the same effect on him that it had on me. “I was so amazed by the site technologically that I lost my normal reserve and revealed all. Since then, I’ve lived to regret it a number of times, though there have been some nice surprises, too.” Nice indeed. De Botton posted his e-mail address, one thing led to another and, as luck would have it, one of his online correspondences eventually blossomed into a real-life, nonvirtual love affair. “It was a wonderful, unexpected event,” de Botton muses, “and far from what I had bargained for when I put my details on Amazon.”

I too would get more than I bargained for from the reading public. But my surprise wasn’t quite that nice.

It’s worth noting that nobody on the Amazon side of things monitors author postings very closely — witness the occasional amusing error. It occurred to me to wonder how Amazon even knows it’s the author who’s writing in, but on that score Bill Curry, Amazon’s director of public relations, is determined to stay mum: “That’s just something we prefer not to address.” Somebody’s paying attention, though, because my attempt to pass myself off as John Updike commenting on “In the Beauty of the Lilies” (“I’m a talented but ultimately overhyped middlebrow writer …”) failed completely.

Meanwhile, I was paying close attention to the datapoints that Amazon.com kept flowing past me in a steady stream. The site kept track of what other books the people who bought my book bought, supplying me with an ever changing cast of literary bedfellows. Me and David Remnick? Golly! (Note that the correlation doesn’t necessarily go both ways — “Warp” doesn’t show up on the page for Remnick’s “King of the World.”) I also monitored my Amazon.com sales rank, which according to Curry is computed daily — hourly for books in the top 10,000. After a hot debut in the low four figures, “Warp” descended, gracefully, to its current position of 136,495th, just behind an out-of-print edition of Samuel Richardson’s “Charles Grandison.” Whoops — make that 147,649th.

But most of all I waited — God, how hungrily I waited — for the customer reviews to start arriving. And then they did. And that’s when the ugliness began. And the lies, and the fear, and the deception.

Once the book actually hit bookstores, it didn’t take long for readers
to start speaking their minds. The first of them, as it happens, was a
friend of mine — since his name’s Max, let’s call him Max. “WARP is one
clever, stylish, and sleepless weekend in the abyss that is
life-after-college,” wrote Max. He gave it four out of five stars. So far,
so good.

But matters went downhill from there. “This book is infantile trash,”
wrote the next reader. “Rarely have I read a book quite as puerile as this
one.” One star. “Unreadably trite. The main character is extremely
self-absorbed and the narration suffers from the author’s arch media
references.” Two stars. “Worthless tripe … The world doesn’t need any
more books like this.” One star.

I’m a proud man, but my poor book was being pilloried in a public
marketplace. Action was called for! You can probably guess what happened
next. As a novelist, I’m comfortable with fictional alter egos, so I went
undercover. “I loved this book,” I wrote, posing as “a reader from” (for
some reason) “Philadelphia.” “I highly recommend it.” Five stars.

But the readers struck back. “Lame, lame, lame … I kept waiting for
the book to get better. It didn’t.” One star. “Nothing to write home about.
Read this book in 30 minutes standing up in a bookstore. Didn’t seem to
demand closer reading than that.” One star. Thanks for nothing, Washington,

How could I stand by and watch this happen? It was like seeing your kid
die onstage in his fourth-grade musical. “To the person below who gave the
book 30 minutes, I say, keep reading!” I wrote, this time assuming the
guise of a reader from Atlanta. “It’s hilarious the way Grossman weaves the
story together … The best debut I’ve read in ages.” Five stars.

For a few months, silence from both sides. Were they on to me? Could the
readers, like killer bees, like rattlesnakes, smell my fear? Fuck ‘em, I
say! “Fabulous,” I wrote, a little hysterically, as “reader from New York”
(my disguise was wearing thin). “Utterly original … Don’t miss this –
really.” Five stars. At least I’d managed to up my average rating
(helpfully computed for me by the folks at Amazon) to a break-even two and
a half stars.

Amazon’s Curry estimates that over the course of its four-year
history, Amazon’s 6.2 million customers have contributed around 2 million
reader reviews. (Barnesandnoble.com also allows
readers to review books, although it didn’t add the feature until last
October, and participation has been sparse. So far, a spokesperson told me,
they haven’t had a single author stop by to comment on his or her own
book.) To my eye, the vast majority of the reader reviews are surprisingly
articulate and well-intentioned, although Curry did recall one instance
when a review of the Bible had to be removed because it was signed, “God.”

Christopher Morse swears by his reader reviews. “Not only do I read
them,” he told me, “but every author I know reads them, and so do agents
and editors. It’s the only forum I know of where the readers can review a
book — and as an author I’m not suspicious of some hidden agenda, which I
often am with professional reviews.” Now that Amazon is selling CDs,
musicians are getting into the act, too — if you’re a fan, don’t miss
Kristin Hersh’s eloquent commentary on her latest album, “Murder, Misery, and Then Goodnight.”

What happened to me when my readers started writing back? It wasn’t
just the loathing, although God knows that stung. It felt like an invasion
of my turf, something that flew in the face of my conviction that I, a
“professional” writer, had somehow earned the write to speak, while my
readers — rank amateurs! — hadn’t. But there’s a broader dynamic at work.

According to German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, readers and writers
have been growing apart over the past 400 years or so. In the 17th century,
the theory goes, most of the literate English-speaking people in the world
more or less knew each other, and they all read and wrote, and they all
read what each other wrote. But in the 18th century a rift opened between
readers and writers. So many people were becoming literate that not
everybody could publish anymore — there were more readers but
proportionally fewer writers. Writing became a separate, professionalized
craft, something qualified writers did to make money, rather than something
all literate people did as a matter of course.

Which pretty much brings us up to the present day. But Habermas didn’t
count on the Internet. Whatever else it may or may not be doing, the Net is
pushing the pendulum back the other way, narrowing and blurring the
Habermasian rift between professional writers and their readers by giving
the readers a chance to talk back. Writers are getting to know their
readers again — and like two people who’ve been in the sack together but
have never actually seen each other by daylight, sober, the encounter is
more than a little awkward.

In October, exactly a year after “Warp’s” official publication date, the
last (so far) of my customer comments appeared. It stuck to the formula.
“Not only did I not like this book,” a reader from Los Angeles wrote, “but
I resent the fact I spent time reading it. I strongly suggest that this
book remain unread.” One star.

I blinked. Yes, it still hurt. De Botton tells me that he doesn’t even
read his reader reviews on Amazon: “I get too sad if anyone is nasty about
me.” I sympathize. But I’m also toughening up. Rereading my latest pan
today, I think: Is that the best you can do, reader? This town is big
enough for the two of us. Bring it on, I say! I’ve seen worse.

Lev Grossman is a novelist and journalist who lives in New York.

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