Last month, in a disconcerting exposé, The New York Times described the surprisingly prevalent practice of buying and selling “enthusiastic and ecstatic” Amazon book reviews. A general outcry followed. But fake five-star reviews may not really matter that much: the paid reviewers and the worshipful readers typically offer the same parade of clichés. Instead, the most lively reading on Amazon belongs to a class of criticism that publishers most likely did not solicit: The disjointed rants and cries of boredom that make up the site’s array of one-star reviews. Sure, some of the critics stick to pointing out that a book is “boring” or “has no plot.” Others offer whole new takes on the art of panning.
Here are the five basic varieties of Amazon butcher.
A good metaphor elucidates, illuminates, uses the known to explain the unknown. Unfortunately, that kind of clean comparison is often lost among the retailer’s one-star reviews. Thus Ezra Pound is described by “Verbaphile” with this metaphor: “[Pound’s] labors amounted to no more than a thousand dimly-lit candles burning in all the windows of an enormous mansion, whose edifice would then be that of twentieth-century poetry.” So poetry is the edifice and the windows are poets? Does the mansion signify all of literature?
It’s so easy to mock Blockhead— misreading, misquoting, just plain misunderstanding, but passionately exclaiming his complaint all the same. The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald are often fodder for this class of critic. About The Great Gatsby, reviewer “Jenn” says, “The worst part about the book is that you get the feeling that F. Scott Fitzgerald is going to hit you with a great, dramatic, thought-provoking ending, and nothing happens at the end.”
Declares “Plaid Platypus”: “I don’t understand. This book is called the Great Gatsby, but everyone in the book treats Gatsby like he’s regular size. What’s so great about that? I mean, if he were a giant or something, that would be totally sweet, but if he’s just a normal size guy, then why does he get a whole book about his greatness?” Good question, my friend.
The Armchair Psychiatrist
The Armchair Psychiatrist believes heartily that a writer’s emotional state is the only factor to take into account while reading. And what better evidence is there than an author’s suicide—even years after the fact? “[For Whom the Bell Tolls] is a rambling piece of blige,” one reviewer declares. “But what else can you expect from someone who commits suicide. A coward.”
They’re no easier on Sylvia Plath, who put her head in the oven at the age of thirty, the same year she published The Bell Jar. “Sylvia Plath was a mentally sick person who was encouraged by one of her psychiatrists to write,” says reviewer “W. Wilson”. “I have seen photographs of her and Ted Hughes, and Sylvia is in an appaling state. … It’s sad. I hope that she found some comfort in writing, but honestly, was this meant to be published?”
Subtlety is not The Hyper-hypo’s strong suit. Instead, The Hyper-hypo must declare a verdict in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS, or compare a reading experience to a deadly virus. Otherwise, we’d be sure to miss the point. Here’s Hyper-hypo “Kevin Golden” on Mrs. Dalloway: “Get off your high horse you pathetic first year English students and admit, THIS BOOK IS WORSE THAN AIDS!”
Then there’s this former teacher, apparently feeling guilty about exposing students to Gatsby. He writes: “I humbly beg forgiveness, though I know full well that the teacher who betrays his students’ trust in such a way can no more expect absolution than can the Nazi underling, who, acting on his superior’s orders, sends a cowering Jew to the gas chamber.”
Confident that his tastes and opinions should be shared by the masses, The Wannabe only condescends to post on Amazon so that he might guide the less intelligent away from “trash” and “drivel,” the latter often including highlights of the Western canon. Here’s one take on The Portrait of a Lady: “Not a novel at all; but a poor puppet show displayed by a clumsy puppeteer, a man who has an impressive grasp of English language but unfortunately is not in touch with reality.”
Another Wannabe gets himself into quite a philosophical pickle, explaining that he gave A Tale of Two Cities one star because “While cultural pundits try to convince you that some literature is better than other literature, the truth is that all art is relative to individial tastes. Thus, it doesn’t make any sense to think that a novel like this one is really any better than say, Michael Crichton or Stephen King. Aesthetic standards can’t be grounded.”
Now you know.
Hillary Kelly is the digital media editor at The New Republic.