Two individual fake review brokers were found guilty of illegal business operations intended to deceive Amazon customers and harm Amazon selling partners through the facilitation of fake reviews. These verdicts are the result of local law enforcement’s investigation and a criminal referral supported by Amazon.
From March 2021 to March 2022, the China-based defendants used third-party messaging applications to advertise and sell fake reviews to bad actors operating Amazon selling accounts. In exchange for a fee, the defendants left fake positive reviews to boost a bad actor’s product ranking, or fake negative reviews to lower the ranking of a competitor’s product.
Following the criminal referral, local law enforcement conducted an investigation and confirmed the review brokers’ illicit activities in Amazon’s U.S. store. The defendants were officially sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and three years of probation in China, marking Amazon’s second criminal judgement of this kind.
The Counterfeit Crimes Unit is a global team dedicated to partnering with law enforcement, brands, and other stakeholders to disrupt counterfeiters and their networks.
“Amazon is pleased to see that these fraudsters are being held accountable for their actions,” said David Montague, Amazon’s vice president of Selling Partner Risk. “The verdicts are a testament to the partnership of local officials in bringing down those who attempt to deceive our customers and harm our selling partners. We look forward to continuing to partner with law enforcement toward the mutual goal of bringing fake review brokers to justice.
“Amazon pioneered online customer reviews 25 years ago, and we are committed to ensuring that our reviews remain a trustworthy, insightful resource for customers. Amazon will continue to protect customers, our selling partners, and our stores from fake reviews by investing in proactive tools to detect and stop fake reviews from appearing in our stores. As a result of continued investments, Amazon proactively blocked more than 200 million suspected fake reviews from our stores in 2022, and as of the end of August, we have taken legal action against 147 fraudsters across China, Europe, and the U.S.”
A blurb for Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life(Allen Lane) has drawn criticism for splicing negative quotes from reviewers to suggest positive endorsements for the book.
Several journalists from major newspapers, including James Marriott, columnist at the Times, and Johanna Thomas-Corr, literary editor of the Sunday Times, have spoken out about the situation while other commentators believe the wider industry practice needs to be reviewed.
The debate began when Marriott shared the jacket of the controversial Canadian psychologist-turned-influencer’s latest paperback.In a Tweet he has since deleted, Marriott wrote: “Incredible work from Jordan Peterson’s publisher… My review of this mad book [Beyond Order] was probably the most negative thing I have ever written.”
The cover quote from Marriott reads: “A philosophy of the meaning of life . . . the most lucid and touching prose Peterson has ever written.” Marriott’s original review for the Times in 2021 said “his [Peterson’s] philosophy, which is bonkers” and only described one chapter about interior design as containing “one of the most sensitive and lucid passages of prose he has written”.
The Times’ literary editor Robbie Millen wrote of the incident: “Publishers are like medieval alchemists. They can take the base metal of a stinking book review and turn it into the gold of praise. But this week [Marriott] came across his stern words transmuted by the magicians at Penguin into praise on the paperback version. From his radioactive review glowed words of approbation.”
Millen added: “Be suspicious of the quotes on the back of paperbacks. Know that the clever people in publishing have used all their skills to take someone’s words and bend them into new, more pleasing shapes.”
. . . .
Thomas-Corr described shock at finding out how her review, for the New Statesman where she had been a contributor, has been used on the book’s cover. She wrote in the Sunday Times: “You can imagine my surprise, then, when I learnt via social media of a controversy regarding the paperback edition of Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, whereby damning reviews had somehow become lavish praise.
“Naturally, I went back to my review just to make sure I hadn’t written it under the influence of strong drugs, and, sure enough, I was pretty damning,” she wrote.
Like other journalists writing on the subject, she believes it could lead to a wider discussion around jacket blurbs: “Of course, most people in publishing are aware of the industry’s log-rolling practices, but many feel a line has been irreversibly crossed…I suspect the industry will have to review its practices.
“One award-winning writer I was speaking to last week, whose own book cover is covered with superlatives from fellow authors and reviewers, believes the Peterson case could end what they described as a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ in publishing, that is, taking a reviewer’s words to endorse their books in return for having our verdict accurately represented.”
Over time, all readers acquire an array of personal, often bizarrely eccentric rules and routines that govern — or warp — how they interact with the printed word. For example, some people will buy only crisp, new trade paperbacks and wouldn’t touch a used book on a bet. Fear of cooties, perhaps. Do you remove the dust jacket when you sit down with a novel? I always do. Can you read (or write) while listening to music? I find this impossible, which is why you’ll never see me working at a coffee shop. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of some of my other reading habits and “crotchets,” to use an old-fashioned term. Perhaps you will recognize a few of your own.
Hard- vs. softcover
I almost always prefer a hardcover to a paperback and a first edition to a later printing — except in the case of scholarly works, when I want the latest revised or updated version of the text.
My heart sinks when I see a desirable book printed in eye-strainingly small type. Publishers must imagine that only eagles will read it.
Books as gifts
I will spend any amount on gift books for my three grandchildren, now ages 8, 6 and 4. Those same grandchildren exploit me mercilessly when we visit Powell’s Books in their hometown, Portland, Ore.
Deciding what to read
These days, I expend preposterous amounts of time dillydallying over what to read next. Like Tennessee Williams’s Blanche Dubois, I want magic. It might be found in the enchantments of a novel’s style, the elegance of a scholar’s mind or simply the excitement of learning something new. So I try a few pages of this book and that, restlessly hoping to start one that finally keeps me spellbound.
What I look for in used book shops
In secondhand bookshops, I always look for sharp copies of 1940s and ’50s paperback mysteries, especially Gold Medal titles featuring sexy women on the cover — the best illustrations are by Robert McGinness — or Dell “mapbacks,” which show the scene of the crime on the back.
Books aren’t commodities
I despise — viscerally, perhaps irrationally — the people one sometimes sees at used book stores scanning every title with a handheld device to check its online price. They regard books strictly as products and usually don’t know anything about them, only caring about what they can buy low and sell high on Amazon or eBay.
One of my favorite daydreams — I know how pathetic this sounds — is imagining a month in which I do nothing but cull my books, then properly arrange or even catalogue those that remain.
When Megan Nolan published her first novel, fellow authors warned her in “ominous tones” about the website Goodreads. The young Irish writer looked at the book’s listing there in the winter of 2020, the day the first proof copy arrived at her house. “Nobody but me and the publisher had seen it,” she wrote recently. “Despite this, it had received one review already: two stars, left by someone I had inconsequential personal discord with. It was completely impossible for him to have read the book.”
The terrible power of Goodreads is an open secret in the publishing industry. The review site, which Amazon bought in 2013, can shape the conversation around a book or an author, both positively and negatively. Today’s ostensible word-of-mouth hits are more usually created online, either via Goodreads or social networks such as Instagram and TikTok.
Publishers know how important these dynamics are, and so they send out advance reading copies, or ARCs, not just to independent booksellers who might stock a title, but also to influencers who might make content about it. “There’s an assumption that if you receive an ARC that you will post about it,” Traci Thomas, host of the literary podcast The Stacks, told me—“whether that’s on your Goodreads, on your Instagram, on your TikTok, tell other people in your bookstore, or whatever. And so that’s how it ends up that there’s so many reviews of a book that’s not out yet.”
As long-time visitors to TPV already know, PG thinks Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads many years ago was money unwisely spent. Online review sites are a dime a dozen plus the top reviews that show up on Amazon are much more important because they’re appearing at the point of sale.
There are also a zillion other places to find intelligent reviews online. Genre readers can easily locate review sites focused on romance, sci-fi, etc.
It is delicious to know that one reviewer called John Keats’s poetry “drivelling idiocy”. It is more pleasing yet that Virginia Woolf considered James Joyce’s writing to be “tosh”. And surely no one can be uncheered to hear that when the critic Dorothy Parker read “Winnie the Pooh” she found it so full of innocent, childish whimsy that she—in her own moment of whimsical spelling—“fwowed up”.
For the reader, life offers few purer pleasures than a very good, very bad review. For the writer, life offers few purer pains. After Parker, A.A. Milne never wrote another “Whimsy” the Pooh again; the mere word “whimsical” became “loathsome” to him. After the “drivelling idiocy” comment, Keats obligingly dropped dead. “Snuffed out”, Lord Byron wrote, “by an article”.
Literary life rarely offers such splendid spectacles today. Open book-review pages, and you are more likely to see writers describing each other and their work with such words as “lyrical”, “brilliant” and “insightful” rather than, as they once did, “tiresome“, “an idiot” and a “dunghill”. On literary pages there is now what one writer called “endemic” grade inflation. An editor for BuzzFeed, a news site, even announced that its books section would not do negative book reviews at all. This was wonderful news for writers (and their mums) everywhere. It was much less good news for readers. The literary world may no longer need to mourn spurned poets; it does need to mourn the death of the hatchet job.
Few will lament it loudly. Criticism is not a noble calling: as the old saying has it, no city has ever erected a statue to a critic. But then few cities have erected statues to sewage engineers or prostate surgeons either. But they are useful, just as critics are. A well-read person might read 20 or so books a year. By contrast, 153,000 books were published last year in Britain alone, according to Nielsen BookData. That is an average of 420-odd books a day. Last year’s crop included “Thinking About Tears: Crying and Weeping in Long-Eighteenth-Century France”, “Is Your Cat a Psychopath?” and “Find the Loo Before You Poo”. It might be that these books all deserve epithets such as “insightful”. It seems unlikely.
It is an open secret in the literary world that most books are very bad indeed. It is the job of critics to fillet them, first physically (work on a books desk and your first, deeply dispiriting job will be to go through the sacks of books delivered each week) then literarily, with reviews. George Orwell, a veteran critic, knew that reviews should be brutal. He wrote, “In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless,’” while the only truthful review would say, “This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.”
Reviews are rarely so punchy. Some publications keep up the tradition of forceful criticism, but too often reviews feel like a smug inside job. Literary newspapers are particularly prone to this. They tend to be rich in reviewers called “Ferdinand”; in words like “jejune”; and in headlines that read less like a promise than a threat: “Whither Somalia?”, “Structuralism Domesticated” or (the question that is on everyone’s lips) “Who’s Afraid of Close Reading?” Hatchet jobs, by contrast, usually opt for a less elevated style. In one notorious review the critic Philip Hensher wrote that an author was so bad “he could not write ‘bum’ on a wall.”
Once, such zingers were common on literary pages. In the Victorian era, “reviews were seen as a kind of cultural hygiene, so there were high standards,” says Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a professor of English at Oxford University. Reviewers were not merely taking a swipe at an enemy but cleansing the sacred halls of literature. Not that this stopped them from mild grubbiness themselves. For example, one reviewer called a fellow writer’s work “feculent garbage”; the reliably robust Alfred Tennyson called yet another “a louse upon the locks of literature”; while John Milton (apparently having momentarily lost paradise again) described another as an “unswill’d hogshead”.
. . . .
Modern reviewers rarely achieve such lethal beauty. All too often reviews are replete with filler words: “darkly funny”, “searing”, “profound meditation”. Many of these—reader be warned—are euphemisms for the word “boring”, which is in effect forbidden on literary pages. So there is “detailed” (“boring”); “exhaustive” (“really boring”); “magisterial” (“boring but by a professor, and I did not finish it so cannot criticise it”). And so on.
The internet is one reason for this softening. It has altered both the economics of criticism (shrunken newspapers have fewer books pages, so editors tend to fill them with the books you should read, not the ones you should not) and the advisability of it (insults that seemed amusing blurted out in the moment pall when they echo online for eternity). The tendency to recruit specialist reviewers has not helped either. If you are one of the world’s two experts in early Sumerian cuneiform and you give a bad review to the world’s other one it might be fun for 20 minutes—and regrettable for 20 years.
We all live under the lash of the digital clock and the tyranny of the time stamp. It’s not just us, it’s everyone everywhere —
Fast food and even faster fashion.
Pro chess players have 2 minutes to make their moves. On each move 12 seconds is added to the time they have remaining on the clock.
A pro tennis player has 25 seconds to serve.
Major league pitchers have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base.
Hitters need to be in the batter’s box with eight seconds on the pitch clock.
Your Uber And Your Oven Timer
It will take you 5 minutes to read this article about Taylor Swift and 6 minutes to read that article about Ron DeSantis. (How do I know? The NYT now includes an estimated reading time with every article.)
But it doesn’t stop there.
Your oven timer tells you your roast chicken will be done in 8 minutes.
Laundry? Your laundry will be finished in 10 minutes.
And what about your Uber? You don’t have to guess. Your Uber will arrive in 17 minutes.
I don’t know how long it will take you to read this post cuz Anne and I actually love our readers.
Still, you have access to this otherwise vast helpful — but also annoying —trove of info because of the ubiquity of the digital timer.
When Your Elevator Pitch is Too Long
Time counts — yours and theirs — and especially right now.
There are moments — at a hectic, noisy party, running into a former colleague at a football game, at a busy class reunion — when even the elevator pitch is too long.
Still, you’re excited about your book and want to spread the word.
Here is where the Quick Pitch comes to the rescue.
It’s like the Elevator Pitch only shorter. Much shorter.
The Do’s and Don’ts of the Quick Pitch
Sometimes the headline of your blurb (the one you worked so hard on, right?) will be perfect.
If not, you will have to create the ever-handy, indispensable Quick Pitch.
Here’s how —
DO go for the hook and explain the basic concept first, because, according to molecular biologist John Medina of the University of Washington School of Medicine, the human brain requires meaning before details.
When listeners doesn’t understand the basic concept right at the beginning, they have a hard time processing the rest of the information.
Snakes on a plane is a great example.
Here are a few more —
Nurse Ratchett meets Rosemary’s Baby.
Hannibal Lecter at Beverly Hills High.
Legally Blonde as told by John Grisham.
Gone With The Wind as written by Mickey Spillane.
DON’T be afraid to be outrageous.
An obnoxious TV chef hides from a serial killer at a snooty cotillion for high society debutantes.
How about an opposites-attract romance between a plumber and a poet with a stopped-up sink?
Or a crass, loud-mouthed politician gets rip roaring drunk and comes to in a Buddhist monastery dedicated to silence, serenity and meditation?
Chances are, unless you’re a philosopher, you’ve never heard of Derek Parfit. A philosopher’s philosopher, he spent most of his career far from the madding crowd in the cloisters of All Souls College, Oxford, determined to demonstrate that there was an objective basis for secular morality rooted in rational foundations. He produced just two books—“Reasons and Persons” (1984) and the multi-volume “On What Matters” (2011, 2017)—but, as David Edmonds makes clear in his wonderful biography, “Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality,” they were outsize in both length and influence.
Mr. Edmonds, co-author (with John Eidinow) of “Wittgenstein’s Poker” (2001), one of my all-time favorite books of philosophy for non-academics, is ideally suited to write about Parfit. His Oxford BPhil and PhD dissertations in the late 1980s and early ’90s—both on ethical issues—were supervised, respectively, by Parfit and his longtime partner (and eventual wife), Janet Radcliffe Richards.
As in “Wittgenstein’s Poker,” Mr. Edmonds exhibits an impressive ability to explain complex philosophical arguments to the lay reader. He takes us into the nitty-gritty of Parfit’s reasoning, breakthroughs and responses to critics. He also locates Parfit in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries in the philosophical pantheon.
Most of this exegesis is remarkably accessible, though my mind balked at Mr. Edmonds’s three-point summary of Parfit’s conclusions and knotty ethical conundrums such as the Asymmetry Problem, the Non-Identity Problem and the wonderfully named Repugnant Conclusion. Offering more than a thinker’s life and career, “Parfit” is a crash course in the evolution of moral philosophy, and the best account I have read of what “doing philosophy” entails.
For Parfit, this entailed devising ingenious scenarios to tease out the ramifications of his ideas—about subjects ranging from the continuity of personal identity and our moral duties to future persons to questions about ideal population size and the intrinsic value of principles like equality. Many of his ideas involved issues concerning Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and Henry Sidgwick’s utilitarianism. He addressed these via thought experiments that were often variants of the famous Trolley Problem, which involved “individuals endangered in unfortunate circumstances, where there is the option to help, but at the cost of harming others.” In one, you could use a lifeboat to save either a single person stuck on a rock threatened by rising tide, or five people on a second rock. In another, the only way to divert a train from a track that will kill five people is to activate a trap door which will cause a person standing on a bridge above to fall to his death in front of the train. In both cases, Parfit shows how different principles all indicate that choosing to save the five rather than the one is the preferable option.
. . . .
Parfit supplemented his All Souls income (for which he was not required to teach) and broadened his reach with regular half-term stints at American universities, mainly Harvard, NYU and Rutgers. But he was a perfectionist whose name has apt roots in the French parfait, or “perfect,” and he suffered from what Mr. Edmonds calls “chronic publishing constipation.” He tested and retested his theories, circulating draft after draft among dozens of fellow philosophers and graduate students. Spurred by a publish-or-perish ultimatum from All Souls, he became maniacally focused on completing “Reasons and Persons” in the early ’80s, causing him to further cut all social activity, prepare instant coffee with tap water to save time, and read even while brushing his teeth.
Such personal details—and splashes of humor—provide plenty of relief from the book’s abstruse material. Parfit’s succinct summary of the history of ethics is especially delightful:
The day I signed the publishing contract for my second novel, I wrote a post about it on LinkedIn. I tagged the book’s soon-to-be publisher in the text, and included an image of their logo. The small press publishes just ten books a year. The fact that my book would be one of them was tremendously validating. I was delighted to share my good news.
Within minutes of the post going live I received a comment from a writer I was connected with on the platform but didn’t know very well. “That’s a vanity press!” he wrote. “Don’t publish your book with them. You’ll ruin your credibility. Everything you’ve worked for will go down the drain!”
Thinking this person was simply misinformed, I replied. “You must be confusing them with another publisher,” I wrote. “These guys are the real deal.” As proof, I added the link to my new publisher’s website. Believing I had settled the matter, I logged off.
When I looked at the post again later, I was horrified to discover that the same person had gone on an all-out digital tirade, posting multiple comments about how the publisher I had signed with wasn’t legitimate, and that as an author, neither was I. I realized then that, for some reason I still don’t understand, this complete stranger was trying to publicly discredit me and my work. I reported his comments to the site’s admin, removed him from my connections, and deleted the post.
The feeling of accomplishment I’d had that morning evaporated. I was sad and confused. I’d worked on that book for years. Why would a person who knew nothing about me or my work put so much effort into casting doubt on my achievement? Why would anyone be so mean to someone they don’t even know?
Some people get their sustenance from tearing apart others’ creative work. Over time, I’ve learned not to let these jerks get to me. I ignore their comments, or delete them in cases where they may be spreading falsehoods. Like most bullies, they lose interest pretty quickly if I refuse to acknowledge their cause.
. . . .
Liz Michalski, whose second novel, Darling Girl, was published last May, has had multiple adverse, unhelpful comments posted about the book—a dark retelling of Peter Pan—on a variety of platforms.
“My book is out there in the world, and everybody gets to have an opinion on it,” Michalski says. “Their opinion is none of my business, so I never respond to negative comments or reviews. In fact, I’ve pretty much given up reading reviews unless a friend sends me a particularly good or funny one.
“I’m also more careful which social media pools I swim in. I’ve had some really lovely fans on TikTok, but that’s also where the really meanspirited comments have been, so I tend to just not hang out there.”
Author Tara Lynn Masih’s book, My Real Name is Hanna, is a young adult historical novel about a Jewish teenager in Lithuania set during the Holocaust. Although the book has enjoyed critical praise, or perhaps because of it, the novel was singled out by a group of Holocaust deniers online seeking to discredit it.
“My recent Holocaust novel became the target of an organized two-star [rating] campaign,” Masih says. “Very inappropriate reviews that excoriated me personally were left on one site, which refused to take them down, even though some other sites would have. I even got worried for my safety when some angry emails started coming in, and someone attempted to get my cell phone number. For a few months, it affected me mentally and physically, and I did consider giving up writing. Is it really worth it, you have to ask yourself, when you are the subject of this kind of hate campaign?”
But eventually, Masih says, the trolls moved on to some other writer.
“The dirty dust settles, and you have hopefully reinforced your passion for creating stories, understanding that your writing has power and no one should ever be allowed to silence your voice.”
Prince Harry’s book is odd. There’s even something half-mad about it.
He opens with a dramatic meeting at Frogmore, his former mansion on the grounds of Windsor. It is just after the death of Prince Philip, Harry’s paternal grandfather. For months Harry has been estranged from his father, Charles, and his brother, William—a “full-scale public rupture.” Harry has flown in from America and requested a meeting. The day is overcast, chilly. Charles and William arrive late looking “grim, almost menacing,” and “tightly aligned.” “They’d come ready for a fight.” Harry is tongue-tied, vulnerable, leaves heartbroken. “I wanted peace. I wanted it more than anything.”
You feel such sympathy. What could have driven them so far apart? Why are Charles and William so cold? Then you realize, wait—Philip died just a month after the Oprah interview in which Harry rather coolly portrayed his family as remote and hapless puppets and implied they were racist.
Harry forgets, in the opening, to tell us that part. But you can see how it might have left Charles and William a little indignant.
This is the book’s great flaw, that Harry doesn’t always play it straight, that he thinks “my truth” is as good as the truth. There are other flaws, and they grate. There’s a heightened-ness to his language—he never leaves a place; he flees it “in fear for our sanity and physical safety.” He often finds his wife “sobbing uncontrollably” on the floor and the stairs, mostly over what he fails to realize are trivial things. He is grandiose: “My mother was a princess, named after a goddess.” “How would I be remembered by history? For the headlines? Or for who I actually was?” Lord, he was an attractive man fifth in line for a largely ceremonial European throne; it would hardly remember him at all. (Unless he wrote a scalding book and destabilized the monarchy!) He repeatedly points out that he’s a Windsor and of royal blood. His title means a lot to him. He is exhibitionistic: “My penis was oscillating between extremely sensitive and borderline traumatized.” (Frostbite.)
There are gaps in his knowledge-base that wouldn’t be irritating if he weren’t intent on establishing that he’s giving you the high-class rarefied inside dope. “Never complain, never explain” has been an expression of the old American upper class since forever, and I’m sure the British one too. It isn’t special to the Windsors. “An heir and a spare” is old Fleet Street tabloidese. It doesn’t mean, as he suggested on book tour, he was bred for body parts.
Famous families often have internal communication problems. The children of those families learn much of what they know from the many books written about the clan. They internalize and repeat observations and stories that aren’t quite right but are now given their insider imprimatur.
Harry’s anecdotes tend to undermine the institution of the monarchy. When he was a teenager Britain’s biggest tabloid told the palace it had evidence he was doing drugs. In fact, as Harry tells us candidly, he did do drugs when he was young. The palace, no doubt knowing this, opted to “play ball” with the newspaper and not deny all aspects of the story. This made Harry feel thrown under the bus.
His father, he believes, used him as a “sacrifice,” to appease a powerful editor and bolster his own sagging reputation. “No more the unfaithful husband, Pa would now be presented to the world as the harried single dad coping with a drug-addled child.” He reports Charles and his wife, Camilla, were jealous of William and Kate’s “drawing attention away from them.” His stories of jealousy sound like projection. But they also make the book feel less like “Clown Turns on Circus” than something more deadly, especially just before Charles’s coronation this May.
Harry accuses the tabloids of violating his privacy, and no doubt they often did. What is almost unbelievable is that he is so unmoored and destabilized by this inevitable aspect of fame, especially royal fame. He implies he left Britain primarily because of the newspapers and their criticism of his wife.
But the odd, half-mad thing about this book is that in it he violates his own privacy, and that of others, more than Fleet Street ever could.
He is careful throughout to say he is telling his story in order to help others, those who’ve struggled with mental illness or been traumatized by war. It is hard to know another person’s motives; it can be hard to know your own. But I don’t think this book is about others. I think it’s about his own very human desire for revenge, to hurt those who’ve hurt him. And to become secure in a certain amount of wealth. And to show his family and Fleet Street that their favorite ginger-haired flake could make his own way, set up his own palace, break free, fly his own standard, become the duke of Netflix. This book is classic Fredo: “I can handle things. I’m smart. Not like everybody says, like dumb, I’m smart and I want respect!”
It is all so contradictory. He says he wants reconciliation but writes things that alienate, he says he reveres the monarchy and isn’t trying to bring it down but he has gone beyond removing bricks from the facade and seems to be going at the bearing walls.
I close with a thought on privacy. Prince Harry violates his own. He tells us too much about himself and others.
For visitors from overseas, The Wall Street Journal is by far the largest-circulation newspaper in the United States. In daily print circulation WSJ is about twice as large as that of the New York Times. USA today has a larger print circulation than the Times does.
If you combine print products, digital subscriptions and other papers that include their branded content, USA Today is in first place, WSJ is in second place and NYT is third. USA Today’s circulation numbers includes a large percentage of readers/viewers who read the paper at no charge.
The author of the OP is Peggy Noonan, long-time WSJ columnist, Pulitzer prize winner, author of nine books on American politics, history and culture. Noonan was a special assistant and speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. She has also been a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and has taught in the history department at Yale University. Prior to entering the Reagan White House, Noonan was a producer and writer at CBS News in New York and an adjunct of Journalism at New York University.
PG has enjoyed Ms. Noonan’s commentary for a long time.
RAJVARDHAN OAK STUMBLED upon an underground market for fake Amazon reviews by accident while scrolling through Facebook.
“I saw this ad that said I could get a robot vacuum cleaner for free in return for a five-star review,” says Oak, a PhD student at UC Davis. He figured it was a scam, but he clicked on the ad. Over the following days, he saw a flood of similar Facebook ads, all with the same proposition: Buy a product, write a positive review, get a full refund, and the product is yours to keep. So he tried it.
Oak wasn’t willing to drop $300 on a robot vacuum, so he waited for something cheaper, which turned out to be a $20 neck pillow. With Amazon Prime’s 30-day return guarantee, he wouldn’t be out the money if things didn’t work out. He bought it, wrote a five-star review on Amazon, and received a refund. A decent neck pillow for almost nothing.
Pay to Play
After that first review, the ads kept coming. The scale of the operation piqued his interest, so Oak set up a few sock puppet Facebook accounts and began joining groups offering free Amazon products for review. Some of these groups had thousands of members with agents from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India working for sellers in China to secure reviews on Amazon in the US and Europe.
Reviews are important. Sales data is hard to come by, but higher ratings generally lead to higher sales, according to research from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which covered the 70 highest-selling categories and hundreds of thousands of individual products over a two-year time span. It’s not only about high ratings but also about visibility. Most folks won’t go beyond a page or two of search results, so if your product isn’t in there, you can forget about making a sale.
“A quick search today on any big search engine or many social media sites shows how easy it is to buy reviews and how much more platforms could do to protect consumers and honest businesses from this deceptive practice,” wrote Samuel Levine, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a recent blog post.
The Facebook groups Oak discovered were marketplaces where reviews and ratings were bought and sold. Agents shared lists of products available for reviewers—one of the spreadsheets Oak saw had more than 10,000 products on it—and while most options are relatively cheap, there are pricier ticket items like robot vacuums and even a $500 treadmill.
Oak’s PhD research focuses on cybersecurity, reputation manipulation, trust, and safety. He also works as an applied scientist in the Network Protection and Fraud Prevention team for Microsoft Ads. He resolved to dig deeper. He devised a survey and convinced 38 agents and 36 reviewers to fill it out. The data revealed that people were writing an average of 10 reviews per month for products with a total value between $120 and $2,400. Agents earned $4 or $5 for each review they secured, with average monthly earnings of $150. (The top earner’s best month netted them $1,200.) For many agents, this was their primary job.
. . . .
Agents are trained on how to recruit reviewers (referred to as “Jennies” by the agents). Tips for recruiting folks on Instagram, for example, suggest following hashtags like #Amazonreviews, as well as experimenting to find the best time to post about products. Agents are shown an example of an attractive prospect or “Virgin Jenny,” an existing reviewer profile with a single review on it.
These agents never give out direct links to Amazon, because the retailer can track where customers land. Instead, Jennies are told to search for the product and browse organically—click on related products, mark other reviews as helpful, and post queries in the “Customer Questions” section to build a believable pattern of behavior. Jennies are also instructed to mix up the sellers they buy from, wait a few days after receiving the product to write the review, add photos and video to reviews, and write reviews of 300 words or more.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, a reader in possession of a platform must be in want of an opinion.
As news desks covering books have disappeared, book bloggers and bookstagrammers and booktokers have proliferated. As such, I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to see some really mean comments about your book.
But chin up, because the reality is? There have always been people who hated your book. In a different generation, they just wouldn’t have had an easy way to let you know they hated it. And while that might not seem like much of a silver lining, then let this be: there are also people who love it and will talk about it so much you’ll wonder who, exactly, is paying them.
So, this is the way of things now, for better or worse. But whether the social media reviews are good or bad, it’s the volume of them that can feel particularly relentless. Your publisher wants them to be relentless. Relentless is a good thing in this ecosystem of content attention. Yet for all the good it may ultimately do, we should at least acknowledge that it’s different. That authors today are dealing with something authors yesterday did not: the presumption of access. And its corollary: the feeling that your reader is now looking over your shoulder.
So here are some things that help me navigate all that (when I remember to take my own advice):
No book is universally beloved so stop trying to write one that is. Because of my day job, I get tagged in reviews of other writer’s audiobooks. Sometimes I’m tagged even when the author isn’t, because while the reviewer liked my performance, it’s a bad review of the book (and the good reviewers have learned not to tag the author in negative reviews – seriously, what HEROES). So let me tell you: books you may think are universally beloved? Aren’t. There is some corner of social media that hates them. One of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies, The Big Sick, has Ray Romano’s character utterly baffled by internet opinions: “This is why I don’t want to go online, ‘cause it’s never good. You go online, they hated Forrest Gump. Frickin best movie ever.” Even if you, in your social media bubble, have seen only positive posts about these books, trust me, if you scroll through the comments, you will inevitably see that someone has written: “oh, I’m so glad you liked it! I’ve heard such mixed things.” Whaaaat? you will think. Where? The internet. That’s where. Universally beloved books don’t exist. No one has ever written one. You will never write one. So you don’t have to try to!
Your opinion is just as valid as theirs. Roland Barthes argued that once a text is out in the world, the author, for all intents and purposes, is dead. That their opinion of the work they’ve created is no longer more valid than that of any reader. That’s a tough pill to swallow. After all, we are the final arbiters of right or wrong interpretations of our work. If a reader fundamentally misunderstands something about, say, our plot, then they are, objectively, wrong. But that doesn’t mean their opinion of the work is wrong. And in turn, that certainly doesn’t mean that our opinion of our work is wrong. In fact, I would argue – and I did – it’s the only thing that matters (see my previous post about only competing with yourself).
Some people are just miserable. In my experience, most reviewers understand how to say something that reflects their personal, subjective experience. “This book wasn’t the right fit for me.” “I just didn’t connect with it”. The ones who are vitriolic and have zero self-awareness (“this book is trash!!” “worst book ever written!!!”) are not to be taken seriously, the same way we don’t take seriously those same people in the real world. They are misanthropic and tedious on Instagram, just as they are in life. Would you let this kind of person offer their unsolicited opinion about your wife, your kid, your job? Realize this is a them problem, not a you problem. Have boundaries around whose words you take to heart.
“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” The remark, attributed by the authors of “Smart Brevity” to Mark Twain, nicely sums up the book’s theme: It’s hard, time-consuming work to say a thing briefly, but the work pays off. In fact, Twain wrote no such thing—the remark, in a slightly different form, belongs to Blaise Pascal. But the point is still valid.
The authors of “Smart Brevity” are Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz, co-founders of the aggressively to-the-point news website Axios. Messrs. Allen and VandeHei left Time magazine and the Washington Post, respectively, for Politico, which Mr. VandeHei co-founded, in 2007. Before Axios, which began in 2016, Mr. Schwartz worked for Politico and Gallup.
The book is written in the style of an Axios news article: A one- or two-sentence lede, a terse paragraph labeled WHY IT MATTERS or THE BIG PICTURE, followed by a few short bullet-pointed paragraphs. The authors developed this style, which they call Smart Brevity, when they realized that consumers of news in the 21st century, overwhelmed by words issuing from every direction, generally don’t read news articles; they skim them, or glance at the headline and the first sentence or two. Their solution: If you want to influence people through the medium of words, use fewer of them. “Strong words, shorter sentences, arresting teases, simple visuals and smartly organized ideas,” they write, “transform writing from unnoticed to vital—and remembered.”
“The Elements of Style” and many other guidebooks enjoin writers to omit needless phrases, delete unnecessary modifiers, use active verbs, and so on. You get all that here, but Messrs. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz write for the online era of short attention spans and verbal incontinence.
They have a point. Most books and essays published these days are too long: gummed up with adjectives and pointless asides, laden with prolix displays of expertise. Many news articles, too, are repetitive, full of vague insinuation, and include figures and quotations whose import is not apparent. Then there are the ordinary modes of written communication. You have not experienced periphrastic confusion until you have tried to read emails from your child’s public school about matters that ought to be simple but, for reasons that perplex the greatest minds, are not—picture days, pick-up times, grade reports.
“Something went haywire in our evolutionary journey that turned us into long-winded blowhards armed with a few fancy words in reserve,” the authors write.
That “something” was, of course, the internet. Messrs. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz don’t discuss the difference between print reading and screen reading, but it’s worth some reflection. An email or a web article can hold an infinite number of words. The temptation to keep issuing verbiage is too great, the discipline of economy too taxing, for most writers to bear. The printed page, by contrast, although it doesn’t guarantee good writing, does impose limits. If you are reading these words in print, you will note that the review comes to an end near the bottom of the page, where the dead-tree real estate reaches its end.
. . . .
Maybe the Axios style is the future of written communication. If so, please kill me.
I don’t get the bullet points, for one thing. The book’s short chapters are written in paragraphs, as all writing in English is, but about two thirds of these paragraphs have little dots to the left. “The bullet point is a wonderful way to isolate important facts or ideas,” the authors write. Maybe so, but the excessive use of bullets leads you to wonder why some bulleted paragraphs have no important facts or ideas, and some nonbulleted ones do. And anyway why am I thinking more about these little dots than about the subject matter? It’s a fine way to read if you want to go insane.
. . . .
The worst thing about “Smart Brevity,” though, is the way the Axios style does the work of interpretation for the reader. News journalism at its best presents you with an array of observable circumstances and no definite conclusion. The arrangement of those circumstances is itself an act of interpretation, to be sure, but in the end the journalist leaves it to readers to decide what it all means.
Not in the world of Smart Brevity™. There you’re simply told WHY IT MATTERS and THE BOTTOM LINE and, in its online manifestation, if you doubt the reporter’s construal you’re invited to click the words GO DEEPER and read some other article. “Don’t make your readers pick what’s important!” the authors exclaim to reporters. “You’ve mastered your content, honed your idea and know what matters.”
My professional life has swung more and more to writing about books over the last few years. This means that in addition to writing a lot more reviews than I used to, I read a lot more reviews than I used to. It also means that I’ve developed some opinions about how to write useful, thoughtful reviews, and here’s the one I truly wish everyone would start paying attention to: the words “I wanted” don’t belong in book reviews.
I’m not arguing against critical reviews. I’m all for critical reviews, both the ones that point out misogyny or racism or homophobia in books, and the ones that simply express an opinion about something that didn’t work — plot, character, prose, etc. Reviews are subjective. If someone doesn’t like a book, and they can explain why without using the words “I wanted,” that information can help other readers decide whether or not they want to read it. But if that review is just sentence after sentence trolling the book because it wasn’t the book that reviewer wanted to read — that’s not helpful, and it’s not even a real critical review.
Let me let you in on a little secret. If your book review is peppered with the words “I wanted,” it probably means that you should have DNFed that book. It almost certainly doesn’t mean the book you read was bad. It almost certainly does mean that you’ve written a bad review — not a critical review, a bad one.
“Strange fruit,” writes T.J. English, is “the seminal jazz song.” This haunting ballad, written by a Jewish high schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, in 1937 and burned into the collective cultural memory by Billie Holiday two years later, portrays the crime of lynching as central to the brutal history of the United States. “It is generally agreed that jazz as a new musical art form began to take shape in the early years of the 20th century. It is not generally commented upon that jazz, in its origins, was a response to the horror and reality of lynching in America.”
Mr English makes the persuasive argument that the birth of jazz, rooted in the African-American experience, was “nothing less than an attempt to achieve salvation through the tonal reordering of time and space.” But jazz could not scrub off the stain of violence. “Dangerous Rhythms” is not a book about music as an art form; it is instead a nuanced account of how, in the 60 or so years between the introduction of Prohibition and the enforcement of the rico Act—which brought the mafia to its knees in the 1980s—the development of jazz was facilitated by some of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century.
Music brought business to the mobsters’ speakeasies. The most renowned names in jazz history, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington, are linked with the names of the gangsters who fostered their careers. Louis Armstrong got his start in the seedy clubs of Louisiana: “One thing I always admired about those bad men when I was a youngster in New Orleans is that they all liked good music,” he said.
The criminal underworld was a male-dominated place, yet some female performers learned to navigate it. Mary Lou Williams, a pianist and composer, was managed by Joe Glaser (who also represented Holiday and Armstrong); Glaser had helped run Al Capone’s prostitution scheme in Chicago. Williams was under no illusions when it came to the jazz scene in the 1930s: “Everyone was like a hoodlum.”
Mr English—a journalist and author who has written several books on gangs in America and Cuba—chronicles the privileges of white supremacy. Black artists found protection where they could in a society built on injustice. The second half of the book turns to the career of Frank Sinatra. His ties with organised crime are hardly a secret, but Mr English lays out those brazen connections with clarity.
If you ask most people to name the first person to circumnavigate the globe, they will likely answer Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese mariner who sailed on behalf of Spain in 1519. But Magellan never even attempted the feat, and he didn’t live to see it accomplished by members of his crew. As we approach the 500th anniversary of their achievement next month, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of contrarian works such as “1492,” “Amerigo” and “The Spanish Armada,” takes exception to the “tradition of hero worship” that persists around Magellan. In “Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan,” he launches his broadside.
Magellan was born to an aristocratic family around 1480 on Portugal’s rocky coast. As a boy, he served as a page in the court of Manuel I in Lisbon, where he absorbed the chivalric ethos of the times and prepared for a military career. Starting in 1505, he joined campaigns to India and Africa, as Portugal claimed a share of the fantastically lucrative spice trade.
After falling out with King Manuel, Magellan defected to Portugal’s archrival, Spain, and in 1519 launched his celebrated voyage, destined for the fabled Spice Islands in present-day Indonesia. Because the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had divided the world into two zones of influence, with Portugal claiming everything east of a line drawn in the Atlantic Ocean and Spain everything to the west, Magellan would approach Asia via the Americas.
On Sept. 20, 1519, the fleet left Spain with five ships, some 240 men and boys, provisions for two years and a stock of trade goods. From the start, as Mr. Fernández-Armesto relates, the company was rent by tension between its Spanish and Portuguese members, and a power struggle between their captain and his second in command, the Spaniard Juan de Cartagena. After a stormy two-month crossing, the flotilla sighted Brazil and veered southward, probing for a rumored strait through the continent.
In April 1520, Magellan ordered winter quarters in the harbor of San Julián, in eastern Patagonia. Faced with months of freezing weather and dwindling rations, a faction of Spanish officers mutinied, demanding to return home. Magellan quashed the uprising with characteristic decisiveness and brutality, killing a pair of the offenders, torturing others and marooning two, including Cartagena, on a deserted island. Also that dismal winter, one ship, the Santiago, was lost when it ran aground in a storm.
In August, with the approach of spring, the expedition continued to reconnoiter the forbidding coast. Nearing the tip of the continent, they finally discovered the channel that today bears Magellan’s name. But to negotiate its 350 miles of treacherous shoals and devilish currents required more than a month, not to mention fortitude, superb seamanship and outright luck. For commercial utility it would never rival the routes already established by the Portuguese.
While still in the strait, another band of mutineers seized the armada’s largest ship, the San Antonio, and bolted for Spain, carrying essential provisions as well as reports of their captain’s cruelty and recklessness. The three remaining vessels entered the Pacific, which Magellan named for its initially gentle seas, then caught the trade winds and rocketed westward. “But,” Mr. Fernández-Armesto writes, “the benignity of the weather was like a villain’s smile,” luring the fleet into an ocean immense beyond their comprehension. Over nearly four months, as their numbers declined from starvation and scurvy, the men sailed for more than 7,000 excruciating miles without landfall until, on March 6, 1521, they spied the islands of Rota and Guam, in the Marianas. When some islanders made off with a skiff and other goods, Magellan retaliated mercilessly, killing several villagers and burning scores of houses and boats.
Later that month, the fleet reached the Philippines, which Mr. Fernández-Armesto, in one of the many contrarian arguments he makes throughout the book, suggests was Magellan’s secret destination all along. The strangers were well received on the island of Cebu, but imposing himself in a conflict between rival chiefs, Magellan made an ill-advised attack on neighboring Mactan, where he and several of his men were slain in battle on April 27, 1521.
Although it seems to run counter to the fierce determination that Magellan had shown throughout the expedition, Mr. Fernández-Armesto believes that the captain, preferring to die a hero rather than return a failure, “crafted his death to suit a narrative he composed in his own mind before the event, imagining a knightly consummation in a battle sanctified by crusading ideals.”
Taking stock of their situation, the survivors scuttled the Concepción for lack of crew and, under the command of the Spaniard Juan Sebastián Elcano, steered their remaining two vessels to the Moluccas, where they loaded the hulls with precious spices. The Trinidad was captured by the Portuguese, whose zone of influence the expedition had violated, but the battered Victoria navigated the treacherous waters around the tip of Africa and arrived in Spain on Sept. 6, 1522, with 18 of the 240 souls who had sailed three years before.
You don’t want to dwell on your enemies, you know. I basically feel so superior to my critics for the simple reason that they haven’t done what I do. Most book reviewers haven’t written 11 novels. Many of them haven’t written one.
In another effort to crack down on fake reviews for products on its digital store, Amazon has sued a Massachusetts company that it says sells fake 5-star “verified feedback” and creates accounts for sellers who have been suspended.
The lawsuit comes weeks after Amazon sued the administrators of more than 10,000 Facebook groups for allegedly coordinating fake product reviews in exchange for money or free products. Amazon is ramping up ongoing legal activity against fake review brokers, the company said. The most recent lawsuit is the first aimed at stopping fraudsters who are posting fake seller feedback, which is separate from product reviews.
“Every day, millions of consumers who shop in Amazon’s stores use customer product reviews or seller feedback to assist with purchasing decisions,” reads the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court and first reported by Axios. “The bad actors who pay for product reviews and seller feedback erode that customer trust, compete unfairly with the millions of honest entrepreneurs who sell in Amazon’s stores and tarnish Amazon’s brand.”
In this case, Amazon sued Trey King, a Rhode Island resident, and his company, Auction Sentinel, as well as Sentinel Solutions, a corporation organized in Massachusetts.
Auction Sentinel bills itself as the “#1 marketplace for third party sellers” and offers services for people selling their goods on Amazon, eBay, Etsy and Walmart. “If you want to sell and profit in E-com [e-commerce], you need a coach who has been in the game for a while and not just a glorified Instagram or YouTube personality who flashes luxury cars,” King wrote in a pitch for Auction Sentinel’s services on its website.
Amazon claims Auction Sentinel creates fake 5-star “verified feedback” for sellers on its platform in order to “artificially inflate” a seller’s ratings. One package offers 10 feedbacks for $200 and another promotes up to 100 for $700.
Jake Kasdan’s 2019 movie “Jumanji: The Next Level” opens with returning hero Spencer already at low ebb—he’s lonely at college, browbeaten at work and sharing his bedroom with Grandpa Eddie. But the thing that pushes him over the edge, driving him back into the dangerous alternate reality of the movie’s title, is the idea that life’s inevitable decline has already begun.
“Getting old sucks,” Eddie says, as he fiddles with the portable oxygen machine on his bedside table. “Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
Social psychologist Becca Levy spends much of “Breaking the Age Code” doing exactly that, weaving together case studies and her own research to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to suck at all. The expectation that aging means decay, Ms. Levy shows, is actually a major reason it so often does—our negative view of aging is literally killing us. Chipping away at this widespread and deeply ingrained conviction has a measurable effect on health after just 10 minutes.
The first part of the book is so full of flabbergasting results that they become almost monotonous. In 2002 Ms. Levy combined results from the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement with data from the National Death Index to reveal that, on average, people with the most positive views of aging were outliving those with the most negative views by 7½ years—an extraordinary 10% of current life expectancy in the United States. In 2012 memory tests showed that positive age beliefs allowed people to outperform their peers with negative beliefs by 30%. The stereotype of failing memory is so strong in the West that occasional lapses are called “senior moments.” But in China, where attitudes to the elderly are much more positive than in the U.S., Ms. Levy says older people “can expect [their] memory to work basically as well as [their] grandchildren’s.” Experiments in the lab, across cultures, and following participants over many years give similar results for dementia, hearing and physical function.
Ms. Levy leavens this research summary with portraits of inspiring elders, from the actor who started memorizing the whole of “Paradise Lost” when he was 60, to the 91-year-old nun who runs triathlons. She also shows the scientific method at work, as when she describes how statistical analysis helped her establish that positive age beliefs bring better health—instead of the other way around—and how lab results demonstrated that those who were exposed to positive age beliefs walked faster and with better balance.
A combination of factors makes us “particularly susceptible . . . to negative age beliefs,” Ms. Levy argues, citing the World Health Organization bulletin that declared ageism “the most widespread and socially accepted prejudice today.” We first encounter ageism when we are least likely to resist it, decades before it might apply to us and our peers. Older people are often segregated in Western society for living, working and socializing, leading younger people to conclude these divisions are “caused by meaningful, inherent differences between age groups.” And these stereotypes are then reinforced over the course of our lives, as we are “bombarded by messages in advertisements and media about older people.”
All is not lost, however, for despite the “pervasiveness and depth” of ageism in Western society, these beliefs are “in fact quite brittle: they can be chipped at, shifted and remade.” In one striking study from 1996, Ms. Levy primed some people with positive words such as “wise” or “alert,” and others with negative ones such as “senile” or “confused.” Ten minutes of priming saw participants in the positive stereotypes group improve in memory tests, while the negative stereotypes group declined.
The proliferation of Mandarin immersion schools across the U.S. suggests that a growing number of American parents believe the Chinese language, including its writing system, will prepare their children for academic success. China’s primary- and secondary-school students regularly top global rankings in math and science, even as the study of Confucian classics enjoys a resurgence. Perhaps Chinese characters are the key to the country’s ability to churn out talented professionals?
Ms. Tsu, a professor of East Asian languages and literatures at Yale University, describes how intellectuals believed that the Chinese language was a major reason for the country’s backwardness. As China was being carved up into spheres of influence by colonial powers during the 19th century, the West’s dominance seemed to show that alphabet-based scripts were a better fit for the scientific and industrial revolutions then under way. Some influential figures, such as the left-wing writer Lu Xun, argued that Chinese characters should be scrapped to save the nation.
There are several reasons why China ultimately held on to its characters. Most important, the prevalence of homophones in the Chinese language means that a phonetic script would lead to endless misunderstandings. Ms. Tsu reprints a 92-character parable by the linguist Zhao Yuanren about a gentleman who tries to eat 10 stone lions. Every character is pronounced “shi,” making a phonetic rendering unintelligible. It’s an extreme case, but the point is certainly valid.
So how could China make its characters fit into a world dominated by alphabetic languages? The book opens with the story of Wang Zhao, a former Qing dynasty official who sneaked back into the country from exile to publish in 1903 the first homegrown phonetic script. Wang’s “Mandarin Combined Tone Alphabet,” a set of 62 symbols borrowed from Japanese and Manchu, was quickly superseded by another bespoke system. But Wang’s alphabet did play a transitional role in education reforms that promoted literacy. After the collapse of the Qing and the founding of a nationalist republic in 1912, Wang continued to champion the Beijing dialect used by imperial officials as the standard form of the language. That gave us today’s Mandarin, known in the People’s Republic as putonghua, or “common speech.”
. . . .
The most successful innovations were spearheaded by the Communists after their 1949 victory as Mao Zedong sought new means to indoctrinate the “poor and blank” peasantry. Mao appointed a committee of 12 language reformers that first simplified more than 2,200 commonly used Chinese characters. In more than 80% of cases, they adopted shorthands already in common use in handwriting and calligraphy. Once these shorthands were officially recognized as the official forms, learning to read and write became easier and printing clearer.
The committee then turned to a new system of romanization, known today as pinyin. It was based on Latin New Script, devised in Soviet Russia in 1929 to spread communist propaganda to illiterate Chinese. Pinyin also helped Chinese students learn to read and speak standard Mandarin. It had the additional benefit of helping foreigners understand the real sounds—hence “Peking” gave way to “Beijing.”
China may have been first to use movable-type printing 1,000 years ago, but its typesetters were left far behind by the invention of the linotype machine in the 1880s. By the mid-1970s, developed countries had moved on to photomechanical typesetting, while Chinese printers were still composing type using outdated methods. So the Communist Party launched a push to design a homegrown computer system for typesetting Chinese. Again the motivation was to deliver more propaganda faster. Smartphones now offer many ways to input and transmit the Chinese language, making the use of characters virtually as fast and easy as alphabetic languages.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has filed lawsuits against fake review brokers who orchestrate the posting of incentivized and misleading product reviews, in exchange for money or free products.
The lawsuits aim to shut down two major fake review brokers, AppSally and Rebatest, who helped mislead shoppers by having their members try to post fake reviews in stores such as Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and Etsy. This legal action is one part of Amazon’s comprehensive and proactive efforts to ensure a safe and trustworthy shopping experience for its customers and extensive opportunities to create thriving businesses.
“Fake review brokers attempt to profit by deceiving unknowing consumers and creating an unfair competitive advantage that harms our selling partners,” said Dharmesh Mehta, VP of WW Customer Trust & Partner Support, Amazon. “We know how valuable trustworthy reviews are to our customers. That is why we are holding these review fraudsters accountable. While we prevent millions of suspicious reviews from ever appearing in our store, these lawsuits target the source.”
Amazon strictly prohibits incentivized or fake reviews and uses a combination of machine learning technology and skilled investigators to detect, prevent, and remove them. In 2020, Amazon stopped more than 200 million suspected fake reviews before they were ever seen by a customer. A nefarious industry has emerged in recent years, in which fraudsters facilitate fake or inflated reviews in exchange for money or free products.
Amazon’s legal action comes after an in-depth investigation into these review brokers, which taken together claim to have more than 900,000 members willing to write fake reviews. Fake review brokers attempt to hide their activity and evade detection. For example, the fake review site AppSally sells fake reviews for as low as at $20 and instructs bad actors to ship empty boxes to people willing to write fake reviews, and to provide AppSally with photos to be uploaded alongside their reviews. The fraudulent scheme run by Rebatest will only pay people writing 5-star reviews after their fake reviews are approved by the bad actors attempting to sell those items.
Today’s legal action shows Amazon’s determination to shut down fake review brokers. Amazon has previously won dozens of injunctions against fake review brokers, compelling them to provide information about who is paying for these fraudulent services. Most recently in late 2021, two major fake review sites in Germany and the UK were closed down following successful legal action by Amazon in those countries.
Amazon has more than 10,000 employees around the world protecting its store from fraud and abuse, including fake reviews. Amazon receives more than 30 million reviews each week, and uses a combination of machine learning technology and skilled investigators to analyze each review before it is displayed.
This review should not exist. I should not write it.
Pieces like this one always carry the same heading: “Dispatches from [insert country/geographic region],” “Three recent novels from [insert identity/language/culture].” If “natives” like me write these pieces, we acquire the voice of “our” culture and speak for its history. If others—nonlocals and, perhaps, nonspecialists—write them, historical specificity can evaporate into belles-lettristic formalism or stereotype, apolitical and stale. Such essays are, nevertheless, irrefutably important, since they can help bring foreign writers to US audiences. When well-written, they have the potential to rewrite harmful and boring tropes and offer new ways of pondering the literary landscape. Just like novels, though, they often uncritically fulfill the market’s demands (as I might be doing here).
The tangled incentives motivating this essay include: monetary and career incentives that led me to emigrate to and study in the US; monetary and career incentives that make translation into English essential for Third World writers (especially Latin American ones); and this publication’s platform—people interested mainly in American and British literature, with advanced humanities degrees conferred by US universities. Essays like this one risk calcifying the imperial dynamics that inevitably produce them, relegating the literary and cultural works they promote to the lesser literary field of keyword-laden generalities.
“Latin America” is one such keyword and, nowadays, a gringo fabrication. Even if I could rescue something decidedly autochthonous and pure that unified the region, I wouldn’t know how to tell it apart from the Yankee, imperial mythology. Latin American authors engaging elements of the continent’s shared canon and interconnected histories face a double bind that demands, in a sense, that they establish a relationship with “Latin America” as a formulation emanating from above—from centers of literary power, nowadays New York and formerly Paris—to be translated, to sell, to make money from their literature. Latin America registers in those literary centers as an aggregation of tropes established mostly by the aesthetics of token authors inducted into the “global” literary canon—Neruda, García Márquez, and Bolaño key among them. Borges, for these readers and critics, might as well have been French.
Obviously, economic and institutional rewards come to those willing to pander to US desires (just ask Isabel Allende). At the same time, one cannot deny that authors’ dependency on the US book market has increased exponentially in recent years. This has itself become a literary theme. Three recently translated, very different novels—César Aira’s The Divorce, Dolores Reyes’s Eartheater, and Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay—each illuminate and interrogate aspects of top-down, imperial representational demands. At times critical of and dexterous in playing with gringo expectations, these novels attempt to develop forms of literary imagination, of reading and writing, that elude instead of rehearsing a partially gringo-defined, essential Latin Americanness.
. . . .
César Aira’s The Divorce was originally published in 2010 and comes to English courtesy of New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews and prefaced by Patti Smith. The novel assumes the voice of a wealthy, educated resident of Providence, Rhode Island (a Brown professor?), who moves, almost on a whim, to a Buenos Aires hostel following a painful divorce. “A temporary withdrawal on my part would be the kindest thing, for me and for my daughter,” he explains. “When I returned, all smiles and gifts, we would reestablish our relationship on the terms laid down by the judge.” Perhaps escape can quell the agonies of separation.
Latin America is ideal for fleeing, since it has historically been cast as exterior to history: a location in permanent, nondialectical détente. Think of Burroughs fleeing to Mexico after committing murder; Hemingway’s long love affair with La Finca Vigía; Britons awed by Patagonia. Atemporality draws imperialists like flies.
Likewise, for Aira’s narrator, Buenos Aires is a pause, unimportant and nonnarrative in his life because what matters is the “Providence (Rhode Island)” timeline. That name itself assumes an ironic guise, mocking gringo self-regard and foreshadowing the narrative’s distaste for P/providence.
Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, the narrator journeys to a local coffee shop. He witnesses a young man get drenched by the accumulated water of a retracting awning. Everything stops. As our narrator stares on, the soaked Enrique recognizes Leticia, the childhood acquaintance he was originally on his way to meet. A remarkable subnarrative arises here—“They hadn’t seen each other since the day they met, which was also the day that had marked the end of their childhood”—as Aira leads us down the story of Enrique and Leticia’s elementary school. That institution had burned down in a demonic fire they escaped by entering an also burning miniature model of the school that they found in a basement. This aside concludes with Enrique and Leticia’s reduction to atoms, which then escape the school together with millions of similarly sized priests.
. . . .
Aira does not really engage the more tangible historicity of Buenos Aires and Argentina, because his story mostly operates on a metafictional level. Meanwhile, Eartheater, Dolores Reyes’s first novel (translated by Julia Sanches) does tussle with the city’s specific pasts and presents.
Reyes narrates the story of an unnamed young woman from a Buenos Aires slum who sees her father murder her mother, then feels an uncanny urge to devour earth at her family’s property. Doing so, she briefly relives the moment of the killing. The narrator quickly realizes that by eating dirt from a specific location, she can witness the horrible events that transpired there. Quickly, albeit guiltily, she monetizes the skill, transforming into a sort of detective. Most of her clients are grieving parents looking for children, mainly daughters murdered by men—their partners and fathers. She hesitantly begins dating a policeman, whom she later encounters working at the scene of her ex’s murder, at a club she attends with her brother and his friends on the same night as the killing. Her ex’s murderer almost kills them, too, until her missing father reappears, saves them by stabbing their assailant, and vanishes into the night.
Eartheater gestures towards the vernacular of Buenos Aires villas (or slums), and Julia Sanches’s translation conveys that unique prosody remarkably well, despite some shaky moments. Mirroring the narrator’s mystical ability, the narrative hugs its haunted ground; land and earth document a history that the state does not. This is particularly the case in Argentina, where the aristocracy has historically hoarded and abandoned vast swaths of land, creating massive latifundios populated by poor, exploited workers who inherit the conditions and destitution of slaves.
Such land is increasingly owned by transnational corporations unconcerned with environmental and social destruction. These same heinous corporations probably produce the beer and junk that the narrator constantly devours. Her rate of consumption makes her inexplicable relationship with dirt feel almost satirical, as if Reyes were ironically refracting the deficient diet of the Argentine poor by suggesting that they eat the material base of their condition: land itself. Maybe then something will change.
At the novel’s very beginning, the narrator says, “Mamá stays here. In my house. In the earth.” Our narrator struggles to preserve her murdered mother’s proximity so that the latter’s life might not be forgotten, so that justice might remain possible, because dirt ties her to the absent. The traces of brutality that infect daily life can only be interpreted (literally) from below; her cop boyfriend cannot understand the violent histories that envelop the narrator, her family, and her friends. He reduces those subject to such histories to otherness by insulting them, calling them “estos negros.” Sanches’s use of “scum” here fails to fully relay the racialized connotations of the Spanish (literally, “those blacks”).
In Eartheater, locality—determined by the dirt the central character eats, the ground she walks—is the only true solution to the cycle of violence. Even so, Reyes does not offer a neat tale of redemption. The narrative ends when the femicidal father returns to save the main character’s life, and she says: “Twice I’d seen my old man kill.” The two killings were undeniably different—opposed, even—but murder nonetheless. The narrator’s departure, her flight from the neighborhood, interrupts but does not definitively end this cycle. Violence continues, and Reyes reminds us that individuals, no matter their gifts or nobility, cannot modify structures when acting alone.
If Aira undoes the legend of Argentina as a leisurely Eden, then Reyes does so twice over, turning Buenos Aires into a grim inferno of destruction and treason. An uncomfortable history comfortably forgotten undermines yet again whatever pastoral sense of benevolent calm existed in the US conception of Latin America.
PG is not an expert on the subject, but his observation (which may be unfair or incorrect in whole or in part) is that, according to the accounts PG has read in recent years, many second and third-world nations share some similar characteristics.
They are either currently governed by dictatorships or have a 20th Century history of being governed by dictatorships with any sort of democracy being new and less-than-perfect.
Often, outsiders (beneficiaries of colonial power or capitalists exploiting local individuals or resources) are blamed either explicitly or implicitly for some or all of the problems in their societies and governance.
Living standards are lower than in first-world countries and writers portraying these countries either blame western/colonial history for current problems or otherwise show resentment toward individuals or groups that have had the benefits that accompany residence in first-world countries AKA “the rich” or “those who are richer than most in my country”.
PG understands that he has lived his life in what some regard as the most-heinous of Western Exploitational Nations, the United States.
However, to the best of PG’s knowledge, he has never personally benefitted from the exploitation that took place in any second or third-world nation. Neither he nor any member of his family of origin inherited any wealth or power. PG knows a lot about his ancestors and doesn’t think any of them had inherited wealth or oppressed the American Indians or others in this nation or in their nations of origin.
Prior to settling in the United States, none of PG’s ancestors were wealthy by the standards of their day and place. None were rulers of anything outside of their home and small land holdings. On one line, some male ancestors attended one of the colleges at Oxford, but it was for the purpose of becoming ministers which is what they did after they finished their studies. Then, as now, earning a living as a minister is not one of the better ways to become rich and pass riches down to your children.
Nobody killed any Native Americans. Some of PG’s ancestors were, however, killed by Native Americans.
Any money that existed in PG’s family of origin in the Twentieth Century was earned, not inherited and disappeared in the Great Depression. Nothing tangible was inherited by PG’s parents (who are both deceased after lives spent working hard to support their family, including PG).
From his family of origin, PG inherited a Protestant work ethic and, from his mother, a degree of intelligence.
Prior to college, PG attended either isolated country schools in the American West or typical midwestern small-town schools. Less than 10% of PG’s graduating class in high school finished college. Less than 20% tried to go to college.
With the help of large scholarships, student loans and working 15-40 hours per week while he was in college, PG graduated from what many would characterize as a good school. That helped him get a good job when he graduated and, eventually, to attend law school.
To the best of his knowledge, neither PG nor any member of PG’s family going back a long way has ever exploited anyone of a different race or ethnic origin for any purpose. Definitely nobody got rich doing so. Most definitely, PG has never inherited anything tangible from his ancestors. He did inherit a work ethic and a tradition of attending church, each of which he values.
Thus, PG has never felt any white guilt or guilt for being an American or sense that he owes a particular ethnic group any recompense or help other than general Christian charity towards those who have less than he has regardless of their race or ethnic origin.
I loved Ayşegül Savaş’s first novel Walking on the Ceiling and have been pressing it into everyone’s hands for the past two years. I approached her second novel, White on White, with excitement and some trepidation, wondering whether I would love it as much. Well, the answer is yes. How exhilarating to be swept off my feet once more, torn between wanting to savor every sentence while also wishing to rush through to the end! Savaş’s writing is unadorned and yet perfectly attuned to the poetry and strangeness of everyday life. It surprises you with kernels of wisdom, such as “We make ghostly twins to carry the weight of our desires.” The world she describes is both recognizable and slightly off-balance, and nothing is ever what it seems at first glance. It is writing that I devoured in a few sittings and then returned to over and over again.
The premise of White on White is simple—a young student moves to a new city and becomes a confidant of sorts to the landlady, Agnes, a striking and magnetic artist, who very soon unsettles the narrator with her intimate monologues. Much of the novel is shaped by scenes in which the student listens to Agnes reflect on her art and recount memories of her marriage, children, and friendships with other women. At times I was reminded of Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. Both narrators spend a year in a new apartment that is flooded with light. The passage of time feels hazy and is often marked by the change in seasons. There is an undercurrent of tension, barely perceptible at first, that intensifies throughout and makes it impossible to look away.
The excerpt below recounts Agnes’s years as a new mother and her relationship with her young au pair, beautifully exemplifying what I loved most about Savaş’s novel: the stories within stories, showing how what we remember from our past illuminates the way we see ourselves; the dissonance of memories within a family and how those breaks in understanding reveal an unwillingness or inability to see. At the end of this passage, the student feels that Agnes has “left out a part of the story.” One of the pleasures of reading White on White comes from exploring those omissions and being never quite sure what to believe. I reveled in this ambiguity: the constant shifts in perception, my expectations overthrown with each story.
It sounds more like a bad visit to the otolaryngologist than an important conflict between empires. The incident that gave the War of Jenkins’ Ear its name occurred in 1731, when a Spanish coastguard commander mutilated the captain of a British privateer suspected of smuggling in the Caribbean. Jenkins’ severed appendage was preserved in a bottle and presented to King George II of Britain as proof of Spanish barbarity. The ensuing conflict lasted from 1739 to 1742.
Yet as Robert Gaudi writes in his new history, the war’s causes went beyond a single outrage. Tension had simmered over a dispute about fees for Britain’s contract to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies. British ships ran contraband to and from the West Indies in defiance of bilateral agreements. And then there was the strange case of the Italian castrato opera star, whom King Felipe V of Spain whisked from London and made his personal divo in Madrid. One journal summed up the sentiment in Britain: “What are the taking of a few Ships, and the cutting off the Ears of the Masters of our Merchantmen, to the loss of our dear, dear Farinello?”
The war proved disastrous for Britain. It assembled an armada and intended to invade the Spanish ports at Cartagena (now in Colombia), and Santiago, Cuba. The Cartagena operation was a fiasco, bogged down by tropical weather, mosquito-borne disease and indecisive leadership. Bad planning and squabbling commanders meant that the Santiago campaign was over before it could even begin. Spain suffered defeats of its own, failing to take Georgia in the North American colonies. Led by James Oglethorpe, the British joined Native Americans and used ambushes to repel the larger Spanish force.
Among the engagements at sea was an action at Porto Bello, Panama, which yielded one of Britain’s few victories. Mr Gaudi, though, is less interested in the detailed narration of naval fracases than in sketching some of the vivid characters who fought them. The British succeeded at Porto Bello largely because of Admiral Edward Vernon, “boisterous and bellicose”, who became an instant national hero. (The song “Rule, Britannia!” was written in the afterglow of his achievement.) On the Spanish side was the pugnacious Don Blas, famous after an earlier incident in which, when he was only 15, his leg was amputated in the heat of battle.
Why does this forgotten war matter now? For two reasons, suggests Mr Gaudi. First, a different result could have changed the fate of North America. Had the Spanish invasion of Georgia succeeded, he speculates, Spain and not Britain might have become the dominant imperial force on the continent. Second, the war nurtured the resentment of Britain that ultimately led to the American revolution. The British recruited 3,000 Americans to fight in the Cartagena campaign, but held them back from the vanguard out of mistrust and fear of desertion.
Link to the rest at The Economist (You may hit a paywall. PG apologizes.)
When writers die they typically leave behind false starts and unfinished manuscripts, but, unless the death is sudden, it’s less usual to find an entire novel complete and unpublished. But that’s just what we have in John le Carré’s “Silverview,” now sent into the world by the author’s son, Nick Cornwell, who tells us in an afterword that the book was essentially finished, needing only a bit of editorial tweaking. His father, he says, began the novel right after “A Delicate Truth” (2013)—an angry work that helped bring the expression “deep state” into common parlance. That novel amounted to a well-wrought exercise in contempt for the increasingly privatized and deeply corrupt “War on Terror.” It has all the ingredients of most of le Carré’s post-9/11 work: American mischief, for-profit military forces, black ops, deniability, “extraordinary rendition,” “enhanced interrogation,” an idealistic innocent and a British civil servant on the take.
“Silverview” has some of that, but le Carré continued to withhold and rework it, moving on instead to publish “A Legacy of Spies” in 2017. Expanding on elements from “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and dragging an ageless Smiley out of storage after a quarter of a century, that novel had a bottom-of-the-barrel feel. Finally, with “Silverview” still sequestered, le Carré produced his last novel, “Agent Running in the Field,” a blast against Brexit and Trump—and, once again, not one of this great author’s best. But here at last is “Silverview,” the novel we didn’t know we were waiting for.
Julian Lawndsley, 33, has opened a bookstore in a small town on the coast of East Anglia. Perhaps le Carré means to pay homage to Penelope Fitzgerald’s fine little East Anglian novel “The Bookshop” here, but he has done his own proprietor the favor of equipping him with a fortune, acquired as a trader in the City. What Julian really lacks, however, is any knowledge of bookselling or, indeed, of literature, something which is beginning to oppress him. One day, the “sixty-something” Edward Avon enters the shop, expresses his great pleasure that it exists, and suggests that Julian stock W.G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” another novel set (in part) in East Anglia—and one with which “Silverview” shares some preoccupations. It later turns out that Edward went to school with Julian’s father—thus, a bond is forged. Edward becomes Julian’s adviser, popping into the shop to use the computers to track down the out-of-print books he believes the shop should carry.
But, really, who is this fellow? When asked, Edward replies, “Let us say I am a British mongrel, retired, a former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men.” He turns out to have been born in Poland and is married to Deborah Garton, a wealthy, wellborn Englishwoman, who at one time was frequently away working for various quasi-governmental organizations—she says—but is now dying of cancer. Seeking more information on his new friend, Julian pays a call on a neighboring shopkeeper, Celia Merridew, of Celia’s Bygones, a junk shop by any other name. Celia, a font of gossip and gripes, invites him in for a “ginny” (served, like Mrs. Gamp’s, from a teapot). She tells him that she and Edward used to run a nice under-the-table business, with Celia and her shop fronting for Edward who was—he said—buying and selling Ming porcelain over the internet. In return she received frequent envelopes of cash—until recently when Edward’s Lady Muck wife put an end to it.
Elsewhere we meet Stewart and Ellen Proctor, depicted by le Carré with his customary genius for class taxonomy and attributes, conjuring up their understated privilege—good schools, garden parties, arch family sayings, infidelities and societal role in the secret services, “the spiritual sanctum of Britain’s ruling classes.” Stewart is, in fact, Britain’s “chief sniffer-dog”—he’s head of Domestic Security. He has recently been given a sealed envelope from Deborah, delivered by her testy daughter, Lily. Stewart has just learned of “a five-star breach” in security which takes him off to visit Orford and a joint British, American and NATO base on the coast, a “military Disneyland of dazzle-painted hangars and black bombers.” Three hundred feet below it lies “a dedicated nuclear hellhole,” chambers designed for nuclear weapons. A maze of tunnels running under East Anglia supplies a closed-circuit fiber optic system linking the base to others in the region, but unconnected to the outside. Still, there has been a breach, and it’s a puzzler.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but, if not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
The SafetyDetectives cybersecurity team uncovered an open ElasticSearch database exposing an organized fake reviews scam affecting Amazon.
The server contained a treasure trove of direct messages between Amazon vendors and customers willing to provide fake reviews in exchange for free products. In total, 13,124,962 of these records (or 7 GB of data) have been exposed in the breach, potentially implicating more than 200,000 people in unethical activities.
While it is unclear who owns the database, the breach demonstrates the inner workings of a prevalent issue affecting the online retail industry.
How the Process Works
The information found on the open ElasticSearch server outlines a common procedure by which Amazon vendors procure ‘fake reviews’ for their products.
These Amazon vendors send to reviewers a list of items/products for which they would like a 5-star review. The people providing the ‘fake reviews’ will then buy the products, leaving a 5-star review on Amazon a few days after receiving their merchandise.
Upon completion, the provider of the fake review will send a message to the vendor containing a link to their Amazon profile, along with their PayPal details.
Once the Amazon vendor confirms all reviews have been completed, the reviewer will receive a refund through PayPal, keeping the items they bought for free as a form of payment.
The refund for any purchased goods is actioned through PayPal and not directly through Amazon’s platform. This makes the five-star review look legitimate, so as not to arouse suspicion from Amazon moderators.
. . . .
2. Data related to the reviewers
Messages on the ElasticSearch server also contained other forms of directly and indirectly identifiable personal data exposing the reviewers themselves, such as:
75K links to Amazon accounts/profiles of review sellers
PayPal account details (email addresses)
‘Fan names’ – supposedly usernames, often containing names & surnames
Leaked PayPal account details and ‘fan names’ outline email addresses and what seems to be the usernames of people providing fake reviews. These details could be used to indirectly identify individuals, while many of them contained full names and surnames.
The Gmail addresses of reviewers were also provided to vendors directly via message. In total, 232,664 Gmail addresses have been exposed on the server, though some of the email addresses were duplicates.
. . . .
The ‘Gmail’ figure covers only those individuals who use Google as their mail provider. When we factor in the presence of other types of email accounts, such as Outlook, the enormity of this breach becomes apparent. 75,000 Amazon accounts were leaked as well, although there are potentially several duplicates included in this figure. Along with Amazon vendors compromised through their contact details, it’s reasonable to estimate that around 200,000-250,000 people were affected by this breach.
The server appeared to be located in China, and it is thought the leak affected citizens from Europe and the USA (at a minimum). In reality, the leak could have affected individuals from all corners of the world.
What a pleasure these days to come across a book that unabashedly, cheerfully celebrates the lasting power of literature. Jonathan Bate takes his cue straight from one of the subjects of his dual biography “Bright Star, Green Light.” “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” chanted the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) at the beginning of his long poem “Endymion” (1818). “Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness.” Well, “Endymion,” roundly panned upon publication for being too florid, almost did pass into nothingness. No such worry today: Although Keats didn’t make it far beyond his 25th birthday and there isn’t all that much life to cover, he seems to get a hefty new biography every five years. And while “Endymion” still isn’t a critical favorite, the poem’s opening lines, perennial as the art they celebrate, have sustained generations of literature lovers. As they also did—and this is the starting point of Mr. Bate’s book—an otherwise very different writer, the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940).
An odd pair they certainly make: Fitzgerald the flamboyant high priest of Jazz Age glitter, a compulsive talker, college drop-out and no-holds-barred alcoholic, and “Mister John Keats five feet hight,” as he called himself, the socially awkward, formally trained physician who believed writing poetry was nothing special yet couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else. “Every man whose soul is not a clod / Hath visions,” he asserted in his unfinished epic “The Fall of Hyperion.” Small wonder that he told his fiancée Fanny Brawne he wasn’t “a thing to be admired.” Fanny and, it turns out, F. Scott Fitzgerald begged to differ. Granted, the American writer’s admiration could, at times, border on silliness. For example, as a diffident Princeton student, Fitzgerald once rewrote Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) as an ode to his as-yet-untouched Greek textbook, “thou joyless harbinger of future fear.” And, later, in an informal literature course he created for Sheilah Graham, his last lover, Fitzgerald changed the title of that same ode to “A Greek Cup They Dug Up.” Other tributes mentioned by Mr. Bate are of a more hidden sort, allusions meant for the well-read. The title of Fitzgerald’s last completed novel, “Tender Is the Night” (1934), came from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), which also provided the source for an obscure line describing the protagonist’s music room in “The Great Gatsby” (1925): “There was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.” In the original ode, Keats’s light, of course, streamed not from the hallway but straight from heaven, “with the breezes blown.”
But Mr. Bate also draws our attention to those striking moments in Fitzgerald’s work in which the very fabric of the American writer’s imagination flashes “Keatzian” (distractingly, Mr. Bate relies on Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic spelling throughout his book). Think of the green light across the bay the love-stricken Jay Gatsby saw burning all night, next to Daisy Buchanan’s house. At the end of the novel, Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway, sprawled out on the beach, relates that green flicker to the fresh, green, simpler world full of promise that once beckoned to the first Dutch sailors who came here. Gatsby’s noble, selfless sacrifice, taking the blame for the hit-and-run Daisy committed, redeems his lies and missteps. In spirit if not in letter, Fitzgerald pays tribute here to Keats’s early sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (1816), where the poet likens his discovery of Homer to the excitement of a conquistador glimpsing, for the first time, the Pacific Ocean. Okay, Keats, in his enthusiasm, mixes up his generals, substituting Cortés for Balboa, but as Fitzgerald slyly observes: “When an immortal like Keats makes a mistake, that too is immortal.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (The link should work even if you’re not a WSJ subscriber. If not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
A few months after posting a message on Goodreads about the imminent release of a new book, Indie author Beth Black woke up to an all-caps ransom email from an anonymous server, demanding that she either pay for good reviews or have her books inundated with negative ones: “EITHER YOU TAKE CARE OF OUR NEEDS AND REQUIREMENTS WITH YOUR WALLET OR WE’LL RUIN YOUR AUTHOR CAREER,” the email, shared with TIME, read. “PAY US OR DISAPPEAR FROM GOODREADS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.”
Black, who has self-published both a romance novel and a collection of short stories in the past year, didn’t pay the ransom. “I reported it to Goodreads and then a couple hours later, I started noticing the stars dropping on my books as I started getting all these 1-star reviews,” she says. “It was quite threatening.”
Scammers and cyberstalkers are increasingly using the Goodreads platform to extort authors with threats of “review bombing” their work–and they are frequently targeting authors from marginalized communities who have spoken out on topics ranging from controversies within the industry to larger social issues on social media.
Black says she had posted about the upcoming book in a Goodreads community group, and had sent PDF copies to self-proclaimed reviewers. According to Black, the pressure to rack up reviews on Goodreads and Amazon led to her becoming the target of a cyber-extortion attack.
. . . .
“In order for an author to achieve any kind of success, we’re told that we have to have numerous reviews,” says Black. “For writers who aren’t well connected, this creates anxiety over finding reviewers. You don’t want your reviews to just be from family and friends. That’s nice, but it’s not going to make a career.”
Since its launch in 2007, Goodreads has evolved into the world’s largest online book community. The social networking site now has millions of users who rate and review books, find recommendations for new ones and track their reading. But over time, Goodreads has also become a hunting ground for scammers and trolls looking to con smaller authors, take down books with spammed ratings, cyberstalk users or worse.
With over 120 million members worldwide, Goodreads is far and away the most popular—and influential—digital book database. When the site was purchased by Amazon for $150 million in 2013, The Atlantic reported that: “When all is said and done, in the world of books, Goodreads is just about as influential as Facebook.”
With few serious competitors, Goodreads’ influence has only grown. According to Erin Stein, an editor and publisher with experience heading Macmillan Children’s Group’s Imprint and working for Little, Brown and Company, the publishing industry views Goodreads as a “necessary evil.”
“It’s something I wish we didn’t have to deal with, but it’s a key part of the industry,” she tells TIME. Basically, she notes, high Goodreads ratings help books get sold into retail. “A lot of authors are on there, a lot of bloggers are on there and it’s used as a marketing tool by publishers to build awareness for books. You can’t completely ignore it.”
THE CONTEMPORARY READER IS UNHAPPY. What troubles him? It’s the critics: they are lying to him. He encounters them on the back cover of every new book, promising the world. “An exhilarating debut, poignant and thrilling” . . . “A much-anticipated return, necessary and trenchant” . . . “Dazzling sentences” . . . “An unforgettable voice” . . . “Words that will rend your garments and kiss you on the mouth, that’s how good they are!” The reader trusts the critics. He buys the book. But from page one it is trash: listless, forgettable, unnecessary. He is outraged! He thought false advertising was illegal.
He considers giving the book one star on Goodreads (would you give a lawn mower four stars for being “promising”?), but such overwhelming praise from bright literary lights makes him second-guess his judgment. He opens Twitter. “Is it just me,” he writes, “or does this book suck?”
“It sucks!” someone agrees. “Overhyped [garbage emoji],” says another. A lively exchange is underway when a partisan arrives, here to defend the dignity of the author. It’s only a first novel, he says. It’s chronologically disjointed on purpose. He paraphrases Henry James: We must grant the writer his idea, his subject, what the French call the donnée. “Judge the book he wrote,” concludes the partisan’s thread, “not the book you wish he had written.”
But what about all those critics blowing smoke on the book jacket? our reader asks. Did they read the book?
“Those aren’t real reviews,” says the partisan. “Everybody knows you can’t take them seriously.”
Everybody? thinks our reader. He is stung to learn that he is not “everybody,” which is to say, not anybody.
. . . .
UNFORTUNATELY FOR THE READER, the contemporary book critic does not have one job. In fact, she has no jobs. This is a freelance gig.1 The pay? Maybe $250 for a shorter piece or if she’s lucky, $600 or more for something longer. If she’s never been a staff critic (and odds are she hasn’t), and if she cares (and of course she cares!), she will undoubtedly toil for a poor wage-to-labor ratio. For starters, she has to read the book — or books, if she’s assigned more than one to cover in the review. Then there are the author’s previous books, and if she’s really thorough, reviews of the author’s previous books, as well as interviews, early work, and other miscellany. For a 1,200-word review, it could take a week to write, maybe two if she tends to over prepare. For a career survey, or a review essay in one of the big publications, it could take months or a year to finish (and to get paid). Then factor in self-employment taxes, the unreliability of assignments, delays in payment, and cost of living. Before you know it you’re declaring bankruptcy.
. . . .
The contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine.
Link to the rest at N+1 and thanks to C. for the tip.
PG notes that one of benefits traditionally-published authors sometimes mention is that their publishers are able to get their books reviewed in various publications.
In 2000 the RAND Corporation invited a group of historians—including me—to address a newly pressing question: Would digital media revolutionize society as profoundly as Gutenberg and movable type? Two decades later, John Thompson’s answer is yes, but not entirely as predicted. And our forecasts were often wrong because we overlooked key variables: We cannot understand the impact of technologies “without taking account of the complex social processes in which these technologies were embedded and of which they were part.”
Mr. Thompson provides that context in “Book Wars” (Polity, 511 pages, $35), an expert diagnosis of publishers and publishing, robustly illustrated with charts, graphs, tables, statistics and case studies. An emeritus professor at Cambridge University, Mr. Thompson published an earlier dissection of that industry, “Merchants of Culture,” in 2010, but now he finds that capitalist landscape radically transformed.
Not long ago everyone thought (or feared) that ebooks would sweep the ink-and-paper book into the recycle bin of history. But they peaked in 2014 at just under 25% of U.S. book sales, then settled back to about 15% in the U.S. and roughly 5% in Western Europe. It turned out that the printed book had unique advantages (easy to navigate, no power source needed, works even if you drop it on the floor). Another consideration is that bookshelves stocked with physical books serve the essential purpose of advertising our literary tastes to visitors. And far from devastating the publishing industry, ebooks boosted their profits even as their revenues remained more or less flat. (Compared to printed books, they are cheaper to produce and distribute, and they don’t burden publishers with warehousing and returns.)
For anyone bewildered by the transformation of the book world, Mr. Thompson offers a pointed, thorough and business-literate survey. He tracks the arcane legal battles surrounding the creation of Google Books, and explains why the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Apple and the Big Five publishers, but not (so far) against Amazon. He rightly regrets the shrinkage of newspaper book reviewing: the first decade of the 21st century saw newspapers from Boston to San Diego pull back on book reviews. That said, Mr. Thompson could have devoted more attention to the rise of reader-written online literary criticism, a populist substitute for the Lionel Trillings and F.R. Leavises of the past.
In spite of worries that small independent booksellers would disappear, they are still with us. But they were challenged in the 1960s by the shopping-mall chains of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were superseded by Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores. These in turn were eclipsed by Amazon (founded 1994), triumphing largely because it sold all books to everyone, everywhere. Though we romanticize corner bookstores, they were numerous only in the largest metropolitan centers. In 1928, a city like Cincinnati had seven bookshops. Small-town America bought books at department stores, at pharmacies, or nowhere.
Mr. Thompson insists that “the turbulence generated by the unfolding of the digital revolution in publishing was unprecedented. . . . Suddenly, the very foundations of an industry that had existed for more than 500 years were being called into question as never before.” I would be careful with the word “unprecedented.” Print-on-demand has been with us for some time: the Chinese did it for centuries with woodblocks. The modish practice of crowdsourcing to finance books has a precursor in 18th-century subscription publishing, as readers pledged in advance to buy a forthcoming book. Amazon today dominates bookselling, but Mudie’s Lending Library enjoyed an equally commanding position in Victorian Britain, and raised in its day serious concerns about corporate censorship. (Mudie’s puritanical acquisitions policies meant that novelists like George Meredith were penalized for honest treatment of sex.)
In fact, the 19th century witnessed a transformation of the book business as dizzying as our own: New reproduction technologies dramatically drove down the price of books and increased print runs by orders of magnitude, creating for the first time a global literary mass market, bringing Walter Scott to Japan and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Russia. Today, the absorption of family-owned publishers by conglomerates has raised questions about whether there is still a home for literary and controversial authors with limited popular appeal, but that change was complete before the full impact of digital media. If you’re worried about media concentration (and you should be), the fact remains that all the great Victorian novelists were published by a half-dozen London firms. The desktop computer has vastly expanded opportunities for self-publishers, but there were plenty of them in the past: think of Martin Luther, Walt Whitman, Leonard and Virginia Woolf or countless job-printed village poets and memoirists.
. . . .
While Mr. Thompson is entirely right to conclude that the transformation of publishing in the past 20 years has been bewildering, that’s nothing new. In a dynamic capitalist economy, the dust never settles.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link to the WSJ original. However, PG isn’t sure if there’s a limit on the number of times various visitors to TPV can use the free link and whether the link is geofenced for the US, North America, etc. If the link doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes for the WSJ paywall.)
And thanks for the tip from G and several others.
PG agrees that there have been several disruptive technology changes that have impacted the book business in the past.
However, he doesn’t think that the WSJ reviewer gives adequate attention to the difference between the development of ebooks vs. the various disruptions of the printed book world that preceded it.
No prior technology change immediately opened up the potential audience for a particular book or a particular category of books like ebooks has.
Absent Amazon’s establishment of different book “markets” – US, Canada, Britain, etc., etc., anybody in the world can buy and download an ebook from from anyplace else in the world.
There’s a legal reason (among others) for Amazon’s multiple home pages for books in different countries – the right to publish and sell under an author’s copyright can be sliced and diced by national market. I can write a book and use a UK publisher to publish to the UK market and an American publisher to publish to the US market with each publishing agreement setting bounds on where the publisher can publish and sell the book.
Side note: A long time ago, PG went through the process of signing up for an account on Amazon UK and did so with no problem. He never used the account, but wandered around among the British-English product descriptions and Pound-based prices enough to believe that, particularly for electronic goods, he could purchase and receive anything he liked there. From prior trips to Britain, PG knows his credit cards work just as well for spending pounds as they do for spending dollars.
All that said, any indie author knows how easy it is to simultaneously publish an ebook every place where Amazon sells ebooks.
Other ebook distributors also offer an even broader publish-everywhere feature. PG just checked and Draft2Digital allows an indie author to publish all over the world, through D2D because D2D has agreements with Rakutenkobo, Scribed and Tolino for them to sell an indie author’s book to the zillions of places they’re available.
Rakutenkobo lists its markets as Turkey, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Philippines, Taiwan and Mexico and PG bets readers in other countries can also access the company’s websites, so an indie author has a very easy path to publishing ebooks in each of those places.
So that’s why PG thinks the ebook revolution can’t be easily compared to any prior technology disruption that involved printed books.
Continuing on, after PG read the WSJ review of Book Wars, he immediately went to Amazon to buy the ebook.
The hardcover edition of the book lists for $29.30 on Amazon and the ebook edition sells for $28.00!
$28 for an ebook!
The publisher is Polity Publishing.
Per Wikipedia, Polity is an academic publisher in the social sciences and humanities that was established in 1984 and has “editorial offices” in “Cambridge (UK), Oxford (UK), and Boston (US)” plus it also has something going in New York City. In four offices, Polity has 39 employees (no mention how many are student employees or part-time contractors).
PG took a quick look via Google Maps Streetview at Polity’s Boston office, located at 101 Station Landing, Medford, Massachusetts. Streetview showed a photo of a multi-story anonymous-looking modern building that could be an office building or an apartment building. PG had never heard of Medford and doesn’t know anything about the community, but on the map, it doesn’t look terribly close to the parts of Boston with which PG has a tiny bit of familiarity.
So, PG doesn’t know how Mr. Thompson, the author of Book Wars chose his publisher, but, in PG’s extraordinarily humble opinion, he made a giant mistake.
A Wall Street Journal review of a book like this should send sales through the roof. Per Amazon, Book Wars is currently ranked #24,220 in the Kindle Store.
Imagine how much better it would sell if it was offered at a reasonable price.
Goodreads, the popular book cataloging website, functions as a hybrid social media platform and digital library. The social media aspect of Goodreads allows for interaction between users. Users can see their friends’ reviews, reading progress in a book, and even the giveaways friends have entered. The reviews on Goodreads are public, meaning anyone — even those without an account — can access and read reviews.
When anyone does a quick search for book reviews, Goodreads is frequently the first result. The problem with Goodreads being within the first search results for book reviews is that makes the reviews on Goodreads that much more desirable. Goodreads reviews, for many, feel more trustworthy because they are peer written.
For the most part, Goodreads reviewers are average readers. Their reviews are imperfect, full of grammatical errors, gifs, and internet slang. Goodreads users write their reviews in a way that makes sense to them. Some users write reviews for their own cataloging use, others write reviews to be helpful to others, some reviews are simple and short.
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Like many social media platforms, Goodreads can feel like a competition. In addition to a yearly reading challenge, Goodreads offers stats on their users. Anyone can read and access these stats to see the Top Reviewers and Readers, Most Popular Reviewers, Most Followed, and Top Librarians. It’s a popularity contest no one signed up for. Stats are updated on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, and can be sorted by country or worldwide ranking of Goodreads users. It’s important to note that clicking “Meet People,” under the community tab, directs to Most Popular Reviewers, even though it’s in the center of the list. Top Reviewers is second on the Meet People option.
On similar websites, Top Reviewer and Most Popular Reviewer might refer to the same type of ranking, based on community votes or interaction. On Goodreads, however, Top Reviewer refers to number of reviews written within a certain time frame. A Goodreads reviewer can be a Top Reviewer without being a popular one. This type of ranking makes it extremely easy for people and not-people to fake their ranking as Top Reviewers and Top Readers. The Top Readers are simply ranked by number of books read.
Weeding through the weekly Top Reviewers, many profiles appear ordinary. The astonishing number of books read and reviewed per week by the Top Reviewers makes it clear that these profiles are not average, albeit avid, readers. To read 400 books per week, every week, is simply not possible, by human standards. While there is nothing preventing actual people from inputting hundreds of books every week into their Goodreads accounts, there isn’t much of a reason to do so. So, what’s going at Goodreads?
Bots. Bots are what’s going at Goodreads. Since Goodreads is also used by non-account holders, it is a desirable internet space for advertisers. What happens is that a company or individual will pay for hundreds of positive reviews of their product, so that when a potential buyer sees the reviews, all they see are positive reviews and 5-star ratings. In the case of Goodreads, the product is books. These reviews can be written by a bot or a person with multiple fake accounts.
Top Reviewers’ fake profiles might not always be easy to spot, as they often use stock images as the profile picture, or leave the avatar blank. Their reviews, though are fairly easy to spot. Hundreds of reviews per week? Check. Poor grammar and short reviews? Check. Strange, vague, or unrelated reviews? Check, check, check. If it sounds like the warning label on a blood pressure medication, rather than a review for a regency romance, a bot probably wrote it. Bot reviews are often copied and pasted from another book. Many fake accounts will post multiple reviews of the same book. Going down the list of the Top Reviewers, reviews will often trend towards the same book or topic.
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So why doesn’t Goodreads do anything about the bots, fake profiles, and scammers? Goodreads knows about the scammers. Users are asked to flag the reviews and keep it moving. That seems extremely unhelpful of them. Fake reviews and reviewers are a well-documented phenomenon. Goodreads isn’t the only website filled with profiles named “Keyboard” with blank avatars. In 2019, the popular skincare brand, Sunday Riley settled with the FTC for writing positive reviews on the Sephora website, for over two years. These reviews were written by Sunday Riley employees. Amazon, Goodreads’ parent company, is also riddled with fake reviews.
Amazon shops rely on reviews to get consumers’ attention. Five-star reviews, whether they’re genuine, or from a bot, boost the rating and boost the buying potential. Amazon is the top bookseller in the world, so of course it would want to boost reviews of books. Whether Amazon is paying for the ersatz reviews or it’s another party is unknown, but Goodreads is absolutely swarming with bot accounts.