Everyone Can Be a Book Reviewer. Should They Be?

From The Literary Hub:

“Anyone can be a critic.” It’s a common lament these days now that the book review landscape is changing. English professors and book reviewers in newspapers aren’t the only tastemakers in literary criticism anymore: Goodreads community members, anonymous or top reviewers on Amazon, and dedicated bloggers can, and do, produce discourse about books. But are they really critics? And should we take their work seriously?

Plenty of my interviewees in Inside the Critics’ Circle—critics at newspapers and magazines—grapple with these question themselves. They often define their role in the book review world by contrasting their work against that of academics and amateur reviewers.

Critics were understandably ambivalent towards amateur reviewers despite their appreciation for general readers’ enthusiasm about books. In the words of one anonymous critic, “I think it’s wonderful if people read and come up with their own opinions. I think it’s a marvelous thing. There’s nothing that says any particular group of people have a monopoly.” Yet, this same critic is skeptical about amateur reviewers’ qualifications to write a well-balanced book review: “I do sometimes think that bloggers are kind of dumb, as a general rule.”

One critic bemoaned the ways people on Amazon evaluate books:

The Amazon.com reviewers, it’s like they’re reviewing a product. It’s like they bought a pair of Nikes and they are going on and saying, “Oh, my Nikes feel just great, they fit perfectly and I love them.” Then they go on and review a book and say, “Oh, this book was too long, I got really sleepy halfway through,” and just stuff like that.

For many professional critics, books are art forms that should be discussed and evaluated as such, which is a privilege journalistic criticism affords. But amateur reviewers weren’t seen as the only threat to reviewing culture.

If the critics I interviewed were concerned that amateurs did not bring enough analysis to their reading or lacked credentials to speak to a book’s artistic merit, they had equal concern about the over-intellectualization of book reviewing.

. . . .

More than a matter of differences in approach, however, reviews rooted in pedantry were seen as doing a disservice to general readers. The fault lies not in academic critics’ literary competency but an approach to the evaluation of books that threatens to cast serious reading as too rarified, making it irrelevant for the average person.

So where does this leave book reviewers in newspapers and magazines?

Traditionally, newspapers have been the organizational base of arts reviewing. The retrenchment of book reviewing has been coupled with the economic fortunes of newspaper media. However, I think its position and history with the newspaper qua journalism represents one of the greatest strengths of journalistic reviewing.

Book reviewing is a form of journalism. More than a report on publishing industry news, book reviews situate literature in the here and now, and make it accessible to the public. People often focus on the commercial nature of book publishing: do people use reviews to buy books?  How can reviews compete with algorithms that make recommendations based on your browsing history?  They don’t have to do that.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG suggests the OP is trying to provide some sort of professional luster for an activity that requires no particular professional background.

Do most of the rapidly-diminishing number people who read newspapers want someone to “situate literature in the here and now and make it accessible to the public” or are they simply seeking an idea of what book they might enjoy reading, whether it be a torrid romance, a cowboy yarn or a book set in a distant galaxy occupied by a collection of heretofore unknown divergent species?

PG further suggests that the idea that the managers/editors of a journalistic enterprise like a newspaper are qualified to select (and are willing to pay for) someone with the ability to “situate literature” and “make it accessible” is really quite silly. And always has been.

Why Book Reviewing Isn’t Going Anywhere

From The American Scholar:

Before she started studying book reviews, Phillipa Chong once worked to procure them. Chong interned at a Canadian publishing house during college, and quickly learned that book reviews were everything. “There was a sense that if you didn’t get a book review, your title was going to die on the vine,” she told me.

By the time she finished her doctoral studies in 2014, the landscape for book reviews had changed. Just as Rotten Tomatoes and Yelp did for film and restaurant criticism, Amazon and Goodreads democratized who could review books. “Suddenly, the debate was about whether we needed critics at all,” Chong says. “It was such a stark difference from my experience with critics during my internship. I wanted to figure out how those two storylines fit together.”

Now an assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University in Ontario, Chong researches how fiction book reviews come to fruition, trying to solve the puzzle of why some books get reviewed and why so many more are ignored. Her new book, Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times makes the case for the persistence of old-guard professional criticism even in the Internet age.

. . . .

Scott Nover: Tell me a little bit about the people who write reviews.

Phillipa Chong: Most of people I spoke with don’t identify primarily as book reviewers. When I recruited them for this project, a lot said, “I really want to participate. But I don’t know if I count.” These were people who are hired on a freelance basis, and they might only review two or three times a year. So who are the people writing these reviews? Of the 40 people I interviewed, 11 were employed as full-time book reviewers at some point, 15 of them worked in colleges and universities, and the majority were also novelists or published authors themselves. There were 160 or more books authored by these 40 reviewers.

SN: What effect do you think that has on the book review business?

PC: I found that people’s identities as published authors were the anchor they used in their reviewing practice. A lot of people felt that the reason they were qualified to write a fiction review is because they’d written a novel themselves. When you’re a novelist, you not only have the experience of writing a book, you also have the experience of being reviewed and sometimes getting bad reviews. A lot of reviewers drew on those experiences to think about how forthright they wanted to be in their own criticism of other people’s books.

SN: When freelance reviewers don’t identify as official “book reviewers,” how does that affect book reviewing?

PC: The consequence of identifying so closely with the literary community is that critics often don’t feel that they’re part of the reviewing apparatus. They feel like they’re subject to it. This has two consequences. First, they live in a certain fear of it, because the kind of reception that their future books will have might be contingent on their relationship with the person they are reviewing. Second, there’s a lot of insistence that the book reviewing world is going through some challenges, but there’s very little consensus about who is responsible for making changes.

. . . .

SN: Do full-time reviewers evade these pressures better than freelancers? Are their reviews more honest?

PC: That’s the going hypothesis among some of the freelance critics I interviewed. They imagine that if they were full-time critics they wouldn’t feel so conflicted about the plight of the person at the other end of the review. But I’m skeptical. A theme in the book is that even though people hold positions with a lot of power, like holding a full-time critic position at a culturally influential publication, they don’t necessarily feel powerful. I was really surprised to hear some pretty powerful people say they felt shy or dread whenever faced with having to write negative reviews, for instance. And that’s not only because of all the uncertainty of the current review climate, but also the uncertainty intrinsic to cultural judgment, which is understood as subjective.

But I will say that I believe some critics were more comfortable with writing really positive or negative reviews than others. And these were people whose livelihoods were not so dependent on writing alone. So, for instance, people who had a career outside of books like faculty at a university, or people who also worked as journalists might invoke their responsibility for reporting the facts. I hypothesize that having footing in some other world, rather than being full time in the writing or reviewing world, has a fortifying effect on what people are willing to write.

Link to the rest at The American Scholar and thanks to S.E. for the tip.

BookLife by Publishers Weekly Launches Paid Review Service for Self-Published Authors

From No Shelf Required:

Remember when Kirkus introduced paid reviews over a decade or more ago? And how badly the book industry took it? We’ve come a long way since then. Below a press release from PW on its own paid review service for self-published authors.

“BookLife, Publishers Weekly‘s website and monthly supplement dedicated to self-publishing, is pleased to announce the launch of BookLife Reviews, a new reviews service open exclusively to self-published authors. BookLife Reviews provides authors with skillful, detailed reviews that include a variety of marketing insights and critical assessments, crafted by professional Publishers Weekly reviewers with genre-specific expertise.

. . . .

BookLife Reviews differ from Publishers Weekly reviews in that BookLife Reviews are longer—approximately 300 words, compared to 200  250 words for a Publishers Weekly review—and more focused on reaching readers rather than booksellers and librarians. Because they are paid reviews, costing $399  $499 each, they are guaranteed; submissions will not be rejected. Participants will receive their reviews within four to six weeks of submission. Authors will also have the option at no additional cost of seeing their reviews published in the monthly BookLife supplement, which is bound into the print copy of Publishers Weekly.”

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG suggests this demonstrates a growing understanding that successful indie authors are earning good money and spending part of that money on marketing and advertising campaigns for their new books.

The strategy reflected in the OP may also demonstrate some concern about the future financial picture for traditional publishers.

The Problem With Feedback

From The Atlantic:

After a recent Uber ride, I hesitated between offering the four-star rating that captured my adequate ride and the five-star rating that I knew the driver expected. Eventually I tapped five stars and closed out of the app, relieved to be done with this tiny moral quandary. Later, the phone buzzed in my pocket with a text asking me to rate my experience getting an oil change. The next day, I politely declined to stay on the line “for just four to six minutes” to complete another customer-satisfaction survey. Sorry, but I have feedback fatigue.

Companies promise that “your feedback is important to us,” but providing it does not necessarily yield discernible change. Instead, the endless requests for feedback often feel dehumanizing. Being pestered for thumbs-ups and “likes” makes me feel like just another cog in the machine.

. . . .

Traceable to antiquity, the idea of feedback roared to prominence in the 18th century when the Scottish engineer James Watt figured out how to harness the mighty but irregular power of steam. Watt’s steam governor solved the problem of wasted fuel by feeding the machine’s speed back into the apparatus to control it. When the machine ran too fast, the governor reduced the amount of steam fed to the engine. And when it slowed down, the governor could increase the flow of steam to keep the machine’s speed steady. The steam governor drove the Industrial Revolution by making steam power newly efficient and much more potent. Because it could maintain a relatively stable speed, Watt’s steam engine used up to one-third less energy than previous steam-powered engines.

Few of today’s machines are steam-powered, but many use feedback. Governors control the speed of aircraft propellers while in flight. They prevent ceiling-fan lights from overheating and limit how fast cars can go. Long before Nest controlled home temperatures with fancy digital sensors, analog thermostats used feedback to maintain comfort.

So how did feedback shift from a means of regulating engine behavior to a kind of customer service? In 1948, Norbert Wiener coined cybernetics, his term for a science of automatic control systems. Wiener took Watt’s steam governor as the model for the modern feedback loop. He even named cybernetics after kybernetes, the Greek word for governor.

Wiener broadened the definition of feedback, seeing it as a generic “method of controlling a system” by using past results to affect future performance. Any loop that connects past failures and successes to the present performance promises an improved future. But instead of energy, Wiener thought of feedback in terms of information. No matter the machine, Wiener hypothesized, it took in “information from the outer world” and, “through the internal transforming powers of the apparatus,” made information useful. Water flow, engine speed, temperature—all become information.

. . . .

Even people were seen as feedback-driven structures: Wiener saw them as “a special sort of machine.”

Human beings, like machines, can change their behavior by learning from past successes or failures. But far from characterizing a soulless automaton, the feedback loop was meant to testify to the human power to adapt. For Wiener, feedback became the highest “human use” of power in the age of machines.

. . . .

The founder of management cybernetics, Stafford Beer, claimed, “If cybernetics is the science of control, management is the profession of control.” Beer’s emphasis on control, rather than improvement, echoes Watt’s insight into steam regulation. One of Beer’s earliest, most compelling examples of management cybernetics standardized a complex system to halve energy costs for steel production.

Approaches like Watt’s and Beer’s, which keep a system operating within tight parameters, demonstrate negative feedback. That’s not pessimistic or bad feedback, but feedback that prompts the system to maintain control. In traditional, cybernetic terms, negative feedback isn’t a one-star rating, but any information that helps the system regulate itself. Negative feedback is actually good feedback because it yields greater efficiency and performance, as in Watt’s steam governor.

Positive feedback, by contrast, causes the system to keep going, unchecked. Like a thermostat that registers the room as too warm and cranks up the furnace, it’s generally meant to be avoided.

But today’s understanding of feedback has reversed those terms. Positive ratings are a kind of holy grail on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and negative reviews can sink a burgeoning small business or mom-and-pop restaurant. That shift has created a misunderstanding about how feedback works. The original structure of the loop’s information regulation has been lost.

Think about it: The proliferation of ratings systems doesn’t necessarily produce a better restaurant or hotel experience. Instead, it homogenizes the offerings, as people all go to the same top-rated establishments. Those places garner ever more reviews, bouncing them even farther up the list of results. Rather than a quality check, feedback here becomes a means to bland sameness.

Unharnessed from its cybernetic meaning, positive feedback becomes an evaluation of services rendered rather than a measure of the system’s performance. Untethered from the system that they’re meant to evaluate, these measurements of quality have no loop to go back into. They float out in the world, stars and number ratings and comment cards generated in response to the sucking need for more feedback, not in the service of improved outcomes.

. . . .

The love affair with feedback for its own sake has inadvertently abandoned the mechanical insights of the steam governor. Indiscriminately valuing feedback of any kind from any source reduces its ability to regulate the system. That isn’t to say that opinions, stars, and reviews aren’t helpful. I’ve scoured book reviews on Amazon and Yelped my way to good ramen. But that kind of feedback—variable, messy, unchecked—doesn’t easily translate to systemic improvement. It is too attached to human user’s feelings and passions. Perhaps the problem isn’t that feedback loops are dehumanizing, but that they aren’t dehumanizing enough.

. . . .

If thumbs-ups or ratings on a five-point scale are not automatically useful, what kind of feedback would be? Finely tuned feedback that targets the system it’s meant to regulate will always surpass a barrage of angry or ecstatic reviews. Rather than trumpeting the desirability of all feedback, apps and review sites should pursue only the information that is crucial for making the system work better.

That approach also reveals some of the ethical shortcomings of feedback as it is used today. In the wake of many scandals, the ride-sharing company Uber recently introduced a new, faster way to give feedback: Rate the ride before it’s even over. Uber frames this offer as a sign of the company’s humanity: “We never want to miss an opportunity to listen and improve.” But giving feedback is not the same thing as being heard. Encouraging users to fire off reviews—especially those that have consequences, such as a driver’s livelihood—turns opinions into information. That information gets fed back into the system regardless of its quality, and gig-economy workers and small-business owners suffer the consequences.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

PG knows some authors who never read reviews of their books. Sometimes, the origin of this behavior is a review that indicates that the reviewer had no idea what the book was about.

Many  years ago, well before five-star online rating scales, some large consumer goods companies had employees, usually somewhere in the organizations marketing research department, who carefully read and analyzed every letter that the company received from someone who either liked or disliked one of the company’s products. The analysis included not only what the consumer had to say, but also an assessment of the individual’s education level (spelling errors indicated less education) and financial circumstances (What sort of paper was the letter written on? Quality stationery or a Big Chief Writing Tablet?)

The results of these analyses were compiled and delivered to various executives as part of a monthly report on consumer attitudes towards the company and its products. Because of the care taken in gathering and analyzing the the information, in PG’s limited experience, the resulting reports were treated seriously and regarded as the source of useful information.

These days, a great many organizations and individuals watch online star-ratings to determine how well a product or service works for their customers or whether a product very good at meeting someone’s needs or desires. Much less trouble to set up and run than any sort of manual evaluation, but also produces much less useful information.

Additionally, PG suspects the number of people who seldom or never write a product review or decide how many stars it deserves vastly outnumber the group that takes the time to rate a product. PG also suspects that the profile of the regular raters and those who never rate differ in many ways.

It’s received wisdom in many tech companies (the originators of computerized star ratings) that customers almost never provide useful product information and even less often suggest anything about a new product feature or service that hasn’t already been considered and rejected internally.

As the OP implies, most organizations view the large majority of ratings and reviews as junk that’s barely worth thinking about. The main benefit for the company is that customers think the company views them as individuals who have valuable insights into the company’s products.

All of this notwithstanding, PG’s experience with authors is that many do watch their online reviews and ratings closely. Whether this is regarded as useful or not seems to depend upon the author.

Mulishness

From The London Review of Books:

‘You ought to be in a kindergarten,’ a Canadian nurse exclaimed to David Jones, aged twenty, awaiting transfer home in July 1916 after being wounded in Mametz Wood. Even a decade later, photographs show a wary child or an understudy for an adult. Prudence Pelham, the staunchest of his extended female fellowship, described him as ‘completely unsexed’. He himself felt anomalous in the 1920s, and by the decade’s end ‘incredibly ancient’; at some point he slipped from seeming younger to seeming older than everyone around him. He was a self-taught modernist with an allegiance to medieval romance and Celtic art, a Londoner who was out of place in London, a Welshman who didn’t speak Welsh. He was an artist who constructed images out of words – in his painted inscriptions – and whose poems took in the observable world, including everything glimpsed in his peripheral vision. There was the hand-held and eye-level, frame-by-frame actuality of In Parenthesis (1937), his poem of the trenches, noise-saturated, full of chiaroscuro and stalked by horror, but recorded with intricate stylistic detachment; later, there were the ever receding vistas of The Anathemata (1952), his epic about the matter of Britain.

As Thomas Dilworth documented in his earlier David Jones in the Great War (2012), Jones saw more active service than any other British writer, all of it as a private, and outlived nearly all his contemporaries, with the exception of Robert Graves, born in the same year, 1895. The postwar life has its doldrums, and for a biographer the narrative sails are hard to hoist. For his full-dress Life, three decades in the making, Dilworth adopts a chronicle approach, breaking his close-grained account into brief chapters or time sections – wisely, because the hard to track Jones, endlessly on the move, never settled, and is to be found only in the day by day. The book reflects the tenacity and hiddenness of its subject, beginning with his London Welsh origins.

Jones’s father was a printer’s overseer for a Nonconformist weekly on Fleet Street, from a line of North Wales plasterers and stonemasons. His mother’s family were pure Rotherhithe: boatbuilders and shipwrights, her father a mast-and-block maker competent ‘in all that belongs to a ship’s carpentry’. Starting out as a teacher and governess, Alice Jones née Bradshaw ended her working life reluctantly with marriage and the family’s move from Rotherhithe to Brockley – London still, or just, with one foot in open country rather than river. She kept up with advanced ideas: she wanted to call her second son Oscar, got away with Walter (after Pater), but was confounded when at the age of nine he chose to answer only to his middle name, David. She had gone up in the world doctrinally, to keep Wales at bay and to counter her husband’s evangelical and downward move, as a lay preacher who had swerved from his Anglican origins. But both parents were high-minded, and questions of ritual remained alive, as they would for Jones throughout his life, in a household whose aspirations were framed by a lower middle-class artisanal culture on the cusp of change.

. . . .

But his early attention was fixed on Wales, part of whose purpose for him was its remoteness, brought near by avid childhood reading. During his first eight years the family did not visit Wales. When they did so it was a Rubicon he had already crossed, ratified by seeing hills for the first time and sea for the second. His loyalties were separate if indivisible, and decades later he corrected his publisher T.S. Eliot’s reference to him – not Welsh, but ‘a Londoner of Welsh and English descent’. He was encouraged to draw from early on – the urge to convey the look of things was as involuntary ‘as stroking a cat’ – and, at his own insistence, was sent at the age of 14 to the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. He was taught cosmopolitan visual lessons under cover of an apprenticeship for a career as a professional illustrator, continuous with his father’s trade, whose Edwardian disjecta littered the house. ‘I was brought up in a home that took the printed page and its illustration for granted,’ he remarked in an ‘Autobiographical Talk’ collected in Epoch and Artist. Camberwell was an extension of Brockley, art an extension of storytelling. Dilworth makes clear these contexts for In Parenthesis: it was a painter’s first experiment with words, originally intended to be illustrated.

In 1914, Jones enlisted without hesitation, remarking later that ‘history came to my aid.’ He tried to join the Welsh Horse Yeomanry, with no experience of horses, and then the Artists Rifles, but was deficient in chest measurement, before succeeding with the newly raised London Welsh battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a regiment in which commissions were held by Graves and Sassoon (neither of whom, as a private, he would meet). Some of the officers were Welsh, but the ranks were hastily recruited Cockney volunteers, and Jones was caught up in an emergency of language, unfamiliar idioms, indecipherable accents. Basic training in North Wales, musketry and manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, the march to Southampton and the night crossing to France in December 1915, the first experience of a long-range heavy shell: these rites of passage are distributed between the flickering personae of In Parenthesis, as a prelude which takes up much of the work.

Jones was an infantryman, equidistant from officers and ‘other arms’. He was good at hearing where a shell would fall, what kind and calibre it was, and where to put himself. The draughtsman’s hand-eye co-ordination made him useful with a rifle, and would serve him as a map-maker. Physically slight, he excelled at night patrol, for which he repeatedly volunteered, as exempting him from fatigues. He preferred the company of comrades to any other – making himself scarce when the possibility of a commission was offered – and preferred the firing line to anywhere else. The climax of In Parenthesis is the attack on Mametz Wood in the first days of the Somme: an affair of marching, waiting, cancellation, repositioning, followed by a Now of battle fought by exhausted troops wound to a pitch of dread by long anticipation. The assault was directed at thick forest, heavily defended, a mile deep and the width of a division. Jones was not in the first wave but in close support. A frontal attack was the order of the day, ‘clear view … leisurely walk … waves of slowly walking men’. The final approach took four minutes, over rough and rising ground, without flanking support, during which a third of his battalion fell. After thirty hours of hugger-mugger in the wood Jones, mercifully, was shot in the leg. He crawled back towards the British trenches, was carried to a dressing station, told what a beautiful blighty – a wound serious enough to require the soldier to be sent back to England – by the orderly who removed the bullet.

. . . .

The difficulty with reading the poem as a narrative account of those years is that In Parenthesis confounds chronology: not begun until a decade after 1918, not published until two decades after the events, in the shadow of a coming war. ‘I did not intend this as a “War Book” – it happens to be concerned with war’: as the hesitant and haunting preface suggests, it is a work of l’entre-deux-guerres. Its revelation is that the peacetime distinction between past and present is unreal, and that our historical condition is to be between wars. This is why the world of his trenches is so curiously normalised, the habitat of one who was there long enough to take it for granted. Business as usual, or in the chalked polyglot of the estaminet behind the lines: ‘BIERE/EGG CHIP 3 FRANC/CAFE AU LAIT/ENGLISH SPOKE HEER.’ Jones’s explanation of the work’s title refers to the composition, not to the experiences: ‘This writing is called In Parenthesis because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something … and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis.’ The between-time of which this speaks is close in apprehension to Eliot’s ‘twenty years largely wasted’.

. . . .

In Parenthesis bristles with intimations of class – ‘men on horseback, of evident aloofness’ – as an otherness more mysterious than the enemy, and ‘the clipt hierarchic command’ is one of the poem’s terse vernaculars. Imperturbable officers stroll in the open during heavy barrages, greet one another nonchalantly amid the falling shells (‘Well, Dell!’), are attired as if paying afternoon calls in Belgravia – and die without looking back. Jones had been sartorially susceptible even before he volunteered (one witness remarked that, however hard up in later years, he always got his shoes at Lobb’s), and he would have agreed with his friend the classicist W.F. Jackson Knight that the Great War was ‘a frightfully dressy affair’. Much of this is parodic – he resented the tone-deafness and hauteur of the officer caste – but there is a residue of fascination.

Even so, as Jones wrote in 1935, ‘I must be and am essentially a private soldier, in and out of the war,’ and he thought of the artist as an infantryman who works directly with his materials, who prospers by lying low.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

“War is hell, certainly, but Jones never doubted that there is a good deal of hell around and this aspect of the matter did not greatly surprise him.”

~  D. S. Carne-Ross

 

How to Be a Dictator

From The Guardian:

Born in obscurity, frustrated in youth, the dictator rises through accident, patronage or anything except merit to blossom into a fully fledged evil-doer, desperate for the respect and admiration that are wrung from the populace only by skilled PR manipulation. Often feigning modesty, he soon generates a cult that he personally develops. Women and even brave men feel overcome in his presence; schoolchildren chant the praise of the father of the nation; artists and writers deify the great leader. Dictators generally come equipped with an ideology, but since they have no principles, only a lust for power, the process of propagation turns it into a mockery.

Although dictators often fancy themselves as writers or philosophers, they fail to make the grade as intellectuals, and the Little Red Books they produce are travesties. If they are dictators of the left, their attempts at radical reform bring famine and suffering to the population. If dictators of the right, they go to war, with the same consequence of popular suffering, and lead the nation to shameful defeat. They long to be popular, and put great effort into creating that illusion, but it is all fakery. Surrounded by sycophants, they are friendless, lonely and paranoid. Most of them die a dog’s death, but if they somehow manage to avoid this, people only pretend to mourn them. After their death, they are quickly forgotten.

This is the collective portrait that emerges from Frank Dikötter’s book, the eight chapters of which deal with Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam. Despite their fundamental similarities, his dictators do have stylistic differences. Stalin allowed streets and cities to be named after him, while Mao did not. Hitler was a teetotaller and Duvalier a follower of the occult. Kim’s floodlit statue towered over Pyongyang, following the tradition of Stalin statues, but Hitler vetoed the construction of statues of himself (thinking this honour should be reserved for great historical figures), and Ceauşescu and Duvalier felt the same. Some dictators’ enforcers wore brown shirts, others black, and still others had no uniform. Mussolini and Hitler excelled as orators, while Stalin was an undistinguished speaker who never addressed mass rallies. Stalin, Mao and Duvalier wrote poetry, Hitler painted and Mussolini played the violin.

In the chapters on the “big” dictators – Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao – Dikötter dwells on the cult that developed round them. All of them headed a party that borrowed some of their charisma, and their regimes featured a variety of secret police and enforcers as well as cheerleaders and informers. Ordinary people were encouraged to believe that anything bad was done by subordinates without the dictator’s knowledge (“If only the Duce/Fūhrer/vozhd’ knew”). In fact, the dictators repeatedly made terrible mistakes and appear to have had few if any lasting achievements.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Link to How to Be a Dictator

Stella Count shows gender bias in book reviews is changing

From The Guardian:

Researchers have praised most Australian publications for reaching gender parity in their book review sections last year.

Of published book reviews in Australia in 2018 49% were for books written by women, according to research published on Thursday by the Stella Count.

The Stella Count is Australia’s answer to the Vida Count for literature, which surveys women’s representation in major literary publications and book reviews. The count was established in 2012 alongside the Stella prize for books by women to highlight gender disparity in Australian literary culture.

Conducted with academics from Australian National University and Monash University, the Stella Count involves researchers combing book review sections of 12 major Australian newspapers and book reviewing publications, tallying the number of books reviewed and the gender of the books’ authors.

The Stella Count also notes the gender identity of the reviewer, and the space given to reviews of books by women compared with those by men.

. . . .

Julieanne Lamond, from the Australian National University, who leads the analysis of the data with Melinda Harvey from Monash, told Guardian Australia the count was an important way to measure what kinds of stories were making their way into the public consciousness.

“If we think about our ideas about what men and women are, what kinds of stories can and can’t be told, and what kinds of stories are considered important, whether books by men and women are getting equal access to those pages is really important,” she said. “It’s a really important way that cultural prestige is created.”

. . . .

Analysis also showed that more women than men were employed as reviewers of books in 2018. This corresponded with an increase in the number of books reviewed overall, suggesting both books and reviews written by women had been added to review sections, rather than taking the place of those by men.

Women also received more access to what Lamond called “the big name-making reviews” – that is, reviews of 1,000 words or more – in 2018 than in any of the preceding years, with 47% of these dedicated to women authors compared to 36% in 2017.

. . . .

Of continuing concern was the trend of “partitioned criticism”, in which men tended to review books by men and women tended to review books by women. “There’s a gender essentialism at work – the idea that books written by women are just for women and books written by men are just for men.”

The impact of “partitioned criticism” was particularly significant for women writers.

“Books by men can often be considered more serious even if they’re about the same subject matter that women are writing about. So Jonathan Franzen writes about family and it’s a serious book, and for every woman writer that does the same it’s considered a woman’s book. I think there’s still some work to be done there.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG is interested in what happened to the number of online reads for various reviews and reviewers. He also wonders if one is permitted to keep one’s gender a secret via the use of a pen name or if gender disclosures are mandatory.

What would George Eliot or Andre Norton do if either were still alive? George Sand? Isak Dinesen?  How should Robert Galbraith or J.D. Robb be counted if they chose not to reveal their gender? SK Tremayne or SJ Watson?

A Goodreads Survey in 2014 reported that women are predominantly read by women – 80% of a new female author’s audience is likely to be female.

Is a male author permitted to write a book with a female narrator? What if an author wanted to assume a different gender and gendered pen name for the purposes of writing a particular type of book?

From a purely commercial standpoint, a fiction author might be advised to write as a woman.

From National Public Radio:

A National Endowment for the Arts report found that only 57 percent of Americans had read a book in 2002 a four percentage-point drop in a decade. Book sales have been flat in recent years and are expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Among avid readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.

When it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.

By this measure, “chick-lit” would have to include Hemingway and nearly every other novel, observes Lakshmi Chaudhry in the magazine In These Times. “Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominately male—both as writers and critics—their humble readers are overwhelmingly female.”

Book groups consist almost entirely of women, and the spate of new literary blogs are also populated mainly by women. The Associated Press study stirred a small buzz among some of those bloggers.

“I’ve read at least 100 books in the past year. Seriously. Probably more like 150 to 200,” a user named Phyllis wrote on the literary blog Trashionista. “My husband? I’m guessing zero, unless you count picture books and comic books he has read to the kids.”

“We see it every time in our store,” says Carla Cohen, owner of the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. “Women head straight for the fiction section and men head for nonfiction.”

“I know that we certainly have more women than men customers,” concurs Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, an independent bookstore in the Miami area. “But I don’t have any wisdom about why that is.”

. . . .

Theories attempting to explain the “fiction gap” abound. Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range—traits that make fiction more appealing to them.

Some experts see the genesis of the “fiction gap” in early childhood. At a young age, girls can sit still for much longer periods of time than boys, says Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.

“Girls have an easier time with reading or written work, and it’s not a stretch to extrapolate [that] to adult life,” Brizendine says. Indeed, adult women talk more in social settings and use more words than men, she says.

Another theory focuses on “mirror neurons.” Located behind the eyebrows, these neurons are activated both when we initiate actions and when we watch those same actions in others. Mirror neurons explain why we recoil when seeing others in pain, or salivate when we see other people eating a gourmet meal. Neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons hold the biological key to empathy.

The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.

“Reading requires incredible patience, and the ability to ‘feel into’ the characters. That is something women are both more interested in and also better at than men,” says Brizendine.

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

When PG checked the Barnes & Noble list of its Top 100 Bestsellers of 2019 (fiction and non-fiction), seven out of the Top 10 Bestsellers were written by women: Delia Owens, Michelle Obama, Tara Westover, Rachel Hollis (twice, #5 and #10), Harper Lee and Marie Kondo.

The Amazon Charts – Most Sold – Top 10 Fiction List for the week of September 8 included seven women authors – Margaret Atwood (twice, #2 and #4), Delia Owens, Donna Tartt, Patricia Cornwell, Fiona Valpy and Lisa Gray.

For the Most Read books on Amazon Charts Fiction List, all ten were written by women. Delia Owens was #1, J.K. Rowling was #2, #3, #4, #6, #7, #9 and #10, J.D. Robb was #5 and Louise Penny was #8.

Since The Guardian story was focused on Australian authors, PG took a trip to Amazon Australia. He couldn’t find Amazon Charts for Australia, so he checked out the best-selling new fiction releases – five out of the Top 10 were written by authors with female names and six out of 11-20 best-sellers were female. For best-sellers in the Kindle store, seven out of the Top 10 were female.

 

Review Brigades

PG finally stumbled across a term that explains some of what he’s seen on Amazon and other online reviewing sites on occasion. He hadn’t seen a name for this phenomenon.

From Review Meta:

Brigading is a term used when online trolls group together to flood another site (or subsection of a website) with their message.  On Amazon, this happens when a product is quickly flooded with negative reviews, often politically motivated, and likely by reviewers who have not actually used the product or read the book.

. . . .

There’s a few tell-tale signs of brigading that are very easy to notice once we’ve run a report on the reviews:

1. Rating from Unverified Purchasers is much lower than the rating from Verified Purchasers

. . . .

Since the brigaders will not go out of their way to purchase the item before leaving a nasty review, you’ll often see an unusually high amount of unverified purchases, which are much lower on average than the verified purchase reviews.

2. High number of Deleted Reviews

. . . .

A high number of deleted reviews with a low average rating does not mean that Amazon is taking sides and trying to silence a group of people.  Amazon is simply doing their job of removing reviews from people who obviously have not used the product.

3. Lots of negative reviews appearing all at once

. . . .

Usually, brigades are organized on different sites outside of Amazon (Reddit, Facebook, Twitter), and then inspire a flood of reviews all around the same date.  If the rating from reviews on High-Volume days is considerably lower than the rating from reviews on Normal-Volume days, it can be a sign of brigading.

Link to the rest at Review Meta

If you’re not familiar with Review Meta, here’s a description from the site:

  • ReviewMeta.com is a free tool that analyzes reviews and helps consumers identify inauthentic or biased reviews.
  • Consumers can copy and paste any Amazon product URL into ReviewMeta.com’s search bar, or use the free browser extension to generate a report.
  • ReviewMeta was launched in 2016 and currently assists over 10,000 visitors a day.

And a video:

The new literary tastemakers: can they be trusted?

From The Bookseller:

Last week, Barack Obama released his annual summer reading list, receiving 250,000 Facebook reactions and 26,000 comments. The ex-president is certainly not the first public personality to tout their literary nous; everyone from Emma Watson to Kim Kardashian West has opened their bookshelves to the world. But how are these celebrity tastemakers transforming what we read, and what does it mean for professional literary criticism?

To answer this, we need to understand why these public personalities choose to share what they’re reading. While all profess some form of altruistic mission, epitomised by Oprah Winfrey’s desire to “get the whole country reading again”, there are secondary benefits to having a successful book club.

1. Pubic perception

PewDiePie, a highly-popular YouTube creator who got his start over-reacting to scary video games, has since tried to distance himself from his past. By posting book reviews to his YouTube channel, he is attempting to adjust his public persona from immature, loud-mouthed gamer to intelligent and thoughtful cultural commentator. And it seems to be working:

This Youtuber who I used to watch because he screamed at barrels just lectured me on philosophy for 50 minutes.
– Top voted comment on PewDiePie’s latest book-related video

Nonetheless, this kind of identity shift can be hard for audiences to swallow, especially for entrenched celebrity identities. Kim Kardashian West launched her book club in 2017, and received both support from fans (“Love that idea”), and derision from others (“You can read?”). Stevie Marsden speculates (in her 2018 study ‘I didn’t know you could read’, Logos, 29(2-3), pp.64–79) that Kardashian West’s book club was “part of her redemptive re-emergence into the public spotlight following the Paris attack [where Kim Kardashian was held hostage at gun point].” However the venture didn’t get past the second book, and Marsden goes on to surmise that “few felt [Kardashian] had the relevant credentials or expertise to be a literary intermediary.” It takes a lot more than a book club to shift public perception apparently.

. . . .

3. Business opportunities

Starting as a curiosity, Reese Witherspoon’s book club now reaches over 18 million Instagram followers every month, and is used in-part to feature books in which Witherspoon owns film rights. Thus she creates “the audience for her own movies before she even starts filming”. While making possible films featuring strong female leads (WildGone Girl), this business incentive undeniably influences the books Witherspoon chooses to feature.

With secondary motives underlying the stories promoted by these emerging literary intermediaries, what has happened to the art of objective literary critique, which demands “taste, training, sensibility, some knowledge of the past, and a rare feeling for both language and argument”? Is book culture being undermined?

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG points out that many “professional literary critics” are book reviewers whose principal qualification is that someone hired them to review books.

Why Is Amazon Blocking Reviews of the No. 1 Best-Selling ‘Justice on Trial?’

From The Federalist:

Amazon is refusing to publish many reviews and ratings of the No. 1 best-selling “Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court,” according to multiple reports from readers who purchased the book directly from Amazon.

The behind-the-scenes dive into the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which was written by Carrie Severino and The Federalist’s Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway, debuted at No. 1 on Amazon’s list of best-selling books.

The Federalist independently confirmed that many reviews by verified purchasers of “Justice on Trial” were not being published by Amazon. Some fake reviews from non-purchasers and reviews from those who clearly had not read the book, however, were published immediately. As of Wednesday evening, the online retailer had allowed only 16 reviews of the top-selling book to be published.

One reviewer whose critique was published by Amazon accused the authors of “stay[ing] away from using the term rape” regarding unsubstantiated accusations of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh during the confirmation process in 2018. A word search of the Kindle version of the book shows that the term was used 41 times by the authors. Another review, from an individual who did not purchase the book from Amazon, wrote that it was the “[w]orst book ever” and rated the book with one star.

. . . .

In a canned statement provided to The Federalist by an Amazon spokesperson, the company said, “Our policy includes a delay before reviews appear on our website while we ensure reviews follow our participation guidelines.” The spokesperson did not explain why troll reviews from commenters whom Amazon hadn’t verified have purchased the book were nonetheless published without delay while reviews from verified purchasers were quarantined and remain hidden.

. . . .

The company also refused to disclose the percentage or number of unpublished reviews written by verified buyers, or what the average rating was for verified purchasers whose reviews were being hidden by Amazon.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon employees were being investigated for manipulating product reviews in exchange for cash.

“The going rate for having an Amazon employee delete negative reviews is about $300 per review, according to people familiar with the practice,” the Wall Street Journal noted. “Brokers usually demand a five-review minimum, meaning that sellers typically must pay at least $1,500 for the service, the people said.”

A 2019 expose published by The Hustle dove deep into what it called Amazon’s “massive fake-review economy.”

“Amazon likes to think of its marketplace as a merchant meritocracy where the best products get the best reviews by virtue of quality and honest consumer feedback,” The Hustle wrote. “But the vast size of the platform, coupled with a ferocious competition among sellers to get higher product rankings, has spawned a problem: A proliferation of fake reviews.”

Fake reviews have become such a significant problem that multiple services like Fakespot and ReviewMeta have popped up offering to help potential consumers sort the signal from the noise. Fakespot estimated that up to 30 percent of Amazon reviews are fake or unreliable.

Link to the rest at The Federalist

Amazon Investigates Employees Leaking Data for Bribes

The following is from September, 2018. PG has no idea why he missed it.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc. is investigating suspected data leaks and bribes of its employees as it fights to root out fake reviews and other seller scams from its website.

Employees of Amazon, primarily with the aid of intermediaries, are offering internal data and other confidential information that can give an edge to independent merchants selling their products on the site, according to sellers who have been offered and purchased the data, as well as brokers who provide it and people familiar with internal investigations.

The practice, which violates company policy, is particularly pronounced in China, according to some of these people, because the number of sellers there is skyrocketing. As well, Amazon employees in China have relatively small salaries, which might embolden them to take risks.

In exchange for payments ranging from about $80 to more than $2,000, brokers for Amazon employees in Shenzhen are offering internal sales metrics and reviewers’ email addresses, as well as a service to delete negative reviews and restore banned Amazon accounts, the people said.

Amazon is investigating a number of incidents involving employees, including some in the U.S., suspected of accepting these bribes, according to people familiar with the matter. An internal probe began in May after Eric Broussard, Amazon’s vice president who oversees international marketplaces, was tipped off to the practice in China, people familiar with the matter said. Amazon has since shuffled the roles of key executives in China to try to root out the bribery, one of these people said.

Internally, Amazon has worked hard to stop sellers from gaming its systems, but it can sometimes be a Whac-A-Mole situation as swindlers get more creative, according to former Amazon executives and other people familiar with the company’s thinking.

. . . .

Potential internal corruption is the latest challenge Amazon faces in upholding its platform’s integrity, after well-publicized problems with fake product reviews and counterfeit merchandise.

For the past few years, Amazon has recruited independent merchants to sell their products on the company’s marketplace, something that both widens the variety of products offered on the site and reduces prices. More than two million merchants now sell an estimated 550 million products on Amazon, representing more than half of all units sold on the site and contributing an estimated $200 billion in gross merchandise volume last year, according to FactSet estimates.

. . . .

One of the newer ways some sellers are seeking an edge over rivals is getting access to Amazon employees.

Some midlevel Amazon employees in China have the power to delete negative reviews and can access the email addresses of users who have purchased specific items and written reviews of them, said a person who has facilitated illicit transactions between third-party sellers and Amazon employees in southern China.

Brokers are the middlemen between Amazon employees and sellers who want negative reviews deleted or access to internal sales information. Brokers search for Amazon employees on Chinese messaging platform WeChat and send messages asking them if they would like to provide these services in exchange for cash, according to brokers and sellers who say they have been approached by brokers.

The going rate for having an Amazon employee delete negative reviews is about $300 per review, according to people familiar with the practice. Brokers usually demand a five-review minimum, meaning that sellers typically must pay at least $1,500 for the service, the people said.

For less money, sellers can buy from Amazon employees the email addresses of customers who write reviews. This gives sellers the opportunity to reach out to customers who have written negative reviews and try to persuade them to adjust or delete those reviews, sometimes by offering free or discounted products, the sellers and brokers say. Amazon prohibits this practice.

Brokers also offer proprietary sales information, such as the keywords customers typically use to search for items on Amazon’s site, sales volume and other statistics about buyers’ habits, according to the people. Having this information enables Amazon sellers to craft product descriptions and advertisements in a way that boosts their rankings in search results. Amazon doesn’t disclose this type of detailed sales information.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

In PG’s personal shopping on Amazon (and before he saw the OP), he has become less and less likely to purchase products from Chinese sellers because of the poor reputation some have for honesty, accurate product descriptions and substandard customer service.

He realizes this practice is unfair to Chinese sellers who are operating honestly and if PG discovers a reliable method for identifying such sellers, he’ll be happy to purchase from them.

The OP has lead PG to conclude that some of Amazon’s Chinese employees are doing positive harm to both the company’s overall reputation and to honest Chinese sellers. These employees don’t seem to be planning for long-term employment with Amazon. Perhaps some are working for Alibaba, JD.com or other Chinese ecommerce competitors of Amazon. The fact that such thoughts have crossed PG’s mind make it even less likely that he will patronize Chinese businesses online regardless of what name is on the website.

Why Should Authors Read Your Bad Reviews?

From The Guardian:

History has yet to find the book that is universally adored – or the author who enjoys reading bad reviews. While Angie Thomas has topped the charts and scooped up armloads of awards for her two young adult novels, The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, her recent request that book bloggers stop sending her their negative reviews saw her on the receiving end of a wave of vitriol.

Thomas wasn’t asking reviewers to stop writing bad reviews. She was just asking that they didn’t give her a prod on Twitter or Instagram to tell her about it.

“Guess what? WE ARE PEOPLE WITH FEELINGS. What’s the point of tagging an author in a negative review? Really?” she wrote on Twitter. “We have to protect our mental space. Too many opinions, good or bad, can affect that … Getting feedback from too many sources can harm your writing process. I have a group of people whose feedback I value – my editor, my agent, other authors who act as beta readers. With the position I’m in, social media is for interacting with readers, not for getting critiques.”

. . . .

Authors have been saying for years that they would prefer not to be tagged in bad reviews on social media. In November, Lauren Groff wrote that “tweeting it [a review] to a writer is like grabbing their cheeks and shouting it into their face”. It even happened before the social media era, such as when Alain de Botton was told about Caleb Crain’s review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (“I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make,” wrote de Botton on Crain’s website). And perhaps, Martin Amis’s publishers should have kept him in the dark about Tibor Fischer’s write up of Yellow Dog. (“A creep and a wretch. Oh yeah: and a fat-arse,” said Amis of Fischer.)

But the blowback against Thomas is disproportionate when compared to how reviewers have reacted to this request in the past. As she herself points out: “Plenty of white authors have said the same thing about reviews without getting the same kind of attacks that I’ve received.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

“The Levelling” Review: Masters versus the Masses

From The Wall Street Journal:

Resentment of elites is the theme of the hour. In “The Levelling,” Michael O’Sullivan mentions a historical analogy to make all the more vivid our current moment. In England in the late 1640s, he notes, a faction called the Levellers complained about the grandees in Oliver Cromwell’s army, which had just defeated Charles I in a civil war. The grandees wanted to impose a postwar settlement without consulting the rank and file in the army. As one Leveller put it, calling for more equality: “Have you shook this nation like an earthquake to produce no more than this for us?”

More than three centuries later, the 2008 financial crisis devastated Middle America, but the grandees who fueled the crisis with excessive risk taking faced no consequences. According to Mr. O’Sullivan, the government response to the 2008 global crisis saved “those who have the means to be saved (and who may not deserve to be saved), leaving others floundering.” This generation’s Levellers in the U.S. and the U.K. and on the European continent protest the undemocratic power of government technocrats, central banks and the European Commission, and they vote for Donald Trump, Brexit and Europe’s populist parties.

It is a powerful statement of the problem of the elites vs. the masses, the insiders vs. the outsiders. Ironically, “The Levelling” itself and the genre to which it belongs highlight the problem rather than solve it. Often condescending, supposedly expert solutions are offered to a crisis that is so broadly defined that it includes obesity, videogame addiction, acute attention deficit disorder and the “hunched form of the ‘texter.’ ” In such diverse signals the author claims to hear the masses saying that they “are experiencing more change than they are comfortable with.”

It is part of the charm of “The Levelling” that the author confesses the sins of this genre even while he gleefully sins further.

. . . .

To be fair, Mr. O’Sullivan, a finance executive and author, sometimes shows more convincing expertise.

. . . .

So should the grandees listen to the “incoherent” grievances of the Levellers? Should the grandees reflect on their own incoherence—repeated domestic and foreign-policy failures unsuccessfully hidden by their favorite buzzwords? Surely such incoherence is part of what has led voters to reject them. The grandee philosophy remains that of the famous Ring Lardner line: “Shut up, he explained.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Escaping Samuel Johnson

From The Paris Review:

“We see with other eyes, we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts than those we formerly used,” wrote Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man. One of the most persuasive spokesmen for American independence, he championed the clearing away of British “cobwebs, poison and dust” from American society. American independence, he argued, could never be complete without that.

Many Americans thought the same way: that apart from economic stability and success, what they needed almost more than anything else after political independence was intellectual and cultural independence, free from the stifling influence of British arts, letters, and manners. They resented their cultural subservience, which had not disappeared with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Yet for more than a century after the Revolution, the majority of literate and cultured Americans did not want to turn their backs on British culture, “their ancient heritage”—especially its literature and the historical traditions of its language. About seventy long years after Paine’s statement, the popular English novelist Anthony Trollope elegantly expressed this powerful, persistent, and apparently inescapable linkage: “An American will perhaps consider himself to be as little like an Englishman as he is like a Frenchman. But he reads Shakespeare through the medium of his own vernacular, and has to undergo the penance of a foreign tongue before he can understand Molière. He separates himself from England in politics and perhaps in affection; but he cannot separate himself from England in mental culture.” Janus-like, and often in a less fully conscious way, Americans knew that their “mental culture,” whether they liked it or not, was linked to Britain’s, and they had little taste for parting with it.

. . . .

America’s lingering literary and linguistic attachment to England is nowhere so evident as in the nation’s pervasive ambivalence toward Samuel Johnson and his great dictionary, published in 1755, which many call the first major dictionary of the language. He was the great sage of English literature, and a brilliant essayist, moralist, poet, lexicographer, and biographer, the “Colossus of Literature” and “Literary Dictator” of the second half of eighteenth century England, a figure thoroughly synonymous with Englishness. Throughout his career as an author, Johnson advertised his multilayered and complicated dislike of America and Americans. In 1756, the year after he published his famous dictionary, he coined the term “American dialect” to mean “a tract [trace] of corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed.” He had in mind an undisciplined and barbarous uncouthness of speech. With typical hyperbole on the subject of Americans, he once remarked, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American … rascals—robbers—pirates.”

Yet Americans could not get enough of him. They devoured his books, which libraries held in great numbers. His influence on American thought and language was vast. Thomas Jefferson recognized this as a grave problem: he wanted to get Johnson off the backs of Americans. In a 1813 letter to his friend, the grammarian John Waldo, Jefferson took note of Johnson’s Dictionary as a specific drag on the country’s cultural growth: “employing its [own] materials,” America could rise to literary and linguistic preeminence, but “not indeed by holding fast to Johnson’s Dictionary; not by raising a hue and cry against every word he has not licensed; but by encouraging and welcoming new compositions of its elements.” And yet, as one historian writes, “It was to prove more difficult to declare independence from Johnson than it had been to reject George III.” The weight of Johnson’s authority on culture in America was a legacy, both positive and negative, that would loom large in the American psyche far into the nineteenth century. Several of the leading American authors at the time actually fed the appetite for Johnson rather than attempted to dampen it. One of them, Nathaniel Hawthorne, revered Johnson. Although he complained in Mosses from an Old Manse, “How slowly our [own] literature grows up,” for him Johnson could do no wrong. In London during the 1850s on government business, he recorded in his English Note-Books walking in Johnson’s footsteps—taking a meal at Johnson’s favorite London tavern, the Mitre; traveling up to Lichfield in Staffordshire to pay homage to the great man’s birthplace; and exploring Johnson’s rooms at No. 1 Inner Temple Lane in London, where his imagination luxuriated in the sense of place: “I not only looked in, but went up the first flight, of some broad, well-worn stairs, passing my hand over a heavy, ancient, broken balustrade, on which, no doubt, Johnson’s hand had often rested … Before lunch, I had gone into Bolt Court, where he died.” As for James Fenimore Cooper, he was liberally using Johnson’s Dictionary as his principal authority on the language, even after America’s first large (unabridged) dictionary was published by Noah Webster.

. . . .

An avalanche of British attacks on American society and culture in general and language and literature in particular in the early nineteenth century did not improve American self-confidence. While such British offensives did not exist in isolation from larger political events at the time that contributed to a hostility between the two countries, which eventually ignited in the War of 1812, that larger context fails to account for the harshness and frequency with which British writers insulted American life and manners. Many British travelers’ attacks in books and the British press were simply outrageous and in poor taste, ill-informed or not informed at all, aiming to appeal sensationally to a portion of the British reading public that was either ignorant of America and prepared to think the worst of it, or welcomed such attacks as exotic and improbable adventure stories.

Fanny Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote a sensational best seller, Domestic Manners of the Americans, based on her months of traveling all over the country. An engaging but also wounding account, often insightful and sometimes appreciative, it is marred by a recurring strain of anti-Americanism. As she sees it, the abuse of the language was no small part of Americans’ lack of discipline and bad taste and manners. She shudders over what she saw and heard as the vulgarity of American manners and language, appalled at the “strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation.” She is short on examples, but in an appendix she added to the fifth edition of her book seven years later in 1839, she records some family conversation in an unspecified part of the country. It contains this specimen of a father’s pride in the chickens the family is about to serve up for guests: “Bean’t they little beauties? hardly bigger than humming birds; a dollar seventy five for they. Three fips for the hominy, a levy for the squash, and a quarter for the limes; inyons a fip, carolines a levy, green cobs ditto.” She links the speech she heard to the prevalent lack of refinement resulting from the low esteem in which women were held. If America was ever going to rescue itself from this revolting social malaise, she writes, it would have to be through the refinements of the arts: “Let America give a fair portion of her attention to the arts and the graces that embellish life, and I will make her another visit, and write another book as unlike this as possible.”

. . . .

Looking back at a century of such British mockery, the historian Allan Nevins in 1923 conveyed the seriousness of the threat relentless British mockery posed to the American psyche in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and the anxiety it stirred up in the young country: “The nervous interest of Americans in the impressions formed of them by visiting Europeans and their sensitiveness to British criticism in especial, were long regarded as constituting a salient national trait.” Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was appalled by the effect on American authors: “The first step of an American entering upon a literary career was to pretend to be an Englishman in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen.” American poet, journalist, and commentator H. L. Mencken, in his linguistically patriotic book The American Language, provides another retrospective in sections titled “The English Attack” and “American Barbarisms.” He describes the clash as “hair-raising,” an “unholy war” of words. Captain Thomas Hamilton, a Scot, mentions a few of the prevalent barbarisms: “The word does is split into two syllables, and pronounced do-esWhere, for some incomprehensible reason, is converted into wharethere into thare; and I remember, on mentioning to an acquaintance that I had called on a gentleman of taste in the arts, he asked, ‘Whether he shew (showed) me his pictures.’ Such words as oratory and dilatory, are pronounced with the penult syllable, long and accented; missionary becomes missionairy, angel, ângel, danger, dânger, &c.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Amazon Shoppers Misled by ‘Bundled’ Star-Ratings and Reviews

From The Guardian:

Badly translated versions of classic books and critically panned remakes of Hollywood films appear to have glowing endorsements on Amazon thanks to the website’s policy of bundling together reviews of different products.

Analysis by the Guardian shows products that have actually been given one-star ratings appear alongside rave reviews of better quality items, making it impossible for consumers to judge the true value of what they are about to buy.

The Guardian found numerous examples of “bundled” reviews that make poor products look highly rated – rendering the star rating effectively meaningless.

. . . .

The research found:

 Badly translated or updated Kindle versions of Emma by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which include references to “moms”, “guys” and “buddies”, but appear to have 4.5-star ratings from hundreds of reviewers.

 A 2017 TV version of Dirty Dancing that shares the 4.5-star reviews of the original film, despite being described by Hollywood Reporter as a “bloated” remake “that nobody asked for and nobody is likely to truly enjoy”.

 Reviews for Wuthering Heights appearing under listings for Jane Eyre, and vice versa.

 Complaints from consumers who said they had been misled when buying books from a variety of authors – from JK Rowling to Shakespeare.

 Star ratings being combined for different products in other departments, from electronics to gardening equipment.

The problems with some reviews seem to go back years, with complaints from readers pointing out they were appearing under the wrong works and editions since at least 2014.

. . . .

The combinations of formats and editions make it impossible for readers to pick between multiple versions of the same products, and allow those selling badly put together editions to piggyback on good reviews.

Anyone glancing at the reviews for a Kindle version of Emma retailing at £4.36 might believe it is worth buying, but a look at the opening pages reveals a poor translation of the original.

Emma’s mother has become her mom, and her love interest, Mr Knightley, is “a sensible guy” who uses the word buddy instead of friend.

A passage that is supposed to say “poor Miss Taylor” will be missed, instead reads: “She is surely very sorry to lose terrible Miss Taylor, and I am positive she can leave out her more than she thinks for.”

. . . .

A review from a reader, which appears to be about this edition, gives it just one star and describes it as terrible.

“Each page has a dozen errors. It reads as if it has been translated from a foreign language. ‘Dog’ in the original is ‘canine’ in this version; ‘file’ in the original has become ‘document’; ‘tremendous’ has become ‘maximum incredible’; ‘man’ has become ‘guy’.

“That is just a short summary of the errors in the first two pages. The whole thing is unreadable and a waste of money.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Oops! Famously Scathing Reviews of Classic Books from the Times’s Archive

From The New York Times:

 What can we say? We don’t always get it right. Here’s a look back at some of our most memorable misses.

On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin (1860)

. . . .

“This Salinger, he’s a short-story guy.”

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951)

. . . .

“The author’s probable intention was to exhibit a unique development in this little asylum waif, but there is no real difference between the girl at the end of the story and the one at the beginning of it.”

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery (1908)

. . . .

“Not one syllable of what Hemingway has written can or will be missed by any literate person in the world.”

Across the River and Into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway (1950)

Link to the rest at The New York Times

A Book That Captures the Singular Life of Marie Colvin

 

From The New Yorker:

In Lindsey Hilsum’s book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” there is a passage describing Colvin’s ordeal behind Chechen-rebel lines over Christmas of 1999. After coming under sustained Russian bombardment outside Grozny, the American-born reporter, then aged forty-four, was forced to trek out of the war zone over the snow-covered Caucasus mountain range to reach safety in neighboring Georgia. There were many bad moments, and, at one point, driven to exhaustion, Colvin considered lying down in the snow and sleeping. It was the opposite impulse of the one that drove her forward throughout her life. Colvin survived her Chechen experience and a dozen or more equally dangerous episodes during her twenty-five years as a war reporter, but, a month after her fifty-sixth birthday, in February, 2012, her luck ran out, in Syria. The Assad regime’s forces fired mortars into the house where she was staying, in the rebel-held quarter of Homs, and she was killed.

Colvin’s life has been memorably chronicled by Hilsum, a friend and colleague who lived and worked alongside Colvin in many of the same war zones, and whose home base was also London. (Full disclosure: I knew Colvin and am a friend of Hilsum’s.) At a time when the role of women is being reëxamined and has rightly galvanized public attention, Colvin’s tumultuous life has inspired a number of recent accounts, including the feature film “A Private War,” starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin. But it is Hilsum’s biography, written by a woman who both knew Colvin and had access to her unpublished reporting notes and private diaries—a trove of some three hundred notebooks—that seems to most closely capture her spirit.

As told by Hilsum, Colvin’s life was an unreconciled whirl of firsthand war experiences—many of them extremely dangerous and highly traumatic—London parties, and ultimately unhappy love affairs, laced through with a penchant for vodka martinis and struggles with P.T.S.D. Colvin was a Yank from Oyster Bay, Long Island, and Yale-educated, and she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn—her Bible was Gellhorn’s “The Face of War”—but she never wrote a book herself, and was little known to her countrymen, making her name, and the bulk of her career, instead, inside the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, a British broadsheet with a tabloid soul. From 1986 onward, when the Sunday Timeshired Colvin, the editors appear to have happily taken advantage of her lifelong hunger for professional affirmation, a chronic willingness to throw herself into danger in order to get scoops, and her considerable personal charm, which, early on, earned her the trust of roguish political players like Yasir Arafat and Muammar Qaddafi.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker




Is It Really Five Stars? How to Spot Fake Amazon Reviews

From The Wall Street Journal:

Dogs love water!!!

My dog loves this pet drinking fountain. He doesn’t care that it’s louder than Niagara Falls when the water level is low, and that the setup instructions were impossible to follow. Oops, this is supposed to be a positive review. So, yeah, the LED light is nice, I guess?

I’ll never actually post that, but it could have been worth money if I had. Let me explain. I visited a Facebook group called “Amazon Reviews” and was promised a full refund on a $44 Amazon purchase of a pet fountain if I did the following on the mega-retailer’s site:

1. Write a positive review.

2. Post my photos of the product.

3. Rate it five stars.

Not only is this ethically problematic, it is also against Amazon and Facebook user policies. Plenty of people don’t care, though: They’ll do it for this pet gizmo or one of the other bajillion products in these forums.

Every day, many of us search for a product on Amazon, pick a four- to five-star option and tap Buy Now. Those little yellow stars can make or break a product.

“In early 2012, the Amazon catalog grew too big, and the only way to get to the top of search results was to prove to the algorithm that your product was the best,” said Juozas Kaziukėnas, chief executive of Marketplace Pulse, a business-intelligence firm focused on e-commerce. “Most sellers realized acquiring reviews was a golden ticket.”

. . . .

There are four species of Amazon review:

A legit review. Left by a human who bought a product and felt like sharing, the legit review, often labeled as a “Verified Purchase,” might be peppered with real-life experiences that indicate genuine use.

Legit reviewers tend to be moved to review when they love or hate the product, so the ratings are more extreme, says Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta, a website that analyzes Amazon reviews.

A Vine review. Amazon invites some of the most prolific legit reviewers to be a part of Vine. The program rewards them with free products in exchange for reviews, marked with a green label. Vine members choose from a preselected group of products, but neither Amazon nor the company that provides the product can influence, edit or modify reviews, Amazon says.

Amazon Vine reviewers I interviewed say they don’t let the perk influence their ratings, and showed me many negative reviews they have written. ReviewMeta found Vine reviewers give more two-, three- and four-star reviews than other groups.

. . . .

An incentivized review. Incentivized reviewers are given free products—or in some cases flat-out payments—in exchange for four or five stars. In 2016 Amazon updated its terms of service to prohibit this practice, but sellers found a big back alley: Facebook. An incentivized review. Incentivized reviewers are given free products—or in some cases flat-out payments—in exchange for four or five stars. In 2016 Amazon updated its terms of service to prohibit this practice, but sellers found a big back alley: Facebook.

Here’s how it works: A shopper joins a Facebook group with a name like “Amazon reviews.” These groups tend to be private but I was let into two, even after saying I was a journalist.

Sellers, often out of China, post about free products, say Bluetooth headphones. The buyer gets the Amazon link from the seller via direct message, orders the headphones through Amazon so it can appear as a “Verified Purchase,” then writes the review, posts some photos and rates it five stars. Once proof of purchase is provided, the seller refunds the buyer, generally via PayPal .

The moderator of one of the Facebook product-review groups I joined directed me to his rules, which state that members are meant to write honest, unbiased reviews, and that the group isn’t responsible for “deceitful posts or dishonest reviews left by buyers/sellers.” Facebook says it closes groups that offer incentives for fake reviews. Amazon says it works with Facebook to police these groups.

I spoke with various reviewers in these groups, many of whom didn’t want to be identified. They say they write these types of reviews to save money.

“I definitely gave a 4- or 5-star review to stuff that wasn’t good,” said Jeffrey Chu, from Charlotte, N.C., who reviewed products from Facebook groups until Amazon blocked him from reviewing last year. “I felt a little bit bad about doing it, but even before this, I noticed a lot of BS reviews. I figured the system was broken, I figured I’d get stuff out of it.”

The fake review. Finally, there are the full-on fakes. These reviews don’t show verified purchases and consistently deliver high ratings without much detail. One person I saw on Craigslist offers reviews starting at $5 a pop. So-called click farms in Asia claim to control thousands of Amazon accounts that vendors can hire to leave reviews for between $1 and $5 each.

Sellers also “hijack” legit reviews through some back-end trickery, Mr. Noonan said. A merchant might put a new item on the page of a well-reviewed but now-unavailable older product. The star rating looks good, but the reviews don’t match the item.

. . . .

“We suspend, ban or pursue legal action against these bad actors as well as suppress all known inauthentic reviews,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. “Customers can report suspicious reviews 24 hours a day, seven days a week and we investigate each claim.”

Last week, I spotted a listing for headphones branded Wotmic with 51 five-star ratings—and no poorer ratings. This week, Amazon’s sweep removed all 51 reviews. Wotmic’s parent company, Shenzhen Womaisi Technology Co., Ltd. hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment.

. . . .

ReviewMeta and Fakespot automatically look for those red flags and more. Paste in an Amazon product page address, and either site gives you a review of the reviews. They both calculate the average star rating with questionable reviews removed. I prefer ReviewMeta for its more comprehensive report cards.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Facebook, Amazon struggle in fight against fake reviews

From Fox News:

A Fox News investigation has found that Facebook is a breeding ground for groups where reviews for products on Amazon, among other online platforms, are bought and sold. And small businesses competing in the online marketplace may already be suffering because of a lack of controls, or a lack of efficiency, on behalf of two of the world’s most valuable brands.

Reviews can be critical for businesses that operate in online marketplaces like Amazon, not only because of the impact a 1-star review can have but because sellers and products with the greatest number of reviews typically appear higher in search results.

. . . .

Beyond the fact that reviews are critical for a company’s existence, the practice of compensating someone in exchange for a customer review is something that violates both Amazon and Facebook policies. It could also put you at odds with the Federal Trade Commission.

That hasn’t stopped the practice from flourishing on Facebook, Fox News has found. Groups like “Amazon review club” can be joined with the click of a button, and with no apparent background check.

. . . .

Fox started tracking that group, and others like it, just before the Black Friday shopping rush in early November. Since then, its membership has grown by thousands, standing at more than 82,000 members as of this writing. That group was created in 2016, and there are plenty of others like it where reviews are solicited for everything from Google Maps to Yelp.

. . . .

Over the course of a few weeks, Fox News witnessed members of these groups offering to sell hundreds of reviews at a time, promising commissions in exchange for praise and soliciting 1-star reviews that seemed destined for some unlucky online competitor.

Link to the rest at Fox News

Where Did the Amazon Reviewers Go?

From The Book Designer:

Two years ago, it was so easy to find the top Amazon.com reviewers and approach them and ask for reviews. There was software that let authors and publishers find the name and email addresses of the thousands of Amazon reviewers who had already written reviews of books in a similar vein.

I had written a self-help book for women about lowering stress, so it was easy to find the bestselling books on stress reduction and find the contact information on Amazon of those who had reviewed those bestselling books.

Then, I put together a BULK email using MailChimp and emailed THOUSANDS of reviewers all in one afternoon.

It. Was. Awesome.

Then, for some reason, in March of 2018, Amazon made a decision to hide the email addresses of reviewers on their profiles. Speculation was they did this because of the new GDPR rules and regulations but no one really knows why. This completely stopped authors from being able to email potential reviewers–even if the reviewers didn’t mind being contacted with their information public on their profile.

Does this mean it’s the end of finding targeted reviewers for books? Absolutely NOT! But it is a lot harder than it used to be.

Amazon is REALLY working hard to hide the contact information of book reviewers, and GoodReads only lets you message a few readers every day before shutting you down for the day. HOW, then, can you reach the reviewers and readers who write reviews?

. . . .

Debbie [Drum] has a program called Book Review Targeter that pulls data on readers and reviewers of specific books. I LOVE the idea of using software to find readers and reviewers of books written by authors in my community. There are authors out there who have already written books that appeal to MY readers. Finding readers and getting them to consider my book is SO much easier when I start by knowing my fellow authors and reach out to THEIR readers.

With this idea firmly in place, and knowing that it is no longer “cool” to mass email folks. HOW CAN I REACH THEM?

. . . .

Amy: Debbie, is there any way in today’s world, to email readers in a way that does not “spam” them?

Debbie: The good news is YES.

When researching comparable authors to find books that have a lot of reviews online, look for bestselling books to start. When a bestselling author releases a book and they have done “everything right” – meaning

  • they have done the market research,
  • their cover is beyond professional,
  • their description is spot on and convincing,
  • and their content is killer,

then that author will probably have a lot more reviews and you will get better review response results from mass cold emails.

I would say first test out in a small segment to see if mass emailing will work for you. If it doesn’t, don’t give up. There are certainly other ways to get the reviews you need to sell more books.

Amy: So what other options do we have? That’s the next question.

Debbie: Social Media is also a great place to find reviewers. When looking for book reviewers, and influencers that can share and promote a book, I like to start with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest.

All of these amazing platforms have direct messaging and commenting components to them.

What’s so great about this? A lot of these social media platforms are listed on an Amazon reviewer’s bio page.

. . . .

Amy: What is the best way to connect with readers in this new world?

Debbie: There are only four rules to follow when it comes to contacting reviewers.

Here they are:

#1 – Be Brief

This is the most important that’s why it’s FIRST. Don’t write paragraph after paragraph after paragraph. This is a HUGE mistake. In a couple of sentences you can explain what your book is about, why you are contacting them, what they will get out of it (more about this in #3) and what to do next.

People will tune you out if you go on and on.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

How to Have an Opinion: The Criticism of Martin Seymour-Smith

From The Millions:

Martin Seymour-Smith was a grumpy fellow. A promising poet who took up writing big reference books of literary criticism, his highly idiosyncratic 1977 survey Who’s Who In Twentieth Century Literature is deliciously highbrow junk food. But like strawberry Pocky or matcha Kit-Kat, Seymour-Smith isn’t for everyone. His effort to catalogue the literary scene is full of curiously gleeful put-downs and undercooked psychoanalysis. He pronounces Hemingway “by no means intelligent … seriously overrated,” sums up Nabokov as “a distinguished lepidopterist” and “a minor writer of distinction,” and tenderly humiliates Updike’s Rabbit, Run as “brilliant … but too much so.” Who’s Who would be an impossible book to write today: Seymour-Smith is skeptical of literary personality at its core. The entries on particularly mythic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner show a dogged commitment to tearing down the aegis of respectability surrounding these figures.

As a critic he is digressive, laughably biased, and mean-spirited. For Seymour-Smith, even the century’s most celebrated writers deserve about as much humiliation as praise. Faulkner, for example, “worked from intuition and passion and never from what an educated man would call thought … if anyone believes that he possessed a mind in the usual sense, let him read the text of the Nobel Prize speech (1950): cliché-ridden, naive.” The entry goes on to praise the Yoknapatawpha novels and Seymour-Smith assures us “there is no doubt … of his high stature; and doubtless the poor work was part of the price—heavy and exhausting drinking-bouts were another—that he had to pay for his achievement.”

On Hemingway he is far less generous: “inept … he knew nothing about bull-fighting, as Death in the Afternoon (1932) which purports to be about it, makes painfully clear.” One has to wonder where Seymour-Smith had gotten his bullfighting intelligence, but no matter. After informing readers that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s attempt to describe how difficult it had become for him to produce anything of value, he dismisses it as “a portentous and pretentious analogy.” Worse still are Hemingway’s personal qualities: “He was a liar, he was treacherous to those to whom he owed most.” Finally, Seymour-Smith concludes that “the decency [Hemingway] found is limited and answers little.”

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG notes that Mr. Semour-Smith’s magnum opus, published in 1976, appears to be out of print, has an Amazon Best Sellers Rank of #2,042,365 and two Amazon reviews.

A quick check of Rabbit Run, published in 1960, shows Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #70,167 and  The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, is ranked at #8,265 and just one of its many editions has 2,121 reviews.

Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books?

From The Guardian:

As soon as the news of VS Naipaul’s death broke a few weeks ago, a thousand think pieces rose as one, as though to take his place. His legacy was both attacked and defended, his misogyny and racism condemned and forgiven. This frenzied conversation crystallised around a question readers have been grappling with for years, but with increasing urgency: to what extent should we consider an artist’s personality, politics and ethics relevant to our appreciation of their work?

It seems that almost no one can separate the writer from the books when it comes to Naipaul. The same is true of our response to work by authors who have recently been accused of various levels of misconduct following #metoo. In the past week alone, compelling and devastating reports of abuse by lauded authors have appeared in the media: Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s second wife, detailed his sadism and womanising in a memoir that has recently come to light; author Joyce Maynard has written of her experiences with JD Salinger, who summoned her to live with him when she was 18 and he was 53.

Practical criticism – the academic approach to texts that aims to consider words on the page independently of their author or the reader’s preconceived ideas – began almost 100 years ago; now, in 2018, such “death of the author” talk appears to be dead itself. While the takes on Naipaul were diverse, and some argued that Naipaul’s bad character was irrelevant to his work, the fact of his bad character was always front and centre. It could not go unmarked– but what remains to be decided is the extent to which it marks the legacy of a Nobel prize-winning author.

I am in favour of removing monuments erected to celebrate individuals whose life work was to destroy the happiness or lives of others. I think the statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, belongs in a museum with a lengthy note about Rhodes’s horrific legacy and the cultural circumstances under which the statue was first erected. The same is true of the many tributes across the US to Robert E Lee. But a book is not a statue. A story is not necessarily a tribute to, or celebration of, its author. I am left reaching, instead, for the correct metaphor to evoke the relationship between work and creator. Is a book its author’s child, innocent of its parent’s wrongdoing? Or is it a hologram of its creator, representing all that its author was and did? Of course neither of these is correct; I’m still searching for an analogy that lies between these two extremes.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG suggests if you can’t separate the author from the book, your mental, emotional and analytical self-discipline may need some work.

PG is reminded of a quote that he suspects begins (or began) every first-year semantics class, “The word is not the thing.”

Although S.I. Hayakawa popularized it, at least in the US, PG understands the phrase originated with Alfred Korzybski, who also said, “The map is not the territory.”

Here is a longer quote from Hayakawa:

Citizens of a modern society need […] more than that ordinary “common sense” which was defined by Stuart Chase as that which tells you that the world is flat. They need to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, especially words, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment by the complexity of their semantic environment. The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for.

PG also suggests that the book is not the author and vice versa.

If a reader comes to a book having pre-judged it by its author, he/she may well fail to understand the book. If the author had written this particular book anonymously, using a pen name, would the book be different?

The idea that one should pre-judge a book by what one knows (or thinks one knows) about the author seems totally bizarre. One is not supporting Naipaul by reading his books. What we know or think we know about an author does not change the words the author wrote.

A bit of perspective on the history of a society’s popular thought and accepted truths might help today’s critics of people who lived in a much different time and culture that attitudes and understandings change and today’s verities can well be tomorrow’s disdained falsities.

Is Quality, Like Beauty, in the Eye of the Beholder? The Elusive Art of Book Reviewing and Its Influence

From No Shelf Required:

What is a book review? Many have attempted to answer this question over the last few decades in a multitude of ways—from informed scholars, librarians, and booksellers to publishers, authors and readers. While their views differ widely on how successful book reviews are in bringing us closer to a book’s quality—and whether this is even possible—their definitions of book reviews and their core purpose seem to be in sync. To start, book reviews are a ‘genre’ in their own right, as they have features specific to them, and they can be as entertaining to read as the books they put under the microscope. These features, of course, depend on the context in which the books are reviewed (e.g., reviews found in academic journals are more in-depth and lengthier than those found in mainstream newspapers and magazines), but the general purpose of book reviews is always to serve as kind of an economic model, helping readers—whoever they may be—to decide if they should spend their money on a book, be it for entertainment, enlightenment, or scholarly pursuit. In other words, the main purpose of book reviews is to reduce search costs and uncertainty (Clement & others 78).  In this sense, then, readers hope that book reviews will guide them in the direction of the books they both want and need.

If we examine how information professionals and scholars have perceived book reviews over time and in varied settings, we can conclude that despite their imperfections and sometimes contradictory performance and impact, the presence of book reviews in scholarly and mass communication is understood to be both necessary and helpful, not only to guide readers through the maze of published literature—which today exceeds 2.2 million new titles in any given year, according to UNESCO estimates published in 2017—but also to point to the cultural conditions of our time and to give us alternate views on particular subjects. Indeed, the world needs different opinions. As Peyre put it, “unanimity in any acclaim for a book (whether or not by a Nobel Prize winner), a play, a concert performer, or an artist, even if he has become as venerable as Picasso or Chagall, should arouse suspicion. It can only be a sign of conventionality, of intellectual laziness, or timidity” (Peyre 130).

Yet despite such explanations for the necessity of diverse opinions, there has been no shortage of views pointing, sometimes harshly, to the inherently self-defeating nature of book reviews.

. . . .

Book reviews are studied usually in terms of several criteria: review length, lag-time, orientation, evaluative slant, and reviewer identity (Rehman 127). They are also studied in terms of their influence on author reputation and career advancement, as well as in terms of their power to predict a book’s critical reception and, ultimately, its financial success. Questions that appear frequently in such studies include, for example: How have book reviews and our perception of them changed over time? How often are critics truly objective in their analysis? Should they strive to be more descriptive and less prescriptive in their analysis? Are book reviews only about the book or do they also reveal details about the critic? What is the impact of negative reviews on a book’s sales and on an author’s public image? What is the role of professional editors in the process of preserving ethical standards behind book reviewing? How much influence do editors have in deciding what books are reviewed in professional publications and by whom? How often and in what ways are book reviews used as marketing tools by publishers, authors, and such middlemen as PR agents? And, perhaps most relevant, just how many books can possibly be reviewed in a world that sees 2.2 million titles published annually?

. . . .

Upon closer examination of available literature (and based on my own experience as a professional book review editor at Library Journal), I have come to identify four major types of book reviews: academic reviews; trade reviews; mainstream media reviews; and, since the advent of modern technologies and social media platforms, user reviews. The first three types refer to the book reviews written, edited, and published by professionals, while the fourth refers to the reviews we encounter online and all over the Internet; they are usually written by amateurs who voluntarily share their thoughts about a book (often anonymously).

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG suggests that, as a means of informing a purchase decision for a particular book, user reviews are likely, on a collective basis, to be far more influential for a given individual reader (especially a reader of ebooks) than any of the other categories of reviews written by “professionals”.

While an individual user review may be useless for deciding about a prospective ebook purchase, collectively, a group of user reviews is often quite valuable for PG.

The consequences of an unwise ebook purchase are also smaller than an unwise printed book purchase for several reasons:

  1. Generally speaking, ebook prices are lower than printed book prices, so less of the reader’s money is at risk.
  2. If an ebook proves unsatisfying, it can usually be returned for a refund with a mouse click, a much simpler process than trudging back to a physical bookstore with printed receipt in hand. (PG is likely not the only person whose physical bookshelves include poor purchase decisions for which the return process wasn’t worth his time. They sit there, like awkward distant relatives one prefers not to speak with, but still have some embarrassing connection with the observer.)

The other problem with “professional reviews” is that a great many of the publications in which they were formerly published have gone out of business or are otherwise unable or unwilling to pay a “professional” for a review. How many people actually read online publications that include “professional” reviews. Does a book reviewer who writes “professional” reviews still qualify as a professional if he/she isn’t paid at all or is paid so little that a day job is required for sustenance?

The New York Times book reviews were very influential in days now past because of the large number of the paper’s subscribers and their attractive demographics (nice income, good education). Today, the Times’ overall audience is far smaller (particularly in comparison with other online destinations) and who knows how many people actually read the book reviews as opposed to seeing a link to a book review or opening a page that includes a book review, then heading elsewhere? (PG will note in passing that online web traffic analytics for this sort of thing are notably inaccurate. Here’s a link to a short article that describes a variety of estimation methods and points out their shortcomings.)

As times change, some people change and others do not. Yesterday’s profession, regardless of how valuable it might have been back in the day, may not have the same value today. While not wishing bad fortune on anyone, PG notes that today’s “professional” can be tomorrow’s barista.

 

‘Silence Is Health’: How Totalitarianism Arrives

From The New York Review of Books:

The white supremacists chanting “blood and soil” as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, last year were probably unaware that the leading Nazi ideologue who used the original slogan of Blut und Boden to promote the creation of a German master race was not himself a native German. Richard Walther Darré, who proclaimed the existence of a mystic bond between the German homeland and “racially pure” Germans, was actually born “Ricardo” on the other side of the Atlantic, in Argentina’s prosperous capital, Buenos Aires.

Sent by his German immigrant family to the Heimat for schooling at the age of nine, Darré later specialized in agriculture, the logical choice for someone with an Argentine background at a time when the succulent beef and abundant wheat of Argentina’s pampas made the country renowned as the “breadbasket of the world.” For a while, during the 1920s, he contemplated returning to Buenos Aires to pursue a career in farming, but that was before his writing caught the attention of Adolf Hitler’s rising Nazi Party. His 1930 book A New Nobility of Blood and Soil, in which he proposed applying selective cattle-breeding methods for the procreation of perfect Aryan humans, dazzled the Führer.

As early as 1932, Darré helped the SS leader Heinrich Himmler to set up the Race and Resettlement Office in order to safeguard the “racial purity” of SS officers. Darré’s work also inspired the Nazi Lebensborn (Fount of Life) program that rewarded “unmarried women and girls of good blood” who had children with racially pure SS officers. Hitler was so impressed with the “Blood and Soil” movement that in 1933 he named Darré Germany’s minister for agriculture.

. . . .

Subsequently, in my work as a writer, I focused on how hundreds of Nazis and their collaborators escaped to Argentina. This made me painfully aware of how their presence during the thirty years between the end of World War II and the 1976 coup had numbed the moral sense of what was then an affluent, well-educated nation, with disastrous consequences for its people. Argentines’ forced cohabitation with Nazi fugitives resulted, I came to believe, in a normalization of the crimes that the German émigrés had committed. “He came to our country seeking forgiveness,” Argentina’s Cardinal Antonio Caggiano told the press when Israeli operatives captured the Nazi arch-criminal Adolf Eichmann and spirited him out of Argentina in 1960 to stand trial in Jerusalem. “Our obligation as Christians is to forgive him for what he’s done.”

Some fifteen years later, Argentina began its own descent into full-blown totalitarianism, and its military embarked on a mass killing program that differed in scale, though not in essence, from the Nazis’: an estimated 30,000 people were made to “disappear” by the dictatorship. The same politicians and religious leaders who had turned a blind eye to the presence of Nazi criminals in Argentina looked away again as blood-soaked generals kneeled to receive their blessings in Buenos Aires Cathedral. Much of my adult life has been haunted by the need to answer the question of how this could have come to pass in Argentina. And how it might come to pass elsewhere.

. . . .

This normalization of totalitarian undertones accelerated after my family moved back to Argentina when I was nineteen. To make myself better acquainted with Buenos Aires, I would take long walks through the capital. One day, in 1974, I found myself frozen in my steps on the broad 9 de Julio Avenue that divides Buenos Aires in half. In the middle of this avenue rises a tall white obelisk that is the city’s most conspicuous landmark, and in those days a revolving billboard had been suspended around it. Round and round turned the display and inscribed upon it in large blue letters on a plain white background was the slogan “Silence Is Health.”

With every turn, the billboard schooled Argentines in the total censorship and suppression of free speech that the dictatorship would soon impose. The billboard message was the brainchild of Oscar Ivanissevich, Argentina’s reactionary minister of education, ostensibly to caution motorists against excessive use of the horn. His other mission was an “ideological purge” of Argentina’s universities, which had become a hotbed of student activism. During an earlier ministerial term in 1949, Ivanissevich had led a bitter campaign against the “morbid… perverse… godless” trend of abstract art, recalling the Nazis’ invective against “degenerate” art. During that period, his sister and his nephew were both involved in smuggling Nazis into Argentina.

Ivanissevich’s Orwellian billboard made its appearance just as right-wing violence erupted in the buildup to the military coup. That same year, 1974, Ivanissevich had appointed as rector of Buenos Aires University a well-known admirer of Hitler’s, Alberto Ottalagano, who titled his later autobiography I’m a Fascist, So What? His job was to get rid of the kind of young left-wing protesters who gathered outside the Sheraton Hotel demanding that it be turned into a children’s hospital, and he warmed to the task of persecuting and expelling them. Being singled out by him was more than merely a matter of academic discipline; some fifteen of these students were murdered by right-wing death squads while Ottalagano was rector.

As a partial stranger in my own land, I noticed what those who had already been normalized could not: this was a population habituated to intolerance and violence. Two years later, Ivanissevich’s slogan made a macabre reappearance. In the basement of the dictatorship’s death camp based at the Navy Mechanics School (known as ESMA), where some 5,000 people were exterminated, officers hung two banners along the corridor that opened onto its torture cells. One read “Avenue of Happiness,” the other “Silence Is Health.”

. . . .

It was in these years in Argentina that I learned how quickly the veneer of legality can be peeled away from a society. In 1977, a year into the dictatorship, I joined the Buenos Aires Herald, a small English-language newspaper that was the only news media outlet reporting on the crimes of the regime. “I had the privilege of speaking out while everyone else kept silent,” says the then-editor of the Herald, Robert Cox, a Briton who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. It was not the fact that he was British or that his newspaper had a limited circulation that allowed Cox to print what the other newspapers would not. It was simply that he could not bring himself to remain silent about the carnage he was witnessing. Unlike so many Argentines, he had not been desensitized by growing up among Nazi fugitives; instead, he had been raised in wartime London among the rubble of buildings destroyed by Hitler’s bombs and rockets.

But there was a price to pay for the privilege Cox speaks of. Returning home from my very first day of work, I saw three plainclothes police officers—unmistakable despite their shoulder-length hair, leather jackets, and bell-bottom trousers—leaving my apartment building carrying a leather satchel from which a spool of recording tape was visible. The secret police had tapped my phone, the building superintendent whispered to me. A green Ford Falcon was parked across my street.

The discreet tipoff from my building’s super was unusual; it was far more common for people to snitch on their neighbors, and this was, of course, encouraged by the military. In December 1979, Cox was forced into exile, along with his Argentine wife and their five Argentine-born children, after he received threats that revealed a detailed knowledge of his family’s daily routines. To this day, the Cox family remains convinced that it was a close acquaintance who provided the dictatorship with the information. The transformation of friends into informers is a defining characteristic of totalitarian regimes.

If you want to know what sustains totalitarian violence in a society, psychology is probably more useful than political analysis. Among the elite, support for the dictatorship was enthusiastic. “It was seen as kind of a social faux pas to talk about ‘desaparecidos’ or what was going on,” says Raymond McKay, a fellow journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald, in Messenger on a White Horse, a 2017 documentary about the newspaper. “It was seen as bad taste because the people didn’t want to know.”

Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

The First Reviews of Every Ernest Hemingway Novel

From The Literary Hub:

On this day in 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho, Ernest Hemingway—the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning, machismo-exuding, globe-trotting war correspondent and titan of 20th Century American fiction—took his own life. His much-imitated writing style and tumultuous personal life have ensured that he remains one of the world’s most widely read, and divisive, authors.

To mark the fifty-seventh anniversary of his death, we’re taking a look back at the first reviews of each of Hemingway’s nine published novels, from The Torrents of Spring (1926), to the posthumously released Islands in the Stream (1970) and The Garden of Eden (1986).

. . . .

The Torrents of Spring reveals Mr. Hemingway’s gift for high-spirited nonsense. Whatever its effect on literary foibles, it contributes to that thoughtful gayety which true wit should inspire. While he ridicules certain extravagances by pushing them to the logical conclusion, Mr. Hemingway obviously entertains a robust respect for the object of his allusive gibes. In the last analysis, the book sets out to amuse. This it does.

–The New York Times, June 13, 1926

. . . .

“It is a relief to find that The Sun Also Rises maintains the same heightened, intimate tangibility as the shorter narratives and does it in the same kind of weighted, quickening prose. Mr. Hemingway has chosen a segment of life which might easily have become ‘a spectacle with unexplained horrors,’ and disciplined it to a design which gives full value to its Dionysian, all but uncapturable, elements. On the face of it, he has simply gathered, almost at random, a group of American and British expatriates from Paris, conducted them on a fishing expedition, and exhibited them against the background of a wild Spanish fiesta and bull-fight. The characters are concisely indicated. Much of their inherent natures are left to be betrayed by their own speech, by their apparently aimless conversation among themselves. Mr. Hemingway writes a most admirable dialogue. It has the terse vigor of Ring Lardner at his best. It suggests the double meanings of Ford Madox Ford’s records of talk. Mr. Hemingway makes his characters say one thing, convey still another, and when a whole passage of talk has been given, the reader finds himself the richer by a totally unexpected mood, a mood often enough of outrageous familiarity with obscure heartbreaks.

–The New York Times, October 31, 1926

. . . .

“There is in A Farewell to Arms no change from the narrative method of The Sun Also Rises and Men Without Women. Ernest Hemingway did not invent the method, which is chiefly to be characterized by the staccato nature of sentences (an effort at reproducing universal conversational habit), and its rigid exclusion of all but the most necessary description. Yet if Hemingway was not the inventor of the method, tentative gropings toward such a manner having been made by many of his immediate predecessors, the author of A Farewell to Arms has, in his several books, made it so strikingly his own that it may bear his name, and is likely to henceforward. The method has its advantages, and also its disadvantages.

The chief result is a sort of enamel lustre imparted to the story as a whole, not precisely an iridescence, but a white light, rather, that pales and flashes, but never warms. And because it never warms, or never seems to warm, the really human in Hemingway (and there is a great deal in Hemingway that is human) fails of its due. It is not impossible that Ernest Hemingway has developed his style to the extreme to which he carries it because in it he finds a sort of protective covering for a nature more sensitive than he would have one know.
. . . .

“There will be debate as to whether A Farewell to Arms is a finer piece of work than The Sun Also Rises. And there will be cogent arguments advanced on either side. On the surface, the newer story is more effective than the earlier novel. There is more drama, the movement is more nearly continuous and better sustained. And the story of the love between the English nurse and the American ambulance officer, as hapless as that of Romeo and Juliet, is a high achievement in what might be termed the new romanticism. And yet for the present reviewer The Sun Also Rises touches a note which Hemingway caught once, and, in the very nature of the thing, cannot touch again.”

–Percy Hutchison, The New York Times, September 29, 1929

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Why You Can’t Really Trust Negative Online Reviews

From The New York Times:

The Great Wall of China has more than 9,000 Google reviews, with an average of 4.2 stars. Not bad for one of the most astonishing achievements in human history.

But you can’t please everyone.

“Not very tall. Or big. Just sayin. I kinda liked it. Sort of,” wrote one ambivalent visitor of the structure, which stretches thousands of miles. Another complained, “I don’t see the hype in this place it’s really run down and old … why wouldn’t you update something like this? No USB plug ins or outlets anywhere.” Someone else announced that he’s “Not a wall guy. Laaaaaaaaammme.”

Even Shakespeare can’t escape the wrath of consumer scorn. One reviewer on Amazon awarded Hamlet just two stars: “Whoever said Shakespeare was a genius lied. Unless genius is just code word for boring, then they’re spot on. Watch the movie version so you only waste two hours versus 20.”

. . . .

We use reviews to vet our options. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of American adults say they sometimes or always read online reviews for new purchases. And more than two-thirds of regular review readers believe that they’re “generally accurate.”

Marketing data indicates that negative reviews in particular dramatically influence our buying behaviors. But research on the biases and demographics of online reviewers — and our own, often errant interpretations — suggests that our faith in reviews is misguided.

. . . .

There are many more positive reviews online than there are negative ones, studies show, which creates a scarcity of negative reviews that we associate with value.

For instance: In a data sample from Amazon, just 4.8 percent of reviews with a verified purchase were rated one star, whereas 59 percent had five stars, according to a study published in 2014 by The Journal of Marketing Research and led by Duncan Simester, a marketing professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.

“The infrequent nature of negative reviews may help to distinguish them from other reviews,” Dr. Simester wrote in an email. We consequently pay more attention to them.

. . . .

We also think of negative reviews as windows into what could go wrong. Is this camera’s memory card going to go kaput in the middle of my honeymoon? Are these socks scratchy? Dr. Simester pointed out that people may see negative reviews as more informative, and therefore more valuable, than positive ones because they highlight defects — even if they’re not actually more accurate.

“We want to feel secure in our decision-making processes,” said Lauren Dragan, who analyzes consumer feedback as the audio tech products reviewer at Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products. We use negative reviews to understand our risk and reduce our losses, studies show.

. . . .

Reviews are subjective, and the tiny subset of people who leave them aren’t average.

People who write online reviews are more likely to buy things in unusual sizes, make returns, be married, have more children, be younger and less wealthy, and have graduate degrees than the average consumer, according to Dr. Simester’s 2014 study. Online reviewers are also 50 percent more likely to shop sales, and they buy four times more products.

“Very few people write reviews. It’s about 1.5 percent, or 15 people out of 1,000,” Dr. Simester said. “Should we be relying on these people if we’re part of the other 985?”

. . . .

Another reason to be wary is roughly one in 15 people review products they haven’t actually purchased or used, according to Dr. Simester. These “self-appointed brand managers” write speculative, unsolicited negative reviews to offer the company “feedback.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Amazon comes under fire for removal of book reviews

From The Bookseller:

Amazon has come under fire for removing reviews from its online book listings, with some customers having had all their reviews removed or being blocked from posting further reviews on Amazon.

Authors, bloggers and publishers have criticised the development, with many sharing their frustration through the #giveourreviewsback hashtag. Amazon has blamed temporary “technical issues”.

Author Isabella May told The Bookseller that she had had a “hellish week” of losing reviews for her two novels, published by a small independent Crooked Cat Books. “I have lost a whopping 11 reviews for my two novels in the space of just a week,” the novelist said. “Everything I am doing now as an author is about raising my profile and following my long-term vision, so as you can imagine, it’s quite upsetting to see one book plummet from a very respectable 55 reviews down to 49, and the other (more recently published title) fall from 36 reviews to 31. For a high profile author who may no longer feel the need to check their reviews, this is but a drop in the ocean. But for a new voice, it’s everything, and very distressing – particularly as my publisher retail solely online and solely via Amazon.”

Another reviewer and novelist told The Bookseller  that some of their own positive reviews for other writers had been taken down from both Amazon.com and Amazon UK, noting that books from Amazon’s own publishing arm, such as its fiction imprint Lake Union, attract significant numbers of positive reviews. One title White Rose, Black Forest  garnered 2,960 reviews on Amazon.com within three months of publication.

The reviewer, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Is this removal of reviews from other authors part of Amazon being at the top in terms of publishing? Because whilst we all suffer, their authors seem to have review numbers the rest of us can only dream of.”

Despite emailing Amazon May was told the reviews would not be reinstated because they were “in violation of our guidelines”. She was not told which specifically but was directed towards its lengthy community guidelines microsite which includes various sections which includes a section on how the company “may restrict the ability to submit a review when we detect unusual reviewing behaviour”.

The retailer has developed tools and policies to combat fake reviews amid problems over “reviews for hire”.

. . . .

HarperCollins’ commercial publisher Kimberley Young told The Bookseller that the removal of reviews enables Amazon to promote its own books “at the expense of others”.

“Writing an honest review on receipt of a proof copy of a book is both an established practice and also a very modern tool,” she said. “Reviews drive word of mouth and help readers find the right books for them. We know algorithms favour well reviewed books and I can’t see how the removal of reviews across so many titles on Amazon can benefit the consumer – it narrows the range and discoverability of books and is another step in Amazon supporting their own books at the expense of others.”

Another senior publisher who wished to remain anonymous told The Bookseller: “This is an example of a megalithic global corporation heavy handedly trying to manoeuvre in the complicated, interconnected world of the modern book publishing community where relationships between people count not algorithms. The fact that someone follows you on twitter or Facebook does not reveal a conflict of interest for their reviews on Amazon and does give the book buyer a really good service.” The publisher added: “I suspect this another move by Amazon to favour titles published through their own publishing channels or through their massively profitable self-publishing lines. Amazon have a real problem because while none of their titles published physically through their publishing imprints are carried by any high street retailers and while they continue to sell smallish quantities of millions of titles at 99p in digital, for instance, and making lots of money from that, very few of those authors generate real commentary, hit the bestseller lists, have any media profile or generate enthusiasm among normal book readers.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes that HarperCollins and other large publishers also fit the description of “megalithic global corporation[s]” who have tried to manipulate the book market.

PG further notes that Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster plead guilty to illegal price-fixing for ebooks. So HarperCollins is a self-admitted manipulator of the book market “at the expense of others”, including purchasers of books.

PG understands that this is old news for long-time visitors to TPV, however he reminds one and all that the major US publishers have willfully violated the law in an effort to force purchasers of books to pay millions of dollars in higher prices. PG thinks their sense of entitlement and commitment to market manipulation extends to the terms they offer the authors of the books they publish.

The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

From The Guardian:

In recent years, the group biography has become a spirited mainstay of the publishing landscape: a means both of revisiting and reinterpreting already familiar times, people and places, and of bringing together between hard covers lives that might not be deserving of an individual doorstop. In Sharp, though, Michelle Dean has assembled not so much a group as a small crowd: her book, with its title that brings to mind suddenly puckered lips, has the feeling of a cocktail party at which several people drink too much, nearly everyone talks too loudly, and no one really likes anyone else. Through this gathering, she wanders, ashtray in one hand, dishcloth in the other. Dean relishes her guests’ bad behaviour – you might call her a little starstruck – but only to a degree. As the evening goes on, she will sometimes find herself apologising for them, these women who are so clever and talented, and yet so madly competitive, so stubbornly reluctant to attach the word “feminist” to their neon-bright names.

. . . .

Most began as journalists, making an art, as Dean’s subtitle has it, of “having an opinion”; some then went on to write acclaimed novels, and other kinds of books. Most of their names are well known: Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, Rebecca West. Others, at least for British readers, may be less familiar: Janet Malcolm, whose singular, often controversial interviews appeared in the New Yorker; Pauline Kael, once the same magazine’s acerbic film critic; Renata Adler, the reporter whose home was also there until she put the literary equivalent of a bomb under her career. Dean gives each one about the same amount of attention, although it’s clear that she enjoys the company of some more than others. The playwright Lillian Hellman and the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, however, she collides with so fleetingly, they appear before the reader like gatecrashers or, more likely, additions to the guest list so embarrassingly last minute she can hardly bear to do much more than pour them their first sidecar.

What unites them, besides their trade and their talent? Dean talks, in her preface, of their remarkable achievements in a world that “was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything”; of the way they roundly defied expectations. But there’s also the adjective of her title: sharp. People did not always respond favourably to the “sting” of their words. What would have seemed daring and deeply smart coming from a man appeared only haughty, inappropriate and unkind when served up by a woman.

. . . .

Didion, in her tiny dresses, her wrists like clay pipes, was just so much surface and “swank”. Dean, a journalist herself, sympathises with all this; her book – though these are my words, not hers – is for any woman who has ever silenced a dinner table by being just a little too quick, too knowing, too mocking. Am I allowed to say that I have more than once done just that? Maybe I am.

Link to the rest at The Guardian