Breaking the Age Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

Jake Kasdan’s 2019 movie “Jumanji: The Next Level” opens with returning hero Spencer already at low ebb—he’s lonely at college, browbeaten at work and sharing his bedroom with Grandpa Eddie. But the thing that pushes him over the edge, driving him back into the dangerous alternate reality of the movie’s title, is the idea that life’s inevitable decline has already begun.

“Getting old sucks,” Eddie says, as he fiddles with the portable oxygen machine on his bedside table. “Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Social psychologist Becca Levy spends much of “Breaking the Age Code” doing exactly that, weaving together case studies and her own research to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to suck at all. The expectation that aging means decay, Ms. Levy shows, is actually a major reason it so often does—our negative view of aging is literally killing us. Chipping away at this widespread and deeply ingrained conviction has a measurable effect on health after just 10 minutes.

The first part of the book is so full of flabbergasting results that they become almost monotonous. In 2002 Ms. Levy combined results from the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement with data from the National Death Index to reveal that, on average, people with the most positive views of aging were outliving those with the most negative views by 7½ years—an extraordinary 10% of current life expectancy in the United States. In 2012 memory tests showed that positive age beliefs allowed people to outperform their peers with negative beliefs by 30%. The stereotype of failing memory is so strong in the West that occasional lapses are called “senior moments.” But in China, where attitudes to the elderly are much more positive than in the U.S., Ms. Levy says older people “can expect [their] memory to work basically as well as [their] grandchildren’s.” Experiments in the lab, across cultures, and following participants over many years give similar results for dementia, hearing and physical function.

Ms. Levy leavens this research summary with portraits of inspiring elders, from the actor who started memorizing the whole of “Paradise Lost” when he was 60, to the 91-year-old nun who runs triathlons. She also shows the scientific method at work, as when she describes how statistical analysis helped her establish that positive age beliefs bring better health—instead of the other way around—and how lab results demonstrated that those who were exposed to positive age beliefs walked faster and with better balance.

A combination of factors makes us “particularly susceptible . . . to negative age beliefs,” Ms. Levy argues, citing the World Health Organization bulletin that declared ageism “the most widespread and socially accepted prejudice today.” We first encounter ageism when we are least likely to resist it, decades before it might apply to us and our peers. Older people are often segregated in Western society for living, working and socializing, leading younger people to conclude these divisions are “caused by meaningful, inherent differences between age groups.” And these stereotypes are then reinforced over the course of our lives, as we are “bombarded by messages in advertisements and media about older people.”

All is not lost, however, for despite the “pervasiveness and depth” of ageism in Western society, these beliefs are “in fact quite brittle: they can be chipped at, shifted and remade.” In one striking study from 1996, Ms. Levy primed some people with positive words such as “wise” or “alert,” and others with negative ones such as “senile” or “confused.” Ten minutes of priming saw participants in the positive stereotypes group improve in memory tests, while the negative stereotypes group declined.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Kingdom of Characters

From The Wall Street Journal:

The proliferation of Mandarin immersion schools across the U.S. suggests that a growing number of American parents believe the Chinese language, including its writing system, will prepare their children for academic success. China’s primary- and secondary-school students regularly top global rankings in math and science, even as the study of Confucian classics enjoys a resurgence. Perhaps Chinese characters are the key to the country’s ability to churn out talented professionals?

If the central figures of Jing Tsu’s “Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern” were alive to see this, they would marvel at how history has reversed itself. For more than a century, language reformers and innovators struggled with the challenge of meshing Chinese characters with the Western world.

Ms. Tsu, a professor of East Asian languages and literatures at Yale University, describes how intellectuals believed that the Chinese language was a major reason for the country’s backwardness. As China was being carved up into spheres of influence by colonial powers during the 19th century, the West’s dominance seemed to show that alphabet-based scripts were a better fit for the scientific and industrial revolutions then under way. Some influential figures, such as the left-wing writer Lu Xun, argued that Chinese characters should be scrapped to save the nation.

There are several reasons why China ultimately held on to its characters. Most important, the prevalence of homophones in the Chinese language means that a phonetic script would lead to endless misunderstandings. Ms. Tsu reprints a 92-character parable by the linguist Zhao Yuanren about a gentleman who tries to eat 10 stone lions. Every character is pronounced “shi,” making a phonetic rendering unintelligible. It’s an extreme case, but the point is certainly valid.

So how could China make its characters fit into a world dominated by alphabetic languages? The book opens with the story of Wang Zhao, a former Qing dynasty official who sneaked back into the country from exile to publish in 1903 the first homegrown phonetic script. Wang’s “Mandarin Combined Tone Alphabet,” a set of 62 symbols borrowed from Japanese and Manchu, was quickly superseded by another bespoke system. But Wang’s alphabet did play a transitional role in education reforms that promoted literacy. After the collapse of the Qing and the founding of a nationalist republic in 1912, Wang continued to champion the Beijing dialect used by imperial officials as the standard form of the language. That gave us today’s Mandarin, known in the People’s Republic as putonghua, or “common speech.”

. . . .

The most successful innovations were spearheaded by the Communists after their 1949 victory as Mao Zedong sought new means to indoctrinate the “poor and blank” peasantry. Mao appointed a committee of 12 language reformers that first simplified more than 2,200 commonly used Chinese characters. In more than 80% of cases, they adopted shorthands already in common use in handwriting and calligraphy. Once these shorthands were officially recognized as the official forms, learning to read and write became easier and printing clearer.

The committee then turned to a new system of romanization, known today as pinyin. It was based on Latin New Script, devised in Soviet Russia in 1929 to spread communist propaganda to illiterate Chinese. Pinyin also helped Chinese students learn to read and speak standard Mandarin. It had the additional benefit of helping foreigners understand the real sounds—hence “Peking” gave way to “Beijing.”

China may have been first to use movable-type printing 1,000 years ago, but its typesetters were left far behind by the invention of the linotype machine in the 1880s. By the mid-1970s, developed countries had moved on to photomechanical typesetting, while Chinese printers were still composing type using outdated methods. So the Communist Party launched a push to design a homegrown computer system for typesetting Chinese. Again the motivation was to deliver more propaganda faster. Smartphones now offer many ways to input and transmit the Chinese language, making the use of characters virtually as fast and easy as alphabetic languages.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Amazon Sues ‘Fake Review Brokers’ Who Attempt to Profit From Generating Misleading and Fraudulent Reviews

From Business Wire:

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has filed lawsuits against fake review brokers who orchestrate the posting of incentivized and misleading product reviews, in exchange for money or free products.

The lawsuits aim to shut down two major fake review brokers, AppSally and Rebatest, who helped mislead shoppers by having their members try to post fake reviews in stores such as Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and Etsy. This legal action is one part of Amazon’s comprehensive and proactive efforts to ensure a safe and trustworthy shopping experience for its customers and extensive opportunities to create thriving businesses.

“Fake review brokers attempt to profit by deceiving unknowing consumers and creating an unfair competitive advantage that harms our selling partners,” said Dharmesh Mehta, VP of WW Customer Trust & Partner Support, Amazon. “We know how valuable trustworthy reviews are to our customers. That is why we are holding these review fraudsters accountable. While we prevent millions of suspicious reviews from ever appearing in our store, these lawsuits target the source.”

Amazon strictly prohibits incentivized or fake reviews and uses a combination of machine learning technology and skilled investigators to detect, prevent, and remove them. In 2020, Amazon stopped more than 200 million suspected fake reviews before they were ever seen by a customer. A nefarious industry has emerged in recent years, in which fraudsters facilitate fake or inflated reviews in exchange for money or free products.

Amazon’s legal action comes after an in-depth investigation into these review brokers, which taken together claim to have more than 900,000 members willing to write fake reviews. Fake review brokers attempt to hide their activity and evade detection. For example, the fake review site AppSally sells fake reviews for as low as at $20 and instructs bad actors to ship empty boxes to people willing to write fake reviews, and to provide AppSally with photos to be uploaded alongside their reviews. The fraudulent scheme run by Rebatest will only pay people writing 5-star reviews after their fake reviews are approved by the bad actors attempting to sell those items.

Today’s legal action shows Amazon’s determination to shut down fake review brokers. Amazon has previously won dozens of injunctions against fake review brokers, compelling them to provide information about who is paying for these fraudulent services. Most recently in late 2021, two major fake review sites in Germany and the UK were closed down following successful legal action by Amazon in those countries.

Amazon has more than 10,000 employees around the world protecting its store from fraud and abuse, including fake reviews. Amazon receives more than 30 million reviews each week, and uses a combination of machine learning technology and skilled investigators to analyze each review before it is displayed.

Link to the rest at Business Wire

PG just checked and it appears that the sites offer their services to a wide range of online retailers other than Amazon.

This Review Should Not Exist

From Public Books:

This review should not exist. I should not write it.

Pieces like this one always carry the same heading: “Dispatches from [insert country/geographic region],” “Three recent novels from [insert identity/language/culture].” If “natives” like me write these pieces, we acquire the voice of “our” culture and speak for its history. If others—nonlocals and, perhaps, nonspecialists—write them, historical specificity can evaporate into belles-lettristic formalism or stereotype, apolitical and stale. Such essays are, nevertheless, irrefutably important, since they can help bring foreign writers to US audiences. When well-written, they have the potential to rewrite harmful and boring tropes and offer new ways of pondering the literary landscape. Just like novels, though, they often uncritically fulfill the market’s demands (as I might be doing here).

The tangled incentives motivating this essay include: monetary and career incentives that led me to emigrate to and study in the US; monetary and career incentives that make translation into English essential for Third World writers (especially Latin American ones); and this publication’s platform—people interested mainly in American and British literature, with advanced humanities degrees conferred by US universities. Essays like this one risk calcifying the imperial dynamics that inevitably produce them, relegating the literary and cultural works they promote to the lesser literary field of keyword-laden generalities.

“Latin America” is one such keyword and, nowadays, a gringo fabrication. Even if I could rescue something decidedly autochthonous and pure that unified the region, I wouldn’t know how to tell it apart from the Yankee, imperial mythology. Latin American authors engaging elements of the continent’s shared canon and interconnected histories face a double bind that demands, in a sense, that they establish a relationship with “Latin America” as a formulation emanating from above—from centers of literary power, nowadays New York and formerly Paris—to be translated, to sell, to make money from their literature. Latin America registers in those literary centers as an aggregation of tropes established mostly by the aesthetics of token authors inducted into the “global” literary canon—Neruda, García Márquez, and Bolaño key among them. Borges, for these readers and critics, might as well have been French.

Obviously, economic and institutional rewards come to those willing to pander to US desires (just ask Isabel Allende). At the same time, one cannot deny that authors’ dependency on the US book market has increased exponentially in recent years. This has itself become a literary theme. Three recently translated, very different novels—César Aira’s The Divorce, Dolores Reyes’s Eartheater, and Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay—each illuminate and interrogate aspects of top-down, imperial representational demands. At times critical of and dexterous in playing with gringo expectations, these novels attempt to develop forms of literary imagination, of reading and writing, that elude instead of rehearsing a partially gringo-defined, essential Latin Americanness.

. . . .

César Aira’s The Divorce was originally published in 2010 and comes to English courtesy of New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews and prefaced by Patti Smith. The novel assumes the voice of a wealthy, educated resident of Providence, Rhode Island (a Brown professor?), who moves, almost on a whim, to a Buenos Aires hostel following a painful divorce. “A temporary withdrawal on my part would be the kindest thing, for me and for my daughter,” he explains. “When I returned, all smiles and gifts, we would reestablish our relationship on the terms laid down by the judge.” Perhaps escape can quell the agonies of separation.

Latin America is ideal for fleeing, since it has historically been cast as exterior to history: a location in permanent, nondialectical détente. Think of Burroughs fleeing to Mexico after committing murder; Hemingway’s long love affair with La Finca Vigía; Britons awed by Patagonia. Atemporality draws imperialists like flies.

Likewise, for Aira’s narrator, Buenos Aires is a pause, unimportant and nonnarrative in his life because what matters is the “Providence (Rhode Island)” timeline. That name itself assumes an ironic guise, mocking gringo self-regard and foreshadowing the narrative’s distaste for P/providence.

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, the narrator journeys to a local coffee shop. He witnesses a young man get drenched by the accumulated water of a retracting awning. Everything stops. As our narrator stares on, the soaked Enrique recognizes Leticia, the childhood acquaintance he was originally on his way to meet. A remarkable subnarrative arises here—“They hadn’t seen each other since the day they met, which was also the day that had marked the end of their childhood”—as Aira leads us down the story of Enrique and Leticia’s elementary school. That institution had burned down in a demonic fire they escaped by entering an also burning miniature model of the school that they found in a basement. This aside concludes with Enrique and Leticia’s reduction to atoms, which then escape the school together with millions of similarly sized priests.

. . . .

Aira does not really engage the more tangible historicity of Buenos Aires and Argentina, because his story mostly operates on a metafictional level. Meanwhile, Eartheater, Dolores Reyes’s first novel (translated by Julia Sanches) does tussle with the city’s specific pasts and presents.

Reyes narrates the story of an unnamed young woman from a Buenos Aires slum who sees her father murder her mother, then feels an uncanny urge to devour earth at her family’s property. Doing so, she briefly relives the moment of the killing. The narrator quickly realizes that by eating dirt from a specific location, she can witness the horrible events that transpired there. Quickly, albeit guiltily, she monetizes the skill, transforming into a sort of detective. Most of her clients are grieving parents looking for children, mainly daughters murdered by men—their partners and fathers. She hesitantly begins dating a policeman, whom she later encounters working at the scene of her ex’s murder, at a club she attends with her brother and his friends on the same night as the killing. Her ex’s murderer almost kills them, too, until her missing father reappears, saves them by stabbing their assailant, and vanishes into the night.

Eartheater gestures towards the vernacular of Buenos Aires villas (or slums), and Julia Sanches’s translation conveys that unique prosody remarkably well, despite some shaky moments. Mirroring the narrator’s mystical ability, the narrative hugs its haunted ground; land and earth document a history that the state does not. This is particularly the case in Argentina, where the aristocracy has historically hoarded and abandoned vast swaths of land, creating massive latifundios populated by poor, exploited workers who inherit the conditions and destitution of slaves.

Such land is increasingly owned by transnational corporations unconcerned with environmental and social destruction. These same heinous corporations probably produce the beer and junk that the narrator constantly devours. Her rate of consumption makes her inexplicable relationship with dirt feel almost satirical, as if Reyes were ironically refracting the deficient diet of the Argentine poor by suggesting that they eat the material base of their condition: land itself. Maybe then something will change.

At the novel’s very beginning, the narrator says, “Mamá stays here. In my house. In the earth.” Our narrator struggles to preserve her murdered mother’s proximity so that the latter’s life might not be forgotten, so that justice might remain possible, because dirt ties her to the absent. The traces of brutality that infect daily life can only be interpreted (literally) from below; her cop boyfriend cannot understand the violent histories that envelop the narrator, her family, and her friends. He reduces those subject to such histories to otherness by insulting them, calling them “estos negros.” Sanches’s use of “scum” here fails to fully relay the racialized connotations of the Spanish (literally, “those blacks”).

In Eartheater, locality—determined by the dirt the central character eats, the ground she walks—is the only true solution to the cycle of violence. Even so, Reyes does not offer a neat tale of redemption. The narrative ends when the femicidal father returns to save the main character’s life, and she says: “Twice I’d seen my old man kill.” The two killings were undeniably different—opposed, even—but murder nonetheless. The narrator’s departure, her flight from the neighborhood, interrupts but does not definitively end this cycle. Violence continues, and Reyes reminds us that individuals, no matter their gifts or nobility, cannot modify structures when acting alone.

If Aira undoes the legend of Argentina as a leisurely Eden, then Reyes does so twice over, turning Buenos Aires into a grim inferno of destruction and treason. An uncomfortable history comfortably forgotten undermines yet again whatever pastoral sense of benevolent calm existed in the US conception of Latin America.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG is not an expert on the subject, but his observation (which may be unfair or incorrect in whole or in part) is that, according to the accounts PG has read in recent years, many second and third-world nations share some similar characteristics.

  1. They are either currently governed by dictatorships or have a 20th Century history of being governed by dictatorships with any sort of democracy being new and less-than-perfect.
  2. Often, outsiders (beneficiaries of colonial power or capitalists exploiting local individuals or resources) are blamed either explicitly or implicitly for some or all of the problems in their societies and governance.
  3. Living standards are lower than in first-world countries and writers portraying these countries either blame western/colonial history for current problems or otherwise show resentment toward individuals or groups that have had the benefits that accompany residence in first-world countries AKA “the rich” or “those who are richer than most in my country”.

PG understands that he has lived his life in what some regard as the most-heinous of Western Exploitational Nations, the United States.

However, to the best of PG’s knowledge, he has never personally benefitted from the exploitation that took place in any second or third-world nation. Neither he nor any member of his family of origin inherited any wealth or power. PG knows a lot about his ancestors and doesn’t think any of them had inherited wealth or oppressed the American Indians or others in this nation or in their nations of origin.

Prior to settling in the United States, none of PG’s ancestors were wealthy by the standards of their day and place. None were rulers of anything outside of their home and small land holdings. On one line, some male ancestors attended one of the colleges at Oxford, but it was for the purpose of becoming ministers which is what they did after they finished their studies. Then, as now, earning a living as a minister is not one of the better ways to become rich and pass riches down to your children.

Nobody killed any Native Americans. Some of PG’s ancestors were, however, killed by Native Americans.

Any money that existed in PG’s family of origin in the Twentieth Century was earned, not inherited and disappeared in the Great Depression. Nothing tangible was inherited by PG’s parents (who are both deceased after lives spent working hard to support their family, including PG).

From his family of origin, PG inherited a Protestant work ethic and, from his mother, a degree of intelligence.

Prior to college, PG attended either isolated country schools in the American West or typical midwestern small-town schools. Less than 10% of PG’s graduating class in high school finished college. Less than 20% tried to go to college.

With the help of large scholarships, student loans and working 15-40 hours per week while he was in college, PG graduated from what many would characterize as a good school. That helped him get a good job when he graduated and, eventually, to attend law school.

To the best of his knowledge, neither PG nor any member of PG’s family going back a long way has ever exploited anyone of a different race or ethnic origin for any purpose. Definitely nobody got rich doing so. Most definitely, PG has never inherited anything tangible from his ancestors. He did inherit a work ethic and a tradition of attending church, each of which he values.

Thus, PG has never felt any white guilt or guilt for being an American or sense that he owes a particular ethnic group any recompense or help other than general Christian charity towards those who have less than he has regardless of their race or ethnic origin.

No One Likes a Copycat Au Pair

From Electric Lit:

I loved Ayşegül Savaş’s first novel Walking on the Ceiling and have been pressing it into everyone’s hands for the past two years. I approached her second novel, White on White, with excitement and some trepidation, wondering whether I would love it as much. Well, the answer is yes. How exhilarating to be swept off my feet once more, torn between wanting to savor every sentence while also wishing to rush through to the end! Savaş’s writing is unadorned and yet perfectly attuned to the poetry and strangeness of everyday life. It surprises you with kernels of wisdom, such as “We make ghostly twins to carry the weight of our desires.” The world she describes is both recognizable and slightly off-balance, and nothing is ever what it seems at first glance. It is writing that I devoured in a few sittings and then returned to over and over again. 

The premise of White on White is simple—a young student moves to a new city and becomes a confidant of sorts to the landlady, Agnes, a striking and magnetic artist, who very soon unsettles the narrator with her intimate monologues. Much of the novel is shaped by scenes in which the student listens to Agnes reflect on her art and recount memories of her marriage, children, and friendships with other women. At times I was reminded of Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima. Both narrators spend a year in a new apartment that is flooded with light. The passage of time feels hazy and is often marked by the change in seasons. There is an undercurrent of tension, barely perceptible at first, that intensifies throughout and makes it impossible to look away.  

The excerpt below recounts Agnes’s years as a new mother and her relationship with her young au pair, beautifully exemplifying what I loved most about Savaş’s novel: the stories within stories, showing how what we remember from our past illuminates the way we see ourselves; the dissonance of memories within a family and how those breaks in understanding reveal an unwillingness or inability to see. At the end of this passage, the student feels that Agnes has “left out a part of the story.” One of the pleasures of reading White on White comes from exploring those omissions and being never quite sure what to believe. I reveled in this ambiguity: the constant shifts in perception, my expectations overthrown with each story. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The forgotten importance of the War of Jenkins’ Ear

From The Economist:

It sounds more like a bad visit to the otolaryngologist than an important conflict between empires. The incident that gave the War of Jenkins’ Ear its name occurred in 1731, when a Spanish coastguard commander mutilated the captain of a British privateer suspected of smuggling in the Caribbean. Jenkins’ severed appendage was preserved in a bottle and presented to King George II of Britain as proof of Spanish barbarity. The ensuing conflict lasted from 1739 to 1742.

Yet as Robert Gaudi writes in his new history, the war’s causes went beyond a single outrage. Tension had simmered over a dispute about fees for Britain’s contract to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies. British ships ran contraband to and from the West Indies in defiance of bilateral agreements. And then there was the strange case of the Italian castrato opera star, whom King Felipe V of Spain whisked from London and made his personal divo in Madrid. One journal summed up the sentiment in Britain: “What are the taking of a few Ships, and the cutting off the Ears of the Masters of our Merchantmen, to the loss of our dear, dear Farinello?”

The war proved disastrous for Britain. It assembled an armada and intended to invade the Spanish ports at Cartagena (now in Colombia), and Santiago, Cuba. The Cartagena operation was a fiasco, bogged down by tropical weather, mosquito-borne disease and indecisive leadership. Bad planning and squabbling commanders meant that the Santiago campaign was over before it could even begin. Spain suffered defeats of its own, failing to take Georgia in the North American colonies. Led by James Oglethorpe, the British joined Native Americans and used ambushes to repel the larger Spanish force.

Among the engagements at sea was an action at Porto Bello, Panama, which yielded one of Britain’s few victories. Mr Gaudi, though, is less interested in the detailed narration of naval fracases than in sketching some of the vivid characters who fought them. The British succeeded at Porto Bello largely because of Admiral Edward Vernon, “boisterous and bellicose”, who became an instant national hero. (The song “Rule, Britannia!” was written in the afterglow of his achievement.) On the Spanish side was the pugnacious Don Blas, famous after an earlier incident in which, when he was only 15, his leg was amputated in the heat of battle.

Why does this forgotten war matter now? For two reasons, suggests Mr Gaudi. First, a different result could have changed the fate of North America. Had the Spanish invasion of Georgia succeeded, he speculates, Spain and not Britain might have become the dominant imperial force on the continent. Second, the war nurtured the resentment of Britain that ultimately led to the American revolution. The British recruited 3,000 Americans to fight in the Cartagena campaign, but held them back from the vanguard out of mistrust and fear of desertion.

Link to the rest at The Economist (You may hit a paywall. PG apologizes.)

Silverview

From The Wall Street Journal:

When writers die they typically leave behind false starts and unfinished manuscripts, but, unless the death is sudden, it’s less usual to find an entire novel complete and unpublished. But that’s just what we have in John le Carré’s “Silverview,” now sent into the world by the author’s son, Nick Cornwell, who tells us in an afterword that the book was essentially finished, needing only a bit of editorial tweaking. His father, he says, began the novel right after “A Delicate Truth” (2013)—an angry work that helped bring the expression “deep state” into common parlance. That novel amounted to a well-wrought exercise in contempt for the increasingly privatized and deeply corrupt “War on Terror.” It has all the ingredients of most of le Carré’s post-9/11 work: American mischief, for-profit military forces, black ops, deniability, “extraordinary rendition,” “enhanced interrogation,” an idealistic innocent and a British civil servant on the take.

“Silverview” has some of that, but le Carré continued to withhold and rework it, moving on instead to publish “A Legacy of Spies” in 2017. Expanding on elements from “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and dragging an ageless Smiley out of storage after a quarter of a century, that novel had a bottom-of-the-barrel feel. Finally, with “Silverview” still sequestered, le Carré produced his last novel, “Agent Running in the Field,” a blast against Brexit and Trump—and, once again, not one of this great author’s best. But here at last is “Silverview,” the novel we didn’t know we were waiting for.

Julian Lawndsley, 33, has opened a bookstore in a small town on the coast of East Anglia. Perhaps le Carré means to pay homage to Penelope Fitzgerald’s fine little East Anglian novel “The Bookshop” here, but he has done his own proprietor the favor of equipping him with a fortune, acquired as a trader in the City. What Julian really lacks, however, is any knowledge of bookselling or, indeed, of literature, something which is beginning to oppress him. One day, the “sixty-something” Edward Avon enters the shop, expresses his great pleasure that it exists, and suggests that Julian stock W.G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” another novel set (in part) in East Anglia—and one with which “Silverview” shares some preoccupations. It later turns out that Edward went to school with Julian’s father—thus, a bond is forged. Edward becomes Julian’s adviser, popping into the shop to use the computers to track down the out-of-print books he believes the shop should carry.

But, really, who is this fellow? When asked, Edward replies, “Let us say I am a British mongrel, retired, a former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men.” He turns out to have been born in Poland and is married to Deborah Garton, a wealthy, wellborn Englishwoman, who at one time was frequently away working for various quasi-governmental organizations—she says—but is now dying of cancer. Seeking more information on his new friend, Julian pays a call on a neighboring shopkeeper, Celia Merridew, of Celia’s Bygones, a junk shop by any other name. Celia, a font of gossip and gripes, invites him in for a “ginny” (served, like Mrs. Gamp’s, from a teapot). She tells him that she and Edward used to run a nice under-the-table business, with Celia and her shop fronting for Edward who was—he said—buying and selling Ming porcelain over the internet. In return she received frequent envelopes of cash—until recently when Edward’s Lady Muck wife put an end to it.

Elsewhere we meet Stewart and Ellen Proctor, depicted by le Carré with his customary genius for class taxonomy and attributes, conjuring up their understated privilege—good schools, garden parties, arch family sayings, infidelities and societal role in the secret services, “the spiritual sanctum of Britain’s ruling classes.” Stewart is, in fact, Britain’s “chief sniffer-dog”—he’s head of Domestic Security. He has recently been given a sealed envelope from Deborah, delivered by her testy daughter, Lily. Stewart has just learned of “a five-star breach” in security which takes him off to visit Orford and a joint British, American and NATO base on the coast, a “military Disneyland of dazzle-painted hangars and black bombers.” Three hundred feet below it lies “a dedicated nuclear hellhole,” chambers designed for nuclear weapons. A maze of tunnels running under East Anglia supplies a closed-circuit fiber optic system linking the base to others in the region, but unconnected to the outside. Still, there has been a breach, and it’s a puzzler.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but, if not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Amazon Fake Reviews Scam Exposed in Data Breach

From Safety Detectives:

The SafetyDetectives cybersecurity team uncovered an open ElasticSearch database exposing an organized fake reviews scam affecting Amazon.

The server contained a treasure trove of direct messages between Amazon vendors and customers willing to provide fake reviews in exchange for free products. In total, 13,124,962 of these records (or 7 GB of data) have been exposed in the breach, potentially implicating more than 200,000 people in unethical activities.

While it is unclear who owns the database, the breach demonstrates the inner workings of a prevalent issue affecting the online retail industry.

How the Process Works

The information found on the open ElasticSearch server outlines a common procedure by which Amazon vendors procure ‘fake reviews’ for their products.

These Amazon vendors send to reviewers a list of items/products for which they would like a 5-star review. The people providing the ‘fake reviews’ will then buy the products, leaving a 5-star review on Amazon a few days after receiving their merchandise.

Upon completion, the provider of the fake review will send a message to the vendor containing a link to their Amazon profile, along with their PayPal details.

Once the Amazon vendor confirms all reviews have been completed, the reviewer will receive a refund through PayPal, keeping the items they bought for free as a form of payment.

The refund for any purchased goods is actioned through PayPal and not directly through Amazon’s platform. This makes the five-star review look legitimate, so as not to arouse suspicion from Amazon moderators.

. . . .

2. Data related to the reviewers

Messages on the ElasticSearch server also contained other forms of directly and indirectly identifiable personal data exposing the reviewers themselves, such as:

  • 75K links to Amazon accounts/profiles of review sellers
  • PayPal account details (email addresses)
  • Email addresses
  • ‘Fan names’ – supposedly usernames, often containing names & surnames

Leaked PayPal account details and ‘fan names’ outline email addresses and what seems to be the usernames of people providing fake reviews. These details could be used to indirectly identify individuals, while many of them contained full names and surnames.

The Gmail addresses of reviewers were also provided to vendors directly via message. In total, 232,664 Gmail addresses have been exposed on the server, though some of the email addresses were duplicates.

. . . .

The ‘Gmail’ figure covers only those individuals who use Google as their mail provider. When we factor in the presence of other types of email accounts, such as Outlook, the enormity of this breach becomes apparent. 75,000 Amazon accounts were leaked as well, although there are potentially several duplicates included in this figure. Along with Amazon vendors compromised through their contact details, it’s reasonable to estimate that around 200,000-250,000 people were affected by this breach.

The server appeared to be located in China, and it is thought the leak affected citizens from Europe and the USA (at a minimum). In reality, the leak could have affected individuals from all corners of the world.

Link to the rest at Safety Detectives and thanks to O. for the tip.

Bright Star, Green Light

From The Wall Street Journal:

What a pleasure these days to come across a book that unabashedly, cheerfully celebrates the lasting power of literature. Jonathan Bate takes his cue straight from one of the subjects of his dual biography “Bright Star, Green Light.” “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” chanted the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) at the beginning of his long poem “Endymion” (1818). “Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness.” Well, “Endymion,” roundly panned upon publication for being too florid, almost did pass into nothingness. No such worry today: Although Keats didn’t make it far beyond his 25th birthday and there isn’t all that much life to cover, he seems to get a hefty new biography every five years. And while “Endymion” still isn’t a critical favorite, the poem’s opening lines, perennial as the art they celebrate, have sustained generations of literature lovers. As they also did—and this is the starting point of Mr. Bate’s book—an otherwise very different writer, the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940).

An odd pair they certainly make: Fitzgerald the flamboyant high priest of Jazz Age glitter, a compulsive talker, college drop-out and no-holds-barred alcoholic, and “Mister John Keats five feet hight,” as he called himself, the socially awkward, formally trained physician who believed writing poetry was nothing special yet couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else. “Every man whose soul is not a clod / Hath visions,” he asserted in his unfinished epic “The Fall of Hyperion.” Small wonder that he told his fiancée Fanny Brawne he wasn’t “a thing to be admired.” Fanny and, it turns out, F. Scott Fitzgerald begged to differ. Granted, the American writer’s admiration could, at times, border on silliness. For example, as a diffident Princeton student, Fitzgerald once rewrote Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) as an ode to his as-yet-untouched Greek textbook, “thou joyless harbinger of future fear.” And, later, in an informal literature course he created for Sheilah Graham, his last lover, Fitzgerald changed the title of that same ode to “A Greek Cup They Dug Up.” Other tributes mentioned by Mr. Bate are of a more hidden sort, allusions meant for the well-read. The title of Fitzgerald’s last completed novel, “Tender Is the Night” (1934), came from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), which also provided the source for an obscure line describing the protagonist’s music room in “The Great Gatsby” (1925): “There was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.” In the original ode, Keats’s light, of course, streamed not from the hallway but straight from heaven, “with the breezes blown.”

But Mr. Bate also draws our attention to those striking moments in Fitzgerald’s work in which the very fabric of the American writer’s imagination flashes “Keatzian” (distractingly, Mr. Bate relies on Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic spelling throughout his book). Think of the green light across the bay the love-stricken Jay Gatsby saw burning all night, next to Daisy Buchanan’s house. At the end of the novel, Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway, sprawled out on the beach, relates that green flicker to the fresh, green, simpler world full of promise that once beckoned to the first Dutch sailors who came here. Gatsby’s noble, selfless sacrifice, taking the blame for the hit-and-run Daisy committed, redeems his lies and missteps. In spirit if not in letter, Fitzgerald pays tribute here to Keats’s early sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (1816), where the poet likens his discovery of Homer to the excitement of a conquistador glimpsing, for the first time, the Pacific Ocean. Okay, Keats, in his enthusiasm, mixes up his generals, substituting Cortés for Balboa, but as Fitzgerald slyly observes: “When an immortal like Keats makes a mistake, that too is immortal.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (The link should work even if you’re not a WSJ subscriber. If not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

How Extortion Scams and Review Bombing Trolls Turned Goodreads Into Many Authors’ Worst Nightmare

From Time:

A few months after posting a message on Goodreads about the imminent release of a new book, Indie author Beth Black woke up to an all-caps ransom email from an anonymous server, demanding that she either pay for good reviews or have her books inundated with negative ones: “EITHER YOU TAKE CARE OF OUR NEEDS AND REQUIREMENTS WITH YOUR WALLET OR WE’LL RUIN YOUR AUTHOR CAREER,” the email, shared with TIME, read. “PAY US OR DISAPPEAR FROM GOODREADS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.”

Black, who has self-published both a romance novel and a collection of short stories in the past year, didn’t pay the ransom. “I reported it to Goodreads and then a couple hours later, I started noticing the stars dropping on my books as I started getting all these 1-star reviews,” she says. “It was quite threatening.”

Scammers and cyberstalkers are increasingly using the Goodreads platform to extort authors with threats of “review bombing” their work–and they are frequently targeting authors from marginalized communities who have spoken out on topics ranging from controversies within the industry to larger social issues on social media.

Black says she had posted about the upcoming book in a Goodreads community group, and had sent PDF copies to self-proclaimed reviewers. According to Black, the pressure to rack up reviews on Goodreads and Amazon led to her becoming the target of a cyber-extortion attack.

. . . .

“In order for an author to achieve any kind of success, we’re told that we have to have numerous reviews,” says Black. “For writers who aren’t well connected, this creates anxiety over finding reviewers. You don’t want your reviews to just be from family and friends. That’s nice, but it’s not going to make a career.”

Since its launch in 2007, Goodreads has evolved into the world’s largest online book community. The social networking site now has millions of users who rate and review books, find recommendations for new ones and track their reading. But over time, Goodreads has also become a hunting ground for scammers and trolls looking to con smaller authors, take down books with spammed ratings, cyberstalk users or worse.

With over 120 million members worldwide, Goodreads is far and away the most popular—and influential—digital book database. When the site was purchased by Amazon for $150 million in 2013, The Atlantic reported that: “When all is said and done, in the world of books, Goodreads is just about as influential as Facebook.”

With few serious competitors, Goodreads’ influence has only grown. According to Erin Stein, an editor and publisher with experience heading Macmillan Children’s Group’s Imprint and working for Little, Brown and Company, the publishing industry views Goodreads as a “necessary evil.”

“It’s something I wish we didn’t have to deal with, but it’s a key part of the industry,” she tells TIME. Basically, she notes, high Goodreads ratings help books get sold into retail. “A lot of authors are on there, a lot of bloggers are on there and it’s used as a marketing tool by publishers to build awareness for books. You can’t completely ignore it.”

Link to the rest at Time

Critical Attrition – What’s the matter with book reviews?

From N+1:

THE CONTEMPORARY READER IS UNHAPPY. What troubles him? It’s the critics: they are lying to him. He encounters them on the back cover of every new book, promising the world. “An exhilarating debut, poignant and thrilling” . . . “A much-anticipated return, necessary and trenchant” . . . “Dazzling sentences” . . . “An unforgettable voice” . . . “Words that will rend your garments and kiss you on the mouth, that’s how good they are!” The reader trusts the critics. He buys the book. But from page one it is trash: listless, forgettable, unnecessary. He is outraged! He thought false advertising was illegal.

He considers giving the book one star on Goodreads (would you give a lawn mower four stars for being “promising”?), but such overwhelming praise from bright literary lights makes him second-guess his judgment. He opens Twitter. “Is it just me,” he writes, “or does this book suck?”

“It sucks!” someone agrees. “Overhyped [garbage emoji],” says another. A lively exchange is underway when a partisan arrives, here to defend the dignity of the author. It’s only a first novel, he says. It’s chronologically disjointed on purpose. He paraphrases Henry James: We must grant the writer his idea, his subject, what the French call the donnée“Judge the book he wrote,” concludes the partisan’s thread, “not the book you wish he had written.”

But what about all those critics blowing smoke on the book jacket? our reader asks. Did they read the book?

“Those aren’t real reviews,” says the partisan. “Everybody knows you can’t take them seriously.

Everybody? thinks our reader. He is stung to learn that he is not “everybody,” which is to say, not anybody.

. . . .

UNFORTUNATELY FOR THE READER, the contemporary book critic does not have one job. In fact, she has no jobs. This is a freelance gig.1 The pay? Maybe $250 for a shorter piece or if she’s lucky, $600 or more for something longer. If she’s never been a staff critic (and odds are she hasn’t), and if she cares (and of course she cares!), she will undoubtedly toil for a poor wage-to-labor ratio. For starters, she has to read the book — or books, if she’s assigned more than one to cover in the review. Then there are the author’s previous books, and if she’s really thorough, reviews of the author’s previous books, as well as interviews, early work, and other miscellany. For a 1,200-word review, it could take a week to write, maybe two if she tends to over prepare. For a career survey, or a review essay in one of the big publications, it could take months or a year to finish (and to get paid). Then factor in self-employment taxes, the unreliability of assignments, delays in payment, and cost of living. Before you know it you’re declaring bankruptcy.

. . . .

The contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine.

Link to the rest at N+1 and thanks to C. for the tip.

PG notes that one of benefits traditionally-published authors sometimes mention is that their publishers are able to get their books reviewed in various publications.

Book Wars

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 2000 the RAND Corporation invited a group of historians—including me—to address a newly pressing question: Would digital media revolutionize society as profoundly as Gutenberg and movable type? Two decades later, John Thompson’s answer is yes, but not entirely as predicted. And our forecasts were often wrong because we overlooked key variables: We cannot understand the impact of technologies “without taking account of the complex social processes in which these technologies were embedded and of which they were part.”

Mr. Thompson provides that context in “Book Wars” (Polity, 511 pages, $35), an expert diagnosis of publishers and publishing, robustly illustrated with charts, graphs, tables, statistics and case studies. An emeritus professor at Cambridge University, Mr. Thompson published an earlier dissection of that industry, “Merchants of Culture,” in 2010, but now he finds that capitalist landscape radically transformed.

Not long ago everyone thought (or feared) that ebooks would sweep the ink-and-paper book into the recycle bin of history. But they peaked in 2014 at just under 25% of U.S. book sales, then settled back to about 15% in the U.S. and roughly 5% in Western Europe. It turned out that the printed book had unique advantages (easy to navigate, no power source needed, works even if you drop it on the floor). Another consideration is that bookshelves stocked with physical books serve the essential purpose of advertising our literary tastes to visitors. And far from devastating the publishing industry, ebooks boosted their profits even as their revenues remained more or less flat. (Compared to printed books, they are cheaper to produce and distribute, and they don’t burden publishers with warehousing and returns.)

For anyone bewildered by the transformation of the book world, Mr. Thompson offers a pointed, thorough and business-literate survey. He tracks the arcane legal battles surrounding the creation of Google Books, and explains why the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Apple and the Big Five publishers, but not (so far) against Amazon. He rightly regrets the shrinkage of newspaper book reviewing: the first decade of the 21st century saw newspapers from Boston to San Diego pull back on book reviews. That said, Mr. Thompson could have devoted more attention to the rise of reader-written online literary criticism, a populist substitute for the Lionel Trillings and F.R. Leavises of the past.

In spite of worries that small independent booksellers would disappear, they are still with us. But they were challenged in the 1960s by the shopping-mall chains of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were superseded by Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores. These in turn were eclipsed by Amazon (founded 1994), triumphing largely because it sold all books to everyone, everywhere. Though we romanticize corner bookstores, they were numerous only in the largest metropolitan centers. In 1928, a city like Cincinnati had seven bookshops. Small-town America bought books at department stores, at pharmacies, or nowhere.

Mr. Thompson insists that “the turbulence generated by the unfolding of the digital revolution in publishing was unprecedented. . . . Suddenly, the very foundations of an industry that had existed for more than 500 years were being called into question as never before.” I would be careful with the word “unprecedented.” Print-on-demand has been with us for some time: the Chinese did it for centuries with woodblocks. The modish practice of crowdsourcing to finance books has a precursor in 18th-century subscription publishing, as readers pledged in advance to buy a forthcoming book. Amazon today dominates bookselling, but Mudie’s Lending Library enjoyed an equally commanding position in Victorian Britain, and raised in its day serious concerns about corporate censorship. (Mudie’s puritanical acquisitions policies meant that novelists like George Meredith were penalized for honest treatment of sex.)

In fact, the 19th century witnessed a transformation of the book business as dizzying as our own: New reproduction technologies dramatically drove down the price of books and increased print runs by orders of magnitude, creating for the first time a global literary mass market, bringing Walter Scott to Japan and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Russia. Today, the absorption of family-owned publishers by conglomerates has raised questions about whether there is still a home for literary and controversial authors with limited popular appeal, but that change was complete before the full impact of digital media. If you’re worried about media concentration (and you should be), the fact remains that all the great Victorian novelists were published by a half-dozen London firms. The desktop computer has vastly expanded opportunities for self-publishers, but there were plenty of them in the past: think of Martin Luther, Walt Whitman, Leonard and Virginia Woolf or countless job-printed village poets and memoirists.

. . . .

While Mr. Thompson is entirely right to conclude that the transformation of publishing in the past 20 years has been bewildering, that’s nothing new. In a dynamic capitalist economy, the dust never settles.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link to the WSJ original. However, PG isn’t sure if there’s a limit on the number of times various visitors to TPV can use the free link and whether the link is geofenced for the US, North America, etc. If the link doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes for the WSJ paywall.)

And thanks for the tip from G and several others.

PG agrees that there have been several disruptive technology changes that have impacted the book business in the past.

However, he doesn’t think that the WSJ reviewer gives adequate attention to the difference between the development of ebooks vs. the various disruptions of the printed book world that preceded it.

No prior technology change immediately opened up the potential audience for a particular book or a particular category of books like ebooks has.

Absent Amazon’s establishment of different book “markets” – US, Canada, Britain, etc., etc., anybody in the world can buy and download an ebook from from anyplace else in the world.

There’s a legal reason (among others) for Amazon’s multiple home pages for books in different countries – the right to publish and sell under an author’s copyright can be sliced and diced by national market. I can write a book and use a UK publisher to publish to the UK market and an American publisher to publish to the US market with each publishing agreement setting bounds on where the publisher can publish and sell the book.

Side note: A long time ago, PG went through the process of signing up for an account on Amazon UK and did so with no problem. He never used the account, but wandered around among the British-English product descriptions and Pound-based prices enough to believe that, particularly for electronic goods, he could purchase and receive anything he liked there. From prior trips to Britain, PG knows his credit cards work just as well for spending pounds as they do for spending dollars.

All that said, any indie author knows how easy it is to simultaneously publish an ebook every place where Amazon sells ebooks.

Other ebook distributors also offer an even broader publish-everywhere feature. PG just checked and Draft2Digital allows an indie author to publish all over the world, through D2D because D2D has agreements with Rakutenkobo, Scribed and Tolino for them to sell an indie author’s book to the zillions of places they’re available.

Rakutenkobo lists its markets as Turkey, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Philippines, Taiwan and Mexico and PG bets readers in other countries can also access the company’s websites, so an indie author has a very easy path to publishing ebooks in each of those places.

So that’s why PG thinks the ebook revolution can’t be easily compared to any prior technology disruption that involved printed books.

Continuing on, after PG read the WSJ review of Book Wars, he immediately went to Amazon to buy the ebook.

BOOM!

Idiotic corporate publishing screwed everything up.

The hardcover edition of the book lists for $29.30 on Amazon and the ebook edition sells for $28.00!

$28 for an ebook!

The publisher is Polity Publishing.

Per Wikipedia, Polity is an academic publisher in the social sciences and humanities that was established in 1984 and has “editorial offices” in “Cambridge (UK), Oxford (UK), and Boston (US)” plus it also has something going in New York City. In four offices, Polity has 39 employees (no mention how many are student employees or part-time contractors).

PG took a quick look via Google Maps Streetview at Polity’s Boston office, located at 101 Station Landing, Medford, Massachusetts. Streetview showed a photo of a multi-story anonymous-looking modern building that could be an office building or an apartment building. PG had never heard of Medford and doesn’t know anything about the community, but on the map, it doesn’t look terribly close to the parts of Boston with which PG has a tiny bit of familiarity.

So, PG doesn’t know how Mr. Thompson, the author of Book Wars chose his publisher, but, in PG’s extraordinarily humble opinion, he made a giant mistake.

A Wall Street Journal review of a book like this should send sales through the roof. Per Amazon, Book Wars is currently ranked #24,220 in the Kindle Store.

Imagine how much better it would sell if it was offered at a reasonable price.

The Goodreads Bot Problem

From Book Riot:

Goodreads, the popular book cataloging website, functions as a hybrid social media platform and digital library. The social media aspect of Goodreads allows for interaction between users. Users can see their friends’ reviews, reading progress in a book, and even the giveaways friends have entered. The reviews on Goodreads are public, meaning anyone — even those without an account — can access and read reviews.

When anyone does a quick search for book reviews, Goodreads is frequently the first result. The problem with Goodreads being within the first search results for book reviews is that makes the reviews on Goodreads that much more desirable. Goodreads reviews, for many, feel more trustworthy because they are peer written.

For the most part, Goodreads reviewers are average readers. Their reviews are imperfect, full of grammatical errors, gifs, and internet slang. Goodreads users write their reviews in a way that makes sense to them. Some users write reviews for their own cataloging use, others write reviews to be helpful to others, some reviews are simple and short.

. . . .

Like many social media platforms, Goodreads can  feel like a competition. In addition to a yearly reading challenge, Goodreads offers stats on their users. Anyone can read and access these stats to see the Top Reviewers and Readers, Most Popular Reviewers, Most Followed, and Top Librarians. It’s a popularity contest no one signed up for. Stats are updated on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, and can be sorted by country or worldwide ranking of Goodreads users. It’s important to note that clicking “Meet People,” under the community tab, directs to Most Popular Reviewers, even though it’s in the center of the list. Top Reviewers is second on the Meet People option.

On similar websites, Top Reviewer and Most Popular Reviewer might refer to the same type of ranking, based on community votes or interaction. On Goodreads, however, Top Reviewer refers to number of reviews written within a certain time frame. A Goodreads reviewer can be a Top Reviewer without being a popular one. This type of ranking makes it extremely easy for people and not-people to fake their ranking as Top Reviewers and Top Readers. The Top Readers are simply ranked by number of books read.

Weeding through the weekly Top Reviewers, many profiles appear ordinary. The astonishing number of books read and reviewed per week by the Top Reviewers makes it clear that these profiles are not average, albeit avid, readers. To read 400 books per week, every week, is simply not possible, by human standards. While there is nothing preventing actual people from inputting hundreds of books every week into their Goodreads accounts, there isn’t much of a reason to do so. So, what’s going at Goodreads? 

Bots. Bots are what’s going at Goodreads. Since Goodreads is also used by non-account holders, it is a desirable internet space for advertisers. What happens is that a company or individual will pay for hundreds of positive reviews of their product, so that when a potential buyer sees the reviews, all they see are positive reviews and 5-star ratings. In the case of Goodreads, the product is books. These reviews can be written by a bot or a person with multiple fake accounts.

Top Reviewers’ fake profiles might not always be easy to spot, as they often use stock images as the profile picture, or leave the avatar blank. Their reviews, though are fairly easy to spot. Hundreds of reviews per week? Check. Poor grammar and short reviews? Check. Strange, vague, or unrelated reviews? Check, check, check. If it sounds like the warning label on a blood pressure medication, rather than a review for a regency romance, a bot probably wrote it. Bot reviews are often copied and pasted from another book. Many fake accounts will post multiple reviews of the same book. Going down the list of the Top Reviewers, reviews will often trend towards the same book or topic.

. . . .

So why doesn’t Goodreads do anything about the bots, fake profiles, and scammers? Goodreads knows about the scammers. Users are asked to flag the reviews and keep it moving. That seems extremely unhelpful of them. Fake reviews and reviewers are a well-documented phenomenon. Goodreads isn’t the only website filled with profiles named “Keyboard” with blank avatars. In 2019, the popular skincare brand, Sunday Riley settled with the FTC for writing positive reviews on the Sephora website, for over two years. These reviews were written by Sunday Riley employees. Amazon, Goodreads’ parent company, is also riddled with fake reviews.

Amazon shops rely on reviews to get consumers’ attention. Five-star reviews, whether they’re genuine, or from a bot, boost the rating and boost the buying potential. Amazon is the top bookseller in the world, so of course it would want to boost reviews of books. Whether Amazon is paying for the ersatz reviews or it’s another party is unknown, but Goodreads is absolutely swarming with bot accounts. 

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG notes that Goodreads is owned by Amazon.

How To Write A Good Book Review – The Amazon Review

From Self-Publishing Review:

Eligibility

An Amazon Customer Review must be written by someone who has read the book and has an Amazon account. You don’t have to have bought the book from Amazon.  You can only review on Amazon if:

  1. You have spent more than $50 on Amazon in the last twelve months and have an Amazon account
  2. Your account on Amazon is in good standing, i.e. you have not been banned from writing reviews on Amazon previously for any of the reasons below.

The review will only show up as a Verified Purchase if you bought the book on Amazon and you review it on the same account.

Before You Start

  • You cannot write a review for another author as ‘swapsies’ as this counts as a biased review situation. Nobody is going to give a one-star review in a reciprocal situation, so Amazon does not allow this scheme.
  • You cannot earn tokens or credits of any kind writing book reviews to trade for other authors to write reviews for you. There are new ‘book review services’ that claim it’s OK to do this. No, it is not. These services are acting against Amazon terms and will likely be shut down soon. Don’t get involved with any service that tells you it’s OK to earn reviews by writing reviews, nor any that sell tokens to trade for reviews.
  • Writing reviews for friends or family is not allowed either.
  • There was a craze where people would write that their review was ‘in exchange for a free book’, and thought that if they mentioned this exchange, it would be seen as legitimate behavior by Amazon. Na-ah. Leave out any wording about ‘exchange’ or ‘swap’ or ‘I wrote this review for…’ – It’s the easiest way to get your account blocked.
  • If you review an ARC, there is no need to declare it in your review. An ARC should be exactly like the book on sale, so review it as such. However, unless you buy the book on sale, it will not be a Verified review on Amazon.

. . . .

Structuring Your Amazon Review

Remember you only have 5000 characters to give your opinion, with the best reviews coming in between 70 – 100 words.

  1. As this is an Amazon Review, the page gives the synopsis of the book, so you can launch right into your thoughts. Start with why you were interested in the book:
    I bought this book as I am interested in cozy mysteries set in beach communities, like this one.
  2. Go on to say what you thought of it.
    I found the character of Marcy very well-written. She is a protagonist anyone can cheer for, with many issues, but also a lot of strength and hope. The setting is meticulously described, and the murder case itself is exciting and emotional in equal measures.
  3. Add a critique (something that didn’t quite hit the mark) – this is important for an unbiased and honest review
    I wish that we had learned more about why the murderer did it in the brief time we spend after the case is solved.
  4. Add some comparisons to be helpful to other readers, and finish on a high note:
    However, this book ticks all the boxes in this genre and will please fans of Big Little Lies and Patricia Fisher.
  5. The photo upload is not an opportunity for you to add a photo of yourself! You should only add a photo of the book, or you holding the book. Reviews with videos and photos get the most traffic, so if you want to build your profile on Amazon, this could be a good way of doing so.

Link to the rest at Self-Publishing Review

How Initial Consumer Reviews Can Affect Future Ones

From The Wall Street Journal:

First impressions are hard to overcome.

That’s true in relationships. And it seems it’s also true with online consumer reviews.

A new study published in Marketing Science finds a product’s first online review has a lasting impact—affecting how many reviews it receives and its star rating.

Researchers found products with a negative first review (three stars or less) received almost 15 fewer reviews overall at the end of six months than products that received positive reviews, and about 36 fewer reviews at the end of 12 months. A negative first review also reduced a product’s average rating by 0.29 star over a year compared with a positive first review.

The researchers controlled for quality by looking at the same exact products that had a positive review on one site and a negative review on another. For example, in one part of the study the authors looked at reviews of identical vacuum cleaners posted on Amazon or BestBuy.com. They found that the trajectory of the online reviews had more to do with that very first review than the product’s overall quality, especially if the review was negative.

“If the first review is negative, the average rating may never reflect its true quality,” says Sungsik Park, assistant professor of marketing at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and a co-author of the study.

The reason, Dr. Park speculates, is that “the first comment may have deterred people from buying and thereby rating the product.” In contrast, a first positive review created a virtuous cycle where positive reviews led to more reviews, which often reduced the effect of any negative feedback.

“It’s all about sample size,” says Dr. Park. “The more reviews, the more likely the comments will reflect the product’s true quality.”

The researchers also found a similar result when they tested this relationship with identical products that had divergent first reviews on Amazon’s U.S. site vs. its Canadian site. Products receiving an initial negative review received 46 fewer online reviews after one year and 128.1 fewer reviews after three years.

The researchers controlled for price, the reviews’ wording and various product features. They found that the results held, but that the relationship was strongest for household products, such as vacuum cleaners or toaster ovens, compared with products used in public, such as digital cameras, where personal observations may also influence purchasing decisions.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Sarah Moss’s Anxiety Chronicles

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

MOST NOVELISTS WHO want to embed sophisticated ideas in their fiction resort to long stretches of dialogue. In the traditional philosophical novel, loquacious characters are the vehicles for politics or principles. Sarah Moss is different. She favors realism and interiority. In each of her stylish, cerebral novels, ideas are thought, not declared.

Moss writes fiction of unusual philosophical and emotional density, often by focusing on the inner life of academics. Thankfully though, she abstains from writing campus novels. The lectern and the classroom stay out of sight. In her debut, Cold Earth (2009), five archaeologists and a literary scholar are excavating the remains of a Norse colony in Greenland when they realize that a pandemic is ravaging the rest of the world. In her second novel, Night Waking (2011), a historian is on a remote island in the Hebrides when one of her two young sons discovers an infant skeleton. In The Tidal Zone (2016), another historian spends days in an NHS hospital after his daughter mysteriously collapses. These, we could say, are off-campus novels.

After a decade studying 19th-century literature at Oxford, Moss, who is Scottish-born and Manchester-raised, started writing fiction of her own. With the publication of each of her first five novels between 2009 and 2016, Moss offered new evidence that she was one of the most versatile and talented writers working today. Yet, although these novels quietly garnered admiration, she remained, somewhat incomprehensibly, underappreciated in the United Kingdom. In America, she was practically unknown.

That changed with Ghost Wall (2018), a riveting gut punch of a novel that received universally rave reviews in almost every major publication on both sides of the Atlantic. In it, Moss trained her attention on a teenage girl from a working-class family who, along with her abusive father and abused mother, joins a professor and his students in a forest in Northumberland to reenact life in Iron Age Britain as part of an “experimental archaeology” course. Ghost Wall is a coming-of-age, state-of-the-nation thriller that manages to both shine a spotlight on the kind of nationalistic nostalgia that delivered Brexit and sensitively attend to the psychological damage of domestic violence. It has the quality of parable, yet never loses sight of the fragile but fierce young girl at its center. It is an extraordinary novel. And it is only 130 pages.

By populating her novels with literary scholars, archaeologists, and historians, Moss is able to contemplate topics as wide-ranging as lost Viking settlements, theories of childhood development, neonatal tetanus, the Highland Clearances, the Nazi bombing of Coventry, Victorian philanthropy, and the living practices of the pre-Roman British. Yet, for all this, Moss avoids pretension. Partly because she shows these highly educated, highly intelligent men and women not delivering lectures or engaging in lofty intellectual debates but rather cooking, cleaning, and thinking about doing the laundry.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Not Dark Mysteries

From Book Riot:

A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino

I love Higashino’s detective mysteries and wish they’d all get translated — he’s huge in Japan! First, a note on the whole #6 in the series — you don’t have to read these in order, you actually technically can’t unless you read the untranslated original works because they have not all been translated to English, and the ones that have been were done out of order. Publishing, am I right? So pick up whichever sounds the best first, and then read them all.

Now about A Midsummer’s Equation: it has so many elements of the genre stitched nicely together it makes for a perfect curl-up-with-a-mystery-book read. The premise is: a guest dies at a family inn in Hari Cove, a now economically struggling tourist town, and the question is, “was it murder or an accident?” You follow the family inn members, mostly the visiting nephew and the daughter who works at the inn but is also fighting a company from undersea mining their ocean. We then also follow not one, not two, but three crime solvers: the small town police who rule the man falling into the water an accident; the Tokyo police who ask for an autopsy and suspect foul play, especially upon realizing it is a former detective who has died; and Manabu Yukawa, a physicist and college professor who is referred to as Detective Galileo as he assists the Tokyo detectives.

There’s a lot to love here, from the way the mystery is built and unraveled, reminding me of old school mysteries with a bit of Sherlock: the different perspectives; a nice armchair trip to Japan; and Detective Galileo bonding with the inn’s nephew and performing science experiments with him. If you’re looking to watch a complex mystery solved and don’t want dark, gritty, nor graphic, this is your book. (TW brief discussions of possibility of suicide/mentions past cancer death, side character with brain tumor)

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG doesn’t include many book reviews in TPV, but he’s finding the usual grist for his mill to be a bit sparse today.

Do This, Not That – Professional Reviews in the Time of COVID

From The Book Designer:

[T]here is one thing COVID-19 and mass stay-at-home orders accelerated this year that I really hope sticks – digital submissions for professional reviews.

Why Reviews Matter

An October 2020 article posted on Qualtrics says that “91% of 18-34 year olds trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, and 93% of consumers say that online reviews influenced their purchase decisions.” And, as Beth Barany pointed out in her article Get Book Reviews: Your Novel Can Always Find New Audiences asking for and building up your bank of online reader reviews is an important ongoing aspect of book marketing.

However, there is another type of review that is just as important to your book’s success: Professional Reviews.

The Importance of Professional Reviews

Receiving a positive review from a well-known review or news outlet is practically more valuable than gold when launching a new book. From gracing the cover of your book to being used on marketing sheets and in your online book descriptions, a great quote from Publishers Weekly or a starred Library Journal review can net you a lot of mileage.

A professional review lends authority to your writing and provides social proof of the quality of your work. But you can’t receive a review from a professional third-party if you don’t ask for one and there is a right – and a wrong – way to make your request.

. . . .

When cities were shut down and stay-at-home orders were issued, the publishing industry adapted. Professional review outlets that previously required physical ARCs began requesting digital submissions. This has been a game changer.

Rather than 6 months lead time and several hundred dollars of investment, an author or publisher can now submit their book for reviews in a single day, at no cost and with as little as 3 months lead time before their pub date.

. . . .

For the best chance at receiving a professional review, authors should research the best review outlets for their book and the submission guidelines for that specific review outlet. While not universal, many outlets require the following:

  • Cover letter with appropriate contact information
  • Marketing plan
  • Designed book sheet including details such as:
    • ISBN
    • price
    • pub date
    • book synopsis
  • An informational sheet on the author
  • Book launch press release or announcement
  • A jpg of the front cover of the book
  • A digital ARC (PDF and ePub files are the most requested)

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

While not disputing the potential beneficial marketing results that reviews from a “recognized” source may provide to an indie author, PG will note that there are some scam “professional” review sites that charge a lot and deliver very little.

A Former Paid Reviewer Shares:

PG received the following from an individual who he won’t identify. PG has removed one sentence that might allow someone to identify the sender, but the remainder of the message is as PG received it:

I can address some of the questions you posted about reviewing for Kirkus and PW.

I have freelance-reviewed for years through various organizations, including Kirkus Indie and PW’s equivalent. For these plus Chanticleer Reviews and Dark Diva/Readers Roundtable all titles were indie published.

. . . .

Pay has ranged from $0 to $75 per review. Kirkus and PW were $25-50 at the time I wrote for them; Chanticleer started at $50 then raised to $75/per after three reviews that passed muster. NYJB has never paid, but by far has been the most satisfying opportunity. I consider my pay from them to be the excellent books that have come to me for free, whether they be advance reader copies or beautiful finished hardcovers.

In all instances there’s been someone at the organization to edit and approve my review. All except NYJB edited my reviews heavily; NYJB barely changes a comma. All but NYJB have had strict guidelines for length, format, and content. But all have been firm about us writing honest reviews, and handling negative aspects of a title tactfully. Absolutely no nastiness allowed.

I’ve never had a contract with any review orgnization, just an agreement reached via email conversations, which basically amounted to my agreeing to their procedures.

Since there’s only ever been one person between me and the organization (the review editor, who may or may not have been staff vs. freelance), I assume the bulk of what Kirkus, PW, and Chanticleer charge authors goes to the organization, presumably as profit after they pay their reviewer and review editor. I have no idea what the editor receives.

A personal note: I agree with 99% of your posted commentary about traditional vs. self/indie publishing regarding the latter being a better deal for authors. I must say, though, that the trad-pub books I’ve had available for review have been orders of magnitude better than the indies. Yes, there have been good ones, but to date, in general, on the reviewer end, through the channels I’ve experienced, indie books remain subpar to the ones that go through the gatekeeping and corporate production process.

I would go so far as to say it’s an inverse proportion, i.e., 1 or 2 out of 10 indies are worth reading and reviewing, whereas 8 or 9 out of 10 trad-pubs are worth it.

As an author myself, I’ve abandoned traditional publishing. But as a reader, I prefer its products. Not sure what that means beyond affirmation that the publishing world is changing!

Who let the dons out?

From The Critic:

Contrary to what you sometimes read in the newspapers, the media don has been going strong for upwards of 120 years. When English Literature started professionalising itself at the end of the nineteenth century and universities needed to fill their newly-created English departments, they tended to recruit from journalism.

That first wave of English professors consequently deposited such all-round pundits as John Churton Collins (Birmingham) and George Saintsbury (Edinburgh) on the lecture-room podium — all erstwhile hacks who, whatever the glamour of their academic gigs, could never quite abandon the trade that had brought them preferment.

Come the 1960s, as both universities and media doubled in volume, this wave turned into a torrent. Malcolm Bradbury (UEA), David Lodge (Birmingham again), the sociologist Laurie Taylor (often thought to be the original of Howard Kirk in Bradbury’s The History Man) each contrived to build a highly lucrative bridge between academe, the public prints, and the Today programme.

All of a sudden, the don could have it both ways — file that learned 5,000 words for Essays in Criticism and review for the Observer, publish a book with a title such as Foucault and the Structuralist Hegemony and judge the Booker Prize. Bliss it was to be alive in that cross-cultural dawn.

Half-a-century later, alas, the laudable aim of encouraging brainy specialists to share their knowledge with the world at large has turned into a complete disaster. Why is the presence of an academic on a book prize judging panel, fronting a BBC Four arts documentary or even reviewing for a national newspaper generally such an embarrassment? One reason, alas, is that fatal assumption of omnicompetence — the idea that talent translates from discipline to discipline which finds the titans of academe being employed to carry out tasks for which they may not actually be qualified. Mary Beard is a Classics professor. Why should she end up on poetry symposia or presenting arts docs about painting?

Another reason is the sheer inability of most academics to step down from the Parnassus of their specialist subject and engage with non-specialist hoi-polloi. This failing is particularly evident in the bread-and-butter world of book reviewing.

. . . .

As for mother Carey’s chickens, all avidly disporting themselves in the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, the London Review of Books and countless other organs, their main limitation is that they possess all the book reviewer’s traditional faults, only more so. Item one on a pretty considerable list is score-settling (see Terry Eagleton’s decades-long spat with A.C. Grayling, or the multiple vendettas annually conducted by Craig Raine).

Item two, as immemorially practised in the LRB, is simply to use that new volume of essays about Harold Wilson as an excuse to drone on about your own opinion of the postwar Labour Party while barely mentioning the book that started you off.

Readers often complain about book-page glad-handing. No one, it might be said, glad-hands like an academic.

Link to the rest at The Critic and thanks to C. for the tip