When writers die they typically leave behind false starts and unfinished manuscripts, but, unless the death is sudden, it’s less usual to find an entire novel complete and unpublished. But that’s just what we have in John le Carré’s “Silverview,” now sent into the world by the author’s son, Nick Cornwell, who tells us in an afterword that the book was essentially finished, needing only a bit of editorial tweaking. His father, he says, began the novel right after “A Delicate Truth” (2013)—an angry work that helped bring the expression “deep state” into common parlance. That novel amounted to a well-wrought exercise in contempt for the increasingly privatized and deeply corrupt “War on Terror.” It has all the ingredients of most of le Carré’s post-9/11 work: American mischief, for-profit military forces, black ops, deniability, “extraordinary rendition,” “enhanced interrogation,” an idealistic innocent and a British civil servant on the take.
“Silverview” has some of that, but le Carré continued to withhold and rework it, moving on instead to publish “A Legacy of Spies” in 2017. Expanding on elements from “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and dragging an ageless Smiley out of storage after a quarter of a century, that novel had a bottom-of-the-barrel feel. Finally, with “Silverview” still sequestered, le Carré produced his last novel, “Agent Running in the Field,” a blast against Brexit and Trump—and, once again, not one of this great author’s best. But here at last is “Silverview,” the novel we didn’t know we were waiting for.
Julian Lawndsley, 33, has opened a bookstore in a small town on the coast of East Anglia. Perhaps le Carré means to pay homage to Penelope Fitzgerald’s fine little East Anglian novel “The Bookshop” here, but he has done his own proprietor the favor of equipping him with a fortune, acquired as a trader in the City. What Julian really lacks, however, is any knowledge of bookselling or, indeed, of literature, something which is beginning to oppress him. One day, the “sixty-something” Edward Avon enters the shop, expresses his great pleasure that it exists, and suggests that Julian stock W.G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” another novel set (in part) in East Anglia—and one with which “Silverview” shares some preoccupations. It later turns out that Edward went to school with Julian’s father—thus, a bond is forged. Edward becomes Julian’s adviser, popping into the shop to use the computers to track down the out-of-print books he believes the shop should carry.
But, really, who is this fellow? When asked, Edward replies, “Let us say I am a British mongrel, retired, a former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men.” He turns out to have been born in Poland and is married to Deborah Garton, a wealthy, wellborn Englishwoman, who at one time was frequently away working for various quasi-governmental organizations—she says—but is now dying of cancer. Seeking more information on his new friend, Julian pays a call on a neighboring shopkeeper, Celia Merridew, of Celia’s Bygones, a junk shop by any other name. Celia, a font of gossip and gripes, invites him in for a “ginny” (served, like Mrs. Gamp’s, from a teapot). She tells him that she and Edward used to run a nice under-the-table business, with Celia and her shop fronting for Edward who was—he said—buying and selling Ming porcelain over the internet. In return she received frequent envelopes of cash—until recently when Edward’s Lady Muck wife put an end to it.
Elsewhere we meet Stewart and Ellen Proctor, depicted by le Carré with his customary genius for class taxonomy and attributes, conjuring up their understated privilege—good schools, garden parties, arch family sayings, infidelities and societal role in the secret services, “the spiritual sanctum of Britain’s ruling classes.” Stewart is, in fact, Britain’s “chief sniffer-dog”—he’s head of Domestic Security. He has recently been given a sealed envelope from Deborah, delivered by her testy daughter, Lily. Stewart has just learned of “a five-star breach” in security which takes him off to visit Orford and a joint British, American and NATO base on the coast, a “military Disneyland of dazzle-painted hangars and black bombers.” Three hundred feet below it lies “a dedicated nuclear hellhole,” chambers designed for nuclear weapons. A maze of tunnels running under East Anglia supplies a closed-circuit fiber optic system linking the base to others in the region, but unconnected to the outside. Still, there has been a breach, and it’s a puzzler.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but, if not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
The SafetyDetectives cybersecurity team uncovered an open ElasticSearch database exposing an organized fake reviews scam affecting Amazon.
The server contained a treasure trove of direct messages between Amazon vendors and customers willing to provide fake reviews in exchange for free products. In total, 13,124,962 of these records (or 7 GB of data) have been exposed in the breach, potentially implicating more than 200,000 people in unethical activities.
While it is unclear who owns the database, the breach demonstrates the inner workings of a prevalent issue affecting the online retail industry.
How the Process Works
The information found on the open ElasticSearch server outlines a common procedure by which Amazon vendors procure ‘fake reviews’ for their products.
These Amazon vendors send to reviewers a list of items/products for which they would like a 5-star review. The people providing the ‘fake reviews’ will then buy the products, leaving a 5-star review on Amazon a few days after receiving their merchandise.
Upon completion, the provider of the fake review will send a message to the vendor containing a link to their Amazon profile, along with their PayPal details.
Once the Amazon vendor confirms all reviews have been completed, the reviewer will receive a refund through PayPal, keeping the items they bought for free as a form of payment.
The refund for any purchased goods is actioned through PayPal and not directly through Amazon’s platform. This makes the five-star review look legitimate, so as not to arouse suspicion from Amazon moderators.
. . . .
2. Data related to the reviewers
Messages on the ElasticSearch server also contained other forms of directly and indirectly identifiable personal data exposing the reviewers themselves, such as:
75K links to Amazon accounts/profiles of review sellers
PayPal account details (email addresses)
‘Fan names’ – supposedly usernames, often containing names & surnames
Leaked PayPal account details and ‘fan names’ outline email addresses and what seems to be the usernames of people providing fake reviews. These details could be used to indirectly identify individuals, while many of them contained full names and surnames.
The Gmail addresses of reviewers were also provided to vendors directly via message. In total, 232,664 Gmail addresses have been exposed on the server, though some of the email addresses were duplicates.
. . . .
The ‘Gmail’ figure covers only those individuals who use Google as their mail provider. When we factor in the presence of other types of email accounts, such as Outlook, the enormity of this breach becomes apparent. 75,000 Amazon accounts were leaked as well, although there are potentially several duplicates included in this figure. Along with Amazon vendors compromised through their contact details, it’s reasonable to estimate that around 200,000-250,000 people were affected by this breach.
The server appeared to be located in China, and it is thought the leak affected citizens from Europe and the USA (at a minimum). In reality, the leak could have affected individuals from all corners of the world.
What a pleasure these days to come across a book that unabashedly, cheerfully celebrates the lasting power of literature. Jonathan Bate takes his cue straight from one of the subjects of his dual biography “Bright Star, Green Light.” “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” chanted the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) at the beginning of his long poem “Endymion” (1818). “Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness.” Well, “Endymion,” roundly panned upon publication for being too florid, almost did pass into nothingness. No such worry today: Although Keats didn’t make it far beyond his 25th birthday and there isn’t all that much life to cover, he seems to get a hefty new biography every five years. And while “Endymion” still isn’t a critical favorite, the poem’s opening lines, perennial as the art they celebrate, have sustained generations of literature lovers. As they also did—and this is the starting point of Mr. Bate’s book—an otherwise very different writer, the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940).
An odd pair they certainly make: Fitzgerald the flamboyant high priest of Jazz Age glitter, a compulsive talker, college drop-out and no-holds-barred alcoholic, and “Mister John Keats five feet hight,” as he called himself, the socially awkward, formally trained physician who believed writing poetry was nothing special yet couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else. “Every man whose soul is not a clod / Hath visions,” he asserted in his unfinished epic “The Fall of Hyperion.” Small wonder that he told his fiancée Fanny Brawne he wasn’t “a thing to be admired.” Fanny and, it turns out, F. Scott Fitzgerald begged to differ. Granted, the American writer’s admiration could, at times, border on silliness. For example, as a diffident Princeton student, Fitzgerald once rewrote Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) as an ode to his as-yet-untouched Greek textbook, “thou joyless harbinger of future fear.” And, later, in an informal literature course he created for Sheilah Graham, his last lover, Fitzgerald changed the title of that same ode to “A Greek Cup They Dug Up.” Other tributes mentioned by Mr. Bate are of a more hidden sort, allusions meant for the well-read. The title of Fitzgerald’s last completed novel, “Tender Is the Night” (1934), came from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), which also provided the source for an obscure line describing the protagonist’s music room in “The Great Gatsby” (1925): “There was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.” In the original ode, Keats’s light, of course, streamed not from the hallway but straight from heaven, “with the breezes blown.”
But Mr. Bate also draws our attention to those striking moments in Fitzgerald’s work in which the very fabric of the American writer’s imagination flashes “Keatzian” (distractingly, Mr. Bate relies on Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic spelling throughout his book). Think of the green light across the bay the love-stricken Jay Gatsby saw burning all night, next to Daisy Buchanan’s house. At the end of the novel, Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway, sprawled out on the beach, relates that green flicker to the fresh, green, simpler world full of promise that once beckoned to the first Dutch sailors who came here. Gatsby’s noble, selfless sacrifice, taking the blame for the hit-and-run Daisy committed, redeems his lies and missteps. In spirit if not in letter, Fitzgerald pays tribute here to Keats’s early sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (1816), where the poet likens his discovery of Homer to the excitement of a conquistador glimpsing, for the first time, the Pacific Ocean. Okay, Keats, in his enthusiasm, mixes up his generals, substituting Cortés for Balboa, but as Fitzgerald slyly observes: “When an immortal like Keats makes a mistake, that too is immortal.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (The link should work even if you’re not a WSJ subscriber. If not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
A few months after posting a message on Goodreads about the imminent release of a new book, Indie author Beth Black woke up to an all-caps ransom email from an anonymous server, demanding that she either pay for good reviews or have her books inundated with negative ones: “EITHER YOU TAKE CARE OF OUR NEEDS AND REQUIREMENTS WITH YOUR WALLET OR WE’LL RUIN YOUR AUTHOR CAREER,” the email, shared with TIME, read. “PAY US OR DISAPPEAR FROM GOODREADS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.”
Black, who has self-published both a romance novel and a collection of short stories in the past year, didn’t pay the ransom. “I reported it to Goodreads and then a couple hours later, I started noticing the stars dropping on my books as I started getting all these 1-star reviews,” she says. “It was quite threatening.”
Scammers and cyberstalkers are increasingly using the Goodreads platform to extort authors with threats of “review bombing” their work–and they are frequently targeting authors from marginalized communities who have spoken out on topics ranging from controversies within the industry to larger social issues on social media.
Black says she had posted about the upcoming book in a Goodreads community group, and had sent PDF copies to self-proclaimed reviewers. According to Black, the pressure to rack up reviews on Goodreads and Amazon led to her becoming the target of a cyber-extortion attack.
. . . .
“In order for an author to achieve any kind of success, we’re told that we have to have numerous reviews,” says Black. “For writers who aren’t well connected, this creates anxiety over finding reviewers. You don’t want your reviews to just be from family and friends. That’s nice, but it’s not going to make a career.”
Since its launch in 2007, Goodreads has evolved into the world’s largest online book community. The social networking site now has millions of users who rate and review books, find recommendations for new ones and track their reading. But over time, Goodreads has also become a hunting ground for scammers and trolls looking to con smaller authors, take down books with spammed ratings, cyberstalk users or worse.
With over 120 million members worldwide, Goodreads is far and away the most popular—and influential—digital book database. When the site was purchased by Amazon for $150 million in 2013, The Atlantic reported that: “When all is said and done, in the world of books, Goodreads is just about as influential as Facebook.”
With few serious competitors, Goodreads’ influence has only grown. According to Erin Stein, an editor and publisher with experience heading Macmillan Children’s Group’s Imprint and working for Little, Brown and Company, the publishing industry views Goodreads as a “necessary evil.”
“It’s something I wish we didn’t have to deal with, but it’s a key part of the industry,” she tells TIME. Basically, she notes, high Goodreads ratings help books get sold into retail. “A lot of authors are on there, a lot of bloggers are on there and it’s used as a marketing tool by publishers to build awareness for books. You can’t completely ignore it.”
THE CONTEMPORARY READER IS UNHAPPY. What troubles him? It’s the critics: they are lying to him. He encounters them on the back cover of every new book, promising the world. “An exhilarating debut, poignant and thrilling” . . . “A much-anticipated return, necessary and trenchant” . . . “Dazzling sentences” . . . “An unforgettable voice” . . . “Words that will rend your garments and kiss you on the mouth, that’s how good they are!” The reader trusts the critics. He buys the book. But from page one it is trash: listless, forgettable, unnecessary. He is outraged! He thought false advertising was illegal.
He considers giving the book one star on Goodreads (would you give a lawn mower four stars for being “promising”?), but such overwhelming praise from bright literary lights makes him second-guess his judgment. He opens Twitter. “Is it just me,” he writes, “or does this book suck?”
“It sucks!” someone agrees. “Overhyped [garbage emoji],” says another. A lively exchange is underway when a partisan arrives, here to defend the dignity of the author. It’s only a first novel, he says. It’s chronologically disjointed on purpose. He paraphrases Henry James: We must grant the writer his idea, his subject, what the French call the donnée. “Judge the book he wrote,” concludes the partisan’s thread, “not the book you wish he had written.”
But what about all those critics blowing smoke on the book jacket? our reader asks. Did they read the book?
“Those aren’t real reviews,” says the partisan. “Everybody knows you can’t take them seriously.”
Everybody? thinks our reader. He is stung to learn that he is not “everybody,” which is to say, not anybody.
. . . .
UNFORTUNATELY FOR THE READER, the contemporary book critic does not have one job. In fact, she has no jobs. This is a freelance gig.1 The pay? Maybe $250 for a shorter piece or if she’s lucky, $600 or more for something longer. If she’s never been a staff critic (and odds are she hasn’t), and if she cares (and of course she cares!), she will undoubtedly toil for a poor wage-to-labor ratio. For starters, she has to read the book — or books, if she’s assigned more than one to cover in the review. Then there are the author’s previous books, and if she’s really thorough, reviews of the author’s previous books, as well as interviews, early work, and other miscellany. For a 1,200-word review, it could take a week to write, maybe two if she tends to over prepare. For a career survey, or a review essay in one of the big publications, it could take months or a year to finish (and to get paid). Then factor in self-employment taxes, the unreliability of assignments, delays in payment, and cost of living. Before you know it you’re declaring bankruptcy.
. . . .
The contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine.
Link to the rest at N+1 and thanks to C. for the tip.
PG notes that one of benefits traditionally-published authors sometimes mention is that their publishers are able to get their books reviewed in various publications.
In 2000 the RAND Corporation invited a group of historians—including me—to address a newly pressing question: Would digital media revolutionize society as profoundly as Gutenberg and movable type? Two decades later, John Thompson’s answer is yes, but not entirely as predicted. And our forecasts were often wrong because we overlooked key variables: We cannot understand the impact of technologies “without taking account of the complex social processes in which these technologies were embedded and of which they were part.”
Mr. Thompson provides that context in “Book Wars” (Polity, 511 pages, $35), an expert diagnosis of publishers and publishing, robustly illustrated with charts, graphs, tables, statistics and case studies. An emeritus professor at Cambridge University, Mr. Thompson published an earlier dissection of that industry, “Merchants of Culture,” in 2010, but now he finds that capitalist landscape radically transformed.
Not long ago everyone thought (or feared) that ebooks would sweep the ink-and-paper book into the recycle bin of history. But they peaked in 2014 at just under 25% of U.S. book sales, then settled back to about 15% in the U.S. and roughly 5% in Western Europe. It turned out that the printed book had unique advantages (easy to navigate, no power source needed, works even if you drop it on the floor). Another consideration is that bookshelves stocked with physical books serve the essential purpose of advertising our literary tastes to visitors. And far from devastating the publishing industry, ebooks boosted their profits even as their revenues remained more or less flat. (Compared to printed books, they are cheaper to produce and distribute, and they don’t burden publishers with warehousing and returns.)
For anyone bewildered by the transformation of the book world, Mr. Thompson offers a pointed, thorough and business-literate survey. He tracks the arcane legal battles surrounding the creation of Google Books, and explains why the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Apple and the Big Five publishers, but not (so far) against Amazon. He rightly regrets the shrinkage of newspaper book reviewing: the first decade of the 21st century saw newspapers from Boston to San Diego pull back on book reviews. That said, Mr. Thompson could have devoted more attention to the rise of reader-written online literary criticism, a populist substitute for the Lionel Trillings and F.R. Leavises of the past.
In spite of worries that small independent booksellers would disappear, they are still with us. But they were challenged in the 1960s by the shopping-mall chains of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were superseded by Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores. These in turn were eclipsed by Amazon (founded 1994), triumphing largely because it sold all books to everyone, everywhere. Though we romanticize corner bookstores, they were numerous only in the largest metropolitan centers. In 1928, a city like Cincinnati had seven bookshops. Small-town America bought books at department stores, at pharmacies, or nowhere.
Mr. Thompson insists that “the turbulence generated by the unfolding of the digital revolution in publishing was unprecedented. . . . Suddenly, the very foundations of an industry that had existed for more than 500 years were being called into question as never before.” I would be careful with the word “unprecedented.” Print-on-demand has been with us for some time: the Chinese did it for centuries with woodblocks. The modish practice of crowdsourcing to finance books has a precursor in 18th-century subscription publishing, as readers pledged in advance to buy a forthcoming book. Amazon today dominates bookselling, but Mudie’s Lending Library enjoyed an equally commanding position in Victorian Britain, and raised in its day serious concerns about corporate censorship. (Mudie’s puritanical acquisitions policies meant that novelists like George Meredith were penalized for honest treatment of sex.)
In fact, the 19th century witnessed a transformation of the book business as dizzying as our own: New reproduction technologies dramatically drove down the price of books and increased print runs by orders of magnitude, creating for the first time a global literary mass market, bringing Walter Scott to Japan and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Russia. Today, the absorption of family-owned publishers by conglomerates has raised questions about whether there is still a home for literary and controversial authors with limited popular appeal, but that change was complete before the full impact of digital media. If you’re worried about media concentration (and you should be), the fact remains that all the great Victorian novelists were published by a half-dozen London firms. The desktop computer has vastly expanded opportunities for self-publishers, but there were plenty of them in the past: think of Martin Luther, Walt Whitman, Leonard and Virginia Woolf or countless job-printed village poets and memoirists.
. . . .
While Mr. Thompson is entirely right to conclude that the transformation of publishing in the past 20 years has been bewildering, that’s nothing new. In a dynamic capitalist economy, the dust never settles.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link to the WSJ original. However, PG isn’t sure if there’s a limit on the number of times various visitors to TPV can use the free link and whether the link is geofenced for the US, North America, etc. If the link doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes for the WSJ paywall.)
And thanks for the tip from G and several others.
PG agrees that there have been several disruptive technology changes that have impacted the book business in the past.
However, he doesn’t think that the WSJ reviewer gives adequate attention to the difference between the development of ebooks vs. the various disruptions of the printed book world that preceded it.
No prior technology change immediately opened up the potential audience for a particular book or a particular category of books like ebooks has.
Absent Amazon’s establishment of different book “markets” – US, Canada, Britain, etc., etc., anybody in the world can buy and download an ebook from from anyplace else in the world.
There’s a legal reason (among others) for Amazon’s multiple home pages for books in different countries – the right to publish and sell under an author’s copyright can be sliced and diced by national market. I can write a book and use a UK publisher to publish to the UK market and an American publisher to publish to the US market with each publishing agreement setting bounds on where the publisher can publish and sell the book.
Side note: A long time ago, PG went through the process of signing up for an account on Amazon UK and did so with no problem. He never used the account, but wandered around among the British-English product descriptions and Pound-based prices enough to believe that, particularly for electronic goods, he could purchase and receive anything he liked there. From prior trips to Britain, PG knows his credit cards work just as well for spending pounds as they do for spending dollars.
All that said, any indie author knows how easy it is to simultaneously publish an ebook every place where Amazon sells ebooks.
Other ebook distributors also offer an even broader publish-everywhere feature. PG just checked and Draft2Digital allows an indie author to publish all over the world, through D2D because D2D has agreements with Rakutenkobo, Scribed and Tolino for them to sell an indie author’s book to the zillions of places they’re available.
Rakutenkobo lists its markets as Turkey, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Philippines, Taiwan and Mexico and PG bets readers in other countries can also access the company’s websites, so an indie author has a very easy path to publishing ebooks in each of those places.
So that’s why PG thinks the ebook revolution can’t be easily compared to any prior technology disruption that involved printed books.
Continuing on, after PG read the WSJ review of Book Wars, he immediately went to Amazon to buy the ebook.
The hardcover edition of the book lists for $29.30 on Amazon and the ebook edition sells for $28.00!
$28 for an ebook!
The publisher is Polity Publishing.
Per Wikipedia, Polity is an academic publisher in the social sciences and humanities that was established in 1984 and has “editorial offices” in “Cambridge (UK), Oxford (UK), and Boston (US)” plus it also has something going in New York City. In four offices, Polity has 39 employees (no mention how many are student employees or part-time contractors).
PG took a quick look via Google Maps Streetview at Polity’s Boston office, located at 101 Station Landing, Medford, Massachusetts. Streetview showed a photo of a multi-story anonymous-looking modern building that could be an office building or an apartment building. PG had never heard of Medford and doesn’t know anything about the community, but on the map, it doesn’t look terribly close to the parts of Boston with which PG has a tiny bit of familiarity.
So, PG doesn’t know how Mr. Thompson, the author of Book Wars chose his publisher, but, in PG’s extraordinarily humble opinion, he made a giant mistake.
A Wall Street Journal review of a book like this should send sales through the roof. Per Amazon, Book Wars is currently ranked #24,220 in the Kindle Store.
Imagine how much better it would sell if it was offered at a reasonable price.
Goodreads, the popular book cataloging website, functions as a hybrid social media platform and digital library. The social media aspect of Goodreads allows for interaction between users. Users can see their friends’ reviews, reading progress in a book, and even the giveaways friends have entered. The reviews on Goodreads are public, meaning anyone — even those without an account — can access and read reviews.
When anyone does a quick search for book reviews, Goodreads is frequently the first result. The problem with Goodreads being within the first search results for book reviews is that makes the reviews on Goodreads that much more desirable. Goodreads reviews, for many, feel more trustworthy because they are peer written.
For the most part, Goodreads reviewers are average readers. Their reviews are imperfect, full of grammatical errors, gifs, and internet slang. Goodreads users write their reviews in a way that makes sense to them. Some users write reviews for their own cataloging use, others write reviews to be helpful to others, some reviews are simple and short.
. . . .
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.
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:
You have spent more than $50 on Amazon in the last twelve months and have an Amazon account
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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)
[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
Designed book sheet including details such as:
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)
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.
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!
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 (Wild, Gone 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?
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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.”
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.
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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.”
“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.
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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.
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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.”
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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-es. Where, for some incomprehensible reason, is converted into whare, there 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.”
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.”
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.