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Rage, Rage Against the Amazon Reviewers

The New York Times had a story a few days ago about Amazon deleting reviews from its site that I found amusing. The opening seems to want us to feel at least some mild outrage:

Giving raves to family members is no longer acceptable. Neither is writers’ reviewing other writers. But showering five stars on a book you admittedly have not read is fine.

Writers can’t review other writers? But writers often make the best critics. Reviews for books you haven’t read are fine? That’s just crazy!

Amazon customers are the outraged ones, and have been complaining. Some of the outrage is understandable, considering that some authors like to game the system.

The mystery novelist J. A. Konrath, for example, does not see anything wrong with an author indulging in chicanery. “Customer buys book because of fake review = zero harm,” he wrote on his blog.

Zero harm? Apparently Konrath thinks being conned into spending money is never harmful. Con artists are generally sociopaths, but I guess as long as they’re conning people into buying a bad book the sociopathy is acceptable, at least to the people selling the books.

The biggest customer outrage is reserved for someone named Harriet Klausner, who apparently is an Amazon “Hall of Fame Reviewer,” as if that means anything. Klausner claims to be a former acquisitions librarian who reads two books a day. Since she has at least 28, 366 reviews on Amazon, she’s apparently been reviewing there for over 38 years, and everything she reviews is really good. That sort of enthusiasm for the mediocre is so typically librarian.

It has to be rare that a former librarian and basic nobody gets a hate blog dedicated to them, but it’s happened to Klausner. What I read of the blog is a pretty good indication that Klausner doesn’t really read all the books she “reviews.”

There’s also a whole group formed on Amazon to criticize Klausner.

“Everyone in this group will tell you that we’ve all been duped into buying books based on her reviews,” said Margie Brown, a retired city clerk from Arizona.

The poor dears. Not that she minds the hostile and probably accurate attacks:

Mrs. Klausner, who says ailments keep her home and insomnia keeps her up, scoffs at her critics. “You ever read a Harlequin romance?” she said. “You can finish it in one hour. I’ve always been a speed reader.” She has a message for her naysayers: “Get a life. Read a book.”

And this is where the article started to amuse me. I actually laughed out loud at that paragraph.

So here we have a retired librarian who doesn’t leave her house and who spends her hours reading Harlequin romances telling critics to “get a life” and “read a book.” Oh my. Sitting around all day reading romance novels hardly qualifies as a life, and romance novels hardly qualify as books.

The more accurate advice would be, “avoid life by reading escapist trash.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with avoiding life by reading escapist trash every once in a while, but as life advice it’s pretty sad.

But it’s also hard to feel sorry for customers who were duped into buying a “bad” romance novel by a good review. After all, they’re all bad books. It’s not like people are reading romances for their literary quality. I almost feel sorry for the people who get so worked up over this.

Amazon helped with the hilarity.

A spokesman for Amazon, which published “The 4-Hour Chef,” offered this sole comment for this article: “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.”

Should we be outraged? No, I think we should still be amused. For one thing, there’s no way they could “require people” to have read the books they review. How would they possibly be able to do that? Thus, we shouldn’t be outraged.

But it’s pretty funny to think that Amazon thinks that a review system that is full of reviews from people who have never “experienced the product” is anything more than a joke. Suckers and marks who don’t mind the sock puppets and amateur reviewers gaming the system can spend their money on bad popular books praised to the sky by shills and con artists.

Knowledgeable people can avoid the reviews altogether and get their bad popular books at the local public library, because that’s what it’s there for.

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Comments

  1. Public Librarian says:

    Amazon has a preview feature which allows you to read a sample chapter from the book. So those readers who were duped by that reviewer should sample the book for free and then make an informed decision.

    • Another Anon says:

      When I can’t get an ARC of a book, I use Amazon to preview the book. This lets you sample the table of contents and around a chapter of text. The sample gives you a feel for whether or not you need the book and gives you a taste of the author’s writing and citation style. Then again, I work at a college library and usually order books about controversial or academic topics. I wouldn’t trust those reviews.

  2. I see the role of the library as laying out as wide a range of choice as possible so readers can make up their own minds, not imposing a personal view of whether a specific title or genre is worth reading.Reviewing is all about judgement and comparisons. Can we have book comments from libraries which are more helpful than telling us whether this is as good as her last two, or retelling the plot? Try whichbook.net,a free site with books read by UK library staff for a different approach.

  3. It’s great to be provocative but not to reinforce prejudice against such easy targets – romance readers, homebound people, ‘nobody’ librarians – I don’t know who should be most insulted!

  4. “they’re all bad books”

    No, they’re not. I can understand that the basic plot of romance novels may not appeal to you, but unless

    (a) you automatically disqualify something from classification as a “good book” if it includes a romantic relationship which ends happily or

    (b) you’ve read all of them

    I can only conclude that you’re making a sweeping generalisation on the basis of inadequate evidence.

    There’s a growing body of academic literary criticism of romance novels which goes some way to demonstrating that they are not all “escapist trash.”

  5. Wow. I was with you, kind of, up until this: “romance novels hardly qualify as books.” I’m so sorry you feel this way. I am, as you may note, an author of romance. Like many readers and writers of Romance, I am not only a college graduate but in possession of a graduate degree. (In English, by the way.)

    It’s been my experience that most people who go down the “All Romance is trash” path have in fact never read a romance. There are as well a lot of people who read one romance (often years ago) didn’t like it, and now, based on a sample size in single digits and in no way reflective of Romances being written today, decided that the entire genre must be awful. This mutually assured stupidity conclusion about the genre and the people who read it is, sadly, all too familiar.

    There are so many talented, gifted authors of Romance and they come from all backgrounds, some are academics, some are librarians, some are even men. Since I write in the genre, I happen to know a lot of authors of the genre. They are lawyers, PhDs, engineers, technologists, teachers. There are also, by the way, many fine Romance authors who did not go to college, but let me ask you this:

    Do you really believe that so many smart, educated women (and a few men) would ALL write awful books with no redeeming value? Are you honestly willing to suggest that’s remotely possible?

    Please, please, consider the possibility that you are wrong. Maybe Romance just isn’t the genre for you, but I can assure you there are Romances out there as fine, or finer, than any literature you care to name.

  6. Vassiliki says:

    You discuss being a “professional” librarian throughout your blogs. I am afraid that with this post you have highlighted that you are far from professional. As all professional public library staff and readers’ advisors know, it is not our job to pass judgement on readers’ taste nor to diminish the work of authors because we don’t personally understand the appeal of a specific genre. With your vitriol against romance novels you have shown yourself to be ill-informed and misrepresent our profession. Before you even bother to reply to my response, find a copy of Pamela Regis’ The Natural History of the Romance Novel to understand that people do read romances for literary quality.

    It certainly isn’t our place to judge the reading capacities and hobbies of others. And professional librarians do not scoff at housebound readers nor are we unbelieving of their ailments, chronic illnesses, disabilities etc and that you can have a real life and read romances and be housebound. It may not be your reality but it is someone-else’s. If anything, most progressive public libraries encourage their housebound patrons to post reviews of their reading as this may connect them with other online readers.

    I have no issue with the way Amazon has decided to run its reviews. But I do have an issue with your lack of understanding of readers’ advisory practices and your anachronistic view of romance readers. In your previous blog you wrote about soft skills. I personally would hire an applicant who “was personable and friendly and gave good answers to questions” but was poorly dressed than the suited up, well-dressed applicant espousing judgemental opinions on readers’ choices. It is much easier to have an employee comply with a dress code requirement than it is to change an employee’s narrow-minded opinions.

  7. Peter Cannon says:

    I love reading Amazon reviews almost as much as the books themselves.Where else can you get into a lengthy philosophical debate about whether the latest Star Wars book is correct in its continuity? When Romney made his “binders full of women” comment, the Amazon reviews of one-inch binders were hilarious (“mine didn’t come with women” etc.). The point, however, should be this: never rely on just one review. Establish a pattern and see if you find yourself agreeing more often than not.

  8. LaMonica says:

    Readers need to make informed decisions when deciding whether to purchase a book. I’m sorry, but you can blame the reviewer because you hate the book they reviewed after reading it. Explore other options and other resources before you purchase something. Use other review websites out there such as Kirkus, New York Times Review, Publisher’s Weekly, GoodReads, Booklist to get several different opinions, not just one. Also, several authors now have chapter previews on their websites, read a chapter or two to see if you like it. Even Amazon has that feature.

    Reading one review and then purchasing the book based on that is just lazy. You wouldn’t just go buy a car without doing research first, would you? No, you check consumer reports, ask around to several different dealerships, check out car magazines so you know you’re making a decision with enough information. Why not do that for a book if you’re really that concerned about whether you would enjoy it?

    Lastly, romance books aren’t trash. They just may not be your cup of tea.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. LaMonica says:

    Typo Alert!

    I meant in the above entry: Readers need to make informed decisions when deciding whether to purchase a book. I’m sorry, but you CANT blame the reviewer because you hate the book they reviewed after reading it.