February 14, 2004
Amazon Glitch Unmasks War of Reviewers
lose observers of Amazon.com noticed something peculiar this week: the company's Canadian site had suddenly revealed the identities of thousands of people who had anonymously posted book reviews on the United States site under signatures like "a reader from New York."
The weeklong glitch, which Amazon fixed after outed reviewers complained, provided a rare glimpse at how writers and readers are wielding the online reviews as a tool to promote or pan a book ó when they think no one is watching.
John Rechy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel "City of Night" and winner of the PEN-USA West lifetime achievement award, is one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon's highest rating. Mr. Rechy, who laughed about it when approached, sees it as a means to survival when online stars mean sales.
"That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd," said Mr. Rechy, who, having been caught, freely admitted to praising his new book, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens," on Amazon under the signature "a reader from Chicago." "How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them."
Mr. Rechy is in good company. Walt Whitman and Anthony Burgess both famously reviewed their own books under assumed names. But several modern-day writers said the Internet, where anyone from your mother to your ex-agent can anonymously broadcast an opinion of your work, has created a more urgent need for self-defense.
Under Amazon's system, any user may submit a review without publicly providing any personal information (or evidence of having read the book). The posting of real names on the Canadian site was for many a reminder that anonymity on the Internet is seldom a sure thing.
"It was an unfortunate error," said Patricia Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman. "We'll examine whatever happened and make sure it won't happen again."
But even with reviewer privacy restored, many people say Amazon's pages have turned into what one writer called "a rhetorical war," where friends and family members are regularly corralled to write glowing reviews and each negative one is scrutinized for the digital fingerprints of known enemies.
One well-known writer admitted privately ó and gleefully ó to anonymously criticizing a more prominent novelist who he felt had unfairly reaped critical praise for years. She regularly posts responses, or at least he thinks it is her, but the elegant rebuttals of his reviews are also written from behind a pseudonym.
Numbering 10 million and growing by tens of thousands each week, the reader reviews are the most popular feature of Amazon's sites, according to the company, which also culls reviews from more traditional critics like Publishers Weekly. Many authors applaud the democracy of allowing readers to voice their opinions, and rejoice when they see a new one posted ó so long as it is positive.
But some authors say it is ironic that while they can for the first time face their critics on equal footing, so many people on both sides choose to remain anonymous. And some charge that the same anonymity that encourages more people to discuss books also spurs them to write reviews that they would never otherwise attach their names to.
Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections," winner of the National Book Award, said that a first book by Tom Bissell last fall was "crudely and absurdly savaged" on Amazon in anonymous reviews he believed were posted by a group of writers whom Mr. Bissell had previously written about in the literary magazine The Believer.
"With the really flamingly negative reviews, I think it's always worth asking yourself what kind of person has time to write them," Mr. Franzen said. "I know that the times when I've been tempted to write a nasty review online, I have never had attractive motives." Mr. Franzen declined to say whether he had ever given in to such temptation.
The suspicion that the same group of writers, known as the Underground Literary Alliance, had anonymously attacked his friend Heidi Julavits prompted the novelist Dave Eggers to write a review last August calling Ms. Julavits's first novel "one of the best books of the year."
Mr. Eggers, whose memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," made him a literary celebrity, chose to post his review as "a reader from St. Louis, MO." But the review appeared under the name "David K Eggers" on Amazon's Canadian site on Monday, and Mr. Eggers confirmed by e-mail that he had written it.
"I've done that one or two times before, when I like a book and the reviews on Amazon seem bizarre," Mr. Eggers said. "In this case I just tried to bring back some balance."
Michael Jackman of the Alliance, which champions "underground writing" and has been critical of contemporary writers' focus on themselves rather than the wider world, called the presumption that his group had written the anonymous reviews "the height of arrogance."
"It's interesting that they find some negative reviews and assume that the reason for it must be partisan ax-grinding and not real taste," Mr. Jackman said. "I mean, there's no accounting for taste, is there?" Whether it is arrogance, paranoia or simply common sense, positive reviews come under suspicion, too.
"Could the five-star reviews (so far all but one from NY, NY) be the work of the author's friends?" asked a one-star review by "A reader from Washington, DC" on the review page for Susan Braudy's "Family Circle," a biography of Kathy Boudin, the former member of the Weather Underground, and her family.
Reviews are not the only features writers take advantage of to improve their image on Amazon. Many have been known to list their own books as alternate recommendations for any given book, and to compile lists of favorite books with their own at the top. Not unlike authors who have manipulated newspaper best-seller lists by buying copies of their own books, one ordered books through Amazon to raise his ranking there.
Books are far from the only products subject to anonymous reviewing these days. The growth of electronic commerce has spawned a new kind of critical authority ó one's peers. On Amazon alone, customers depend on one another for advice on CD's, DVD's, garden tools and electronic equipment. On dozens of other Web sites, average citizens anonymously review restaurants, software, even teachers.
The word-of-mouth advice is widely seen as empowering to consumers who no longer have to rely on privileged critics with access to a television station or printing press to disseminate their opinions. But the reliability of the new authorities is the subject of increasing debate, at least among active Amazon users.
As the Amazon sites expand their visitors are seen as an increasingly important. Mark Moskowitz, an independent filmmaker, sent an e-mail message to about 3,000 people this week asking them to review the DVD of his film "Stone Reader," which goes on sale soon.
"If you didn't see it but heard it was good, go ahead and post anyway, (what the heck)," Mr. Moskowitz told them. "It doesn't obligate you for anything, even the truth."
Despite the widespread presumption that the reviews are stacked, both readers and writers say they affect sales, especially for new writers whose books are not widely reviewed elsewhere.
To increase the credibility of the reader reviews, Amazon has introduced a means for users to vote on the quality of each review, and a corresponding ranking of the top 1,000 reviewers. But the site's discussion boards are full of carping about how people are trying to play that system, too. Many prolific reviewers speculate that Harriet Klausner, 55, who has long reigned as No. 1, cannot possible read all the books she reviews.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Klausner, in turn, accused the No. 2 reviewer of getting people to vote for him and against her in a "desperate attempt to be No. 1."
But such concerns among reviewers pale beside those shared by a range of naturally obsessive authors.
Late last month on her radio talk show, Dr. Laura Schlessinger used a call about an anonymous letter to vent her distress over some of her Amazon reviewers, who she described as "scummy, creepy people."
The feminist author Katha Pollitt mentioned in a recent New Yorker article that she had considered anonymously posting a nasty review on her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend's Amazon page, but refrained from doing so. In an interview, however, she said she had chastised a friend whose book had no reviews on Amazon when it came out, telling her to have friends to post some. The friend followed her advice, but Ms. Pollitt was disappointed. "I'm thinking what kind of friends are these? They've only written one sentence."
The novelist A. M. Homes said the one Amazon review that had stuck in her mind was a negative one from someone who signed off "A reader from Chevy Chase," which is her hometown.
"The world of books is a very small world these days, and any time someone takes the time to share their opinion it's incredible," Ms. Homes said. "But I do want to know who that person from Chevy Chase was and what their problem with me really is."