February 14, 2004

The Wonderful World of Amazon.com

Today's New York Times features an entertaining article on Amazon.com: because of a weeklong computer glitch at the company's Canadian website, the names (rather than the pseudonyms) of thousands of book reviewers were inadvertently revealed to the public. The results were often amusing:

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.

The world of Amazon.com reviews is an oddly amusing place. If you want to learn more about it, check out this November 2000 American Prospect article, in which Rick Perlstein unleashes both his inner populist and his inner Reinhold Niebuhr in an effort to learn about this subculture (and sell more copies of his book.)

Update: It seems that every blog around is commenting on this article. Plus, as Will Baude points out, you can read a lot of amusing Amazon reviews at this blog.

Update 2: The Observer talks to various British writers about this story. My favorite response was by the critic D.J. Taylor, who said, "When I was 22, I wrote an article in the Spectator about working in a bookshop, and I can remember forging a letter about it and sending it in. I have also reviewed under the pseudonym Felix Benjamin - the names of my children - but that was because I was doing the same book for two different papers and wanted to make sure I got paid twice."

Posted by Ed at February 14, 2004 02:19 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?