Everybody's a critic

The NYTimes: reports on the complex underworld of Amazon book reviews:

"'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 article suggests the obvious first step to remedy is to adopt something like eBay's reliability system. People are far more likely to buy from eBay sellers with good recommendations, so maybe Amazon customers will trust reviewers with solid track records.

What's striking is this Amazon situation shows that competitiveness is everywhere, even among what I thought was the small, congenial world of academic novelists. Maybe it's like road rage -- not seeing the face gives you license to act impolitely.

Something worth considering is that Helen Klauser, who has written more Amazon reviews than anyone, is reviled by some of her competitors. It's like the geocachers who hated CCCooperAgency or WaldenRun. If you don't have the time and the means, you can't compete -- this is true for business and research as well as online endeavors.

Another point: An anonymous review by a work's author may not be so malignant -- you can view it as an attempt to explain some of the motivation and technique that went into it, sort of like jacket-liner notes. The problem comes when reviewers are shoehorned into giving "thumbs up" or "five stars": That's when an auto-review becomes indefensibly biased. It may be worth looking into the distribution of Amazon ratings: on their five-star system, you'd expect the mean, median, and mode rating to be 3 stars. The mean may well be 3, but the mode could very well be 1 or 5 stars. I suspect there's an amost upside-down bell curve distribution of ratings, reflecting the polarization of reviewers that "loved it" or "absolutely hated it".