Jacob Haller (jwgh) wrote,
Jacob Haller

literary wars

There's been an extremely slow-moving literary argument/discussion going on in Harper's. In 1996, Harper's published an essay by Jonathan Franzen in which he blamed the fall in readership of serious literature on the tendency for it to be difficult to read. Then in 2005 Lionel Trilling posted a response, also in Harper's, titled 'Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It: A Correction', which was a sort of defense and celebration of hard-to-read books.

In the current Harper's there's an essay by Cyntia Ozick titled 'Literary Entrails: The boys in the alley, the disappearing readers, and the novel's ghostly twin', which enters into this discussion.

Ozick thinks that the problem with modern-day literature is that there isn't enough literary criticism, which she distinguishes from reviews, reviews being focussed on whether books are good or bad while lit crit tries to find links between books, if I understand the essay correctly.

None of this is particularly important, but it is background for this quotation, which I was amused by, because it seems like an unusually nasty and unmotivated attack on Amazon's reviewing system, and also for another reason:
Less innocent is the rise of the non-professional reviewer on Amazon -- though "rise" suggests an ascent, whereas this computerized exploitation, through commerce and cynicism, of typically unlettered exhibitionists signals a new low in public responsibility. Unlike the valued book club reviewer, who may be cozily challenged by companionable discourse, Amazon's "customer reviewer" goes uncontested and unedited: the customer is always right. And the customer, the star of this shoddy procedure, controls the number of stars that reward or denigrate writers. Amazon's unspoken credo is that anyone, or everyone, is well suited to make literary judgments -- so that a reader of chick lit (the term defines the reader), will howl with impatience at any serious literary fiction she may have blundered into. Here is "Peggy of Sacramento (see my other reviews)" grudgingly granting one ill-intentioned star to a demanding contemporary novel: "boring slowness, hard going, characters not even a mother could love." Or Tim: "A thoroughly depressing book. The home life was not a pleasant atmosphere in which to raise children."1 Most customer reviewers, though clearly tough customers when it comes to awarding stars, are not tough enough -- or well-read enough -- for tragic realism or psychological complexity. Amazon encourages naive and unqualified readers who look for easy prose and uplifting endings to expose their insipidities to a mass audience.
Wow. OK.

As I said, I was impressed by how mean this passage is, and of course by its elitism (I think the phrase 'unqualified readers' is pretty funny), but I also was a little puzzled by the quoted reviews; to me they didn't seem very typical of Amazon reviews.

Oh, but wait, what's that footnote?
1 These are, admittedly, inventions, but with recognizable verisimilitude.
I'm not sure why it's necessary to make up stupid Amazon reviews when the real thing can be found so readily. Possibly copyright or other legal concerns?

A cynical person might wonder if Ozick herself had gotten rated poorly on Amazon at some point. (However, most of her books get 4-5 stars.)
Tags: literary wars, writing
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.