We writers have difficult relationships with reviewers. Historically, we have always feared them, but also respected them, because they tended to be erudite and knowledgeable, even if they were the sort of people who use words like “inchoate” in casual conversation. Their reviews would hold you to high standards; if a review was bad, you kind of suspected you deserved it.
But now, with anyone and everyone empowered to write reviews in places such as Amazon.com, the correlation between the quality of your work and published opinions about it is far less solid. One Amazon reader gave a book of mine only two stars (out of five) entirely because it was damaged in shipping and the cover had a smudge. Another reader allotted two stars to a book I wrote about old dogs because parts of it made her sad: She felt I should not have mentioned that dogs eventually die.
My friend David Von Drehle recently wrote a brilliant, critically acclaimed book about Abraham Lincoln’s decision-making in 1862, the most perilous year in American history. One Amazon reader declared it magnificent, but gave it only one star because it didn’t also include the year 1863. It was so good he didn’t want it to end. One star.
Even positive reviews can bring chagrin. My first book, about hypochondria, was not even in many stores yet when its first Amazon review appeared. This was 1998. Proudly, I summoned my two children, who were 17 and 14 at the time. I explained to them about Amazon, that it was a new, exciting Web site in which readers themselves could rate books.
Visibly, impressed, they bellied up to the computer: This was an anonymous five-star review, and it couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. The headline was: “I almost died laughing (I am an asthmatic).” It went on and on about the breadth of my talent and finished up this way: “This is the only book I’ve ever recommended — and I’m a librarian.”
My kids read it, looked at me, looked at each other, and burst out laughing. They had written it.
I suppose I should have contacted Amazon and had that bogus review pulled down, but I never did. It’s still there. I think of it as counterbalancing the two-star I got from a person whose other Amazon reviews are almost exclusively devoted to back-support bras. (She’s none too thrilled with them, either.)
Meanwhile, hats off to BuzzFeed. It’s only fair that I give it this accolade, since I have criticized it in the past for ditzying-up journalism. Besides, that isn’t really the site’s fault, since I hear none of its editors ever finished high school. (I haven’t confirmed that yet but am going with it anyway.)
E-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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