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THE WRITING LIFE

In which the author obsesses over potshots by amateur critics on Amazon.com.

Bohjalian at home In Lincoln, Vt.
Bohjalian at home In Lincoln, Vt. (Tsar Fedorsky)
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By Chris Bohjalian
Sunday, August 17, 2008

The other day my daughter, 14, saw me hunched over a laptop, cringing at the customer reviews of my novels on Amazon.com and bn.com. "Why do you insist on tormenting yourself?" she asked. "It just can't be good for you."

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She's right. And yet torture myself I do. I'm drawn to the online book forums for my novels the way tabloid photographers are drawn to Britney Spears: It won't be pretty, but it is pretty irresistible. My friends who are writers lurk around these sites, too. That snapping sound you hear this summer? It's not the electric bug zapper on the porch; it's novelists everywhere getting stung by the viper-like postings that readers and customers leave in any number of nooks and crannies on the Web.

Don't get me wrong, most of the time I appreciate the way that the Web has made possible an intimacy with the public that didn't exist 15 years ago -- that Mesozoic era before the Internet -- when the writer was a distant abstraction to most readers. Now I have regular correspondence about my books with readers around the globe, most of whom I'm never going to meet. I have an active discussion board for any one who's interested on my own Web site. But there are few worlds as barbed as the digital one, and people say savage things about my work online that they wouldn't dare say in person. Such are the privileges of anonymity and distance.

To wit, a recent post at Amazon for one of my novels is headlined, "Not getting better." The reader concludes "In a word: vacuous."

It gets worse: "The writing is crude, the yarn slack. He's not been 'Oprah'ed' for nothing."

Or this from another customer review titled "Ugggghhhhhh":

"I was asked to read this book for my job," the reader volunteers, and then explains why he gave the book just one star out of five (I have not added the following typos to impugn the critic's qualifications; they were already there): "I proceded to read it untill i got to chapter 7, and when i found that no plot has even erupted yet. The entire chapter was about a deer. How can a book be seven chapters in, and about 100 pages in, and still have expostition material. this book was terrible and would never suggest to anyone."

And, finally, I offer this newly posted review from "Amy in Denver" about an 11-year-old novel of mine:

"Apparently writing about a subject such as birth from the point of view of a fourteen year old girl is too much of a stretch for this male author. . . . His unimaginative writing style is also lacking. He doesn't trust his reader to remember an event that happened twenty pages prior, like restating the fact that the trial was difficult for the family, which is obvious. All in all, disappointing and irritating."

It only takes one thorn like that in a rosebush of 30 or 40 flowers to leave me bleeding and wounded and thinking to myself, "Wow. You really aren't very good, are you? You're certainly not good . . . enough." Am I thin-skinned?

Perhaps. Vulnerability and creativity don't always go hand-in-hand, but often they do.

In the early years of the online bookstores, we writers scanned these sites only to see the sales rankings of our books. And while that was toxic and demeaning (there is nothing like being the 158,314th bestselling book on the Web), we could always tell ourselves that that store represented only one venue for sales. We could always delude ourselves into believing that perhaps we were selling better in the actual world -- at bricks-and-mortar bookstores or at airports or at a certain gift shop in Santa Fe.

But these reviews? I find them spellbinding, the frescoes of the damned inside Brunelleschi's great dome in Florence. That review from "Amy in Denver" may have finally sent me off the deep end. I responded with an embarrassingly pathetic comment of my own beneath hers: "Wow, you are one of the only readers to feel this way -- and to have such rage toward me. I am so sorry! Fingers crossed someday I don't disappoint you." I thought this was both a peace offering of sorts and a way of defending the book, which, in all fairness, had 536 other reviews and a four-star rating at Amazon.

Well, I never heard back from "Amy in Denver." But a nanny in Tennessee chimed in: "She's very much not one of the only readers to feel cheated by the book. I have been consistently disappointed by your books, and I doubt I'm one of the only ones to feel that way, either."

This nanny, I saw, had also reviewed baby books and can openers for Amazon. She liked both the baby books and the can opener -- especially the can opener -- a lot more than my novel. That's the thing about the great people's democracy of the Web: Everyone's opinion has, more or less, the same value.

And while I usually champion that sort of egalitarianism, there is a small part of me that thinks like Napoleon the Pig: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Well, all critics are equal, but some critics are more equal than others. I confess that I put more stock in the opinion of the novelist who questions whether an ending in one of my books is fully earned in a Washington Post or New York Times review than I do in "Bic Parker" at Amazon, who wrote about one of my novels, "Stoopid."

And yet Bic Parker's vote counts. It affects both book sales and, yes, my self-esteem. Certainly, there are lots of enthusiastic reviews for my work by readers online, and there are plenty of critics -- and I am not using that term facetiously, I promise -- who understand a book in precisely the fashion I intended. That, too, is what draws novelists to pore over the Web reviews. In that mosh pit of online commentary, that galaxy of single-star and five-star reviews, a lot of people who are far smarter than I have said things about my books -- both good and bad -- that left me humbled.

Nonetheless, it is hard to resist a review that uses the word "Stoopid" or to argue with someone who calls himself "Bic Parker." And, alas, it is nearly impossible for a book to hold its own with a really good can opener. ยท


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