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No Author Is Too Good for Her Amazon Critics

Dear readers, the commoners have reviewed Margo Howard’s book … and Ms. Howard is not pleased.

A bit of background: long-time advice columnist Howard wrote a memoir called Eat, Drink, and Remarry: Confessions of a Serial Wife. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “touching” memoir by a “pampered princess” that relied heavily on name-dropping for its draw.

Amazon’s critics were less impressed—specifically, Amazon’s “most trusted” reviewers who, Howard says, are given “freebies … cold cream, sneakers, pots and pans, and … books!” and allowed to review them in advance of their publication date. She is not a fan. These reviewers—“the freebie people,” Howard calls them—are “dim bulbs,” they are “evangelical, unworldly,” “barely literate, and “deluded.”

The irony, of course, is that in trying to show that she’s not, as the “freebie people” say, a coddled, name-dropping, well-connected rich lady, Howard comes across as a well-connected rich lady. Everything from her name-dropping (both a MacArthur genius and a long-time Vanity Fair staff writer loved her book!) to her solution to the problem (it turns out that Howard knows two members of Amazon’s board of directors!) smacks of barely-examined privilege.

Still, I can feel Howard’s pain. Show me a writer who hasn’t felt savaged, misunderstood, unfairly attacked, or completely misread by an Amazon reviewer, and I’ll show you a writer whose books live in shoeboxes under her bed. I suspect that there are, indeed, reviewers who skim books looking for references of stuff they don’t have—a nanny here, a remodeled kitchen there—so their review can scream RICH LADY PROBLEMS in all caps. Yes, it’s agonizing to have a book you’ve labored over for years casually eviscerated by someone called Quirkygirl. And, yes, as Howard notes, there is a tendency to review the writer, not the book, although that gets tricky when the book is a memoir, and even mainstream critics are guilty of falling into this trap.

Howard’s biggest objection to her Amazon reviewers is that they’re unqualified. “I can see the value—maybe—for man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans,” she allows. “But books?!” This critique calls to mind 2001-era Jonathan Franzen moping that Oprah’s readers lacked the intellect to understand his work of genius, or novelist Richard Ford complaining that newspapers, with their “institutional backing,” deliver more responsible reviews than “some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute.”

More recently, it evokes Peter Stothard, chair of the Booker Prize judges, fretting that bloggers “prioritize unargued opinion over criticism,” to the detriment of literature, or Paris Review editor Lorin Stein opining that the people who say they liked Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH are simply too clueless to know better, and even Dwight Garner’s horror at a recent biography’s revelations that Harper Lee ate Burger King salads and senior coffee from McDonald’s.

Clearly, there are people who believe that readers and writers—at least the right kind of readers and writers—are special snowflakes, existing on a more exalted plane than mere mortals. Book people are educated. They are privileged. They are brave enough to speak out when the emperor shows up naked. They sup on nectar from flowers grown on the sunny slopes of Mount Olympus, harvested by chiton-wearing MFA candidates. These reviewers “who are attached to magazines or newspapers,” are nothing like the people “unschooled in creative and critical reviewing,” who are, thus, “inappropriate bellwethers regarding products for the mind, if you will.”

Well, thanks, but I won’t.

The us-versus-them game that Howard wants to play is the same argument that’s been on a loop since the advent of the Internet, and the rise of the book bloggers: citizen critics who built websites to discuss and reviews the books they loved. Readers were delighted. Some “real” critics were affrighted. What was this rabble, and what made its members think that they had anything worthwhile to say?

Then, slowly, the boundaries dissolved. Some blogs found wide audiences when readers discovered that their proprietors were as smart, informed, opinionated, and as engaging as “real” critics. Some bloggers are now attached to those most esteemed newspapers and magazines—Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, wrote several pieces for the Huffington Post after she published a book; bloggers like Lizzie Skurnick and Maud Newton regularly appear in the Times’ pages. Smart readers and writers welcome the role that these “unschooled” citizen-critics play in the publishing ecosystem, just as they know that sometimes the most bone-headed, tone-deaf, clueless, and offensive reviews come from the most educated, well-connected, well-paid critics.

Howard frets that the Amazon attack hurt her book’s chances. There’s no way to tell if that’s true, but I’d give readers the benefit of the doubt. My guess is that they can sniff out a review that’s the result of baseless jealousy or an unfounded agenda, the same way they’ve learned to dismiss five-star fan-girling from an author’s BFFs, colleagues, or mom.

If the Amazon reviewers slammed Howard’s work without reading it, that’s a problem, and Amazon should address it. If they panned Howard’s book because they didn’t like it, that’s reality, and Howard need to figure out how to live with it, and to come to terms with publishing in 2014. Everyone is a critic. Everyone’s got a soapbox. And the worst fate for a writer isn’t being attacked … it’s being ignored. 

An earlier version of this piece stated that Pamela Paul worked at the Huffington Post for two years. She wrote several pieces over a one year period, but did not work for the company. We regret the error.