Anne Rice. Photo: Getty
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Your book sucks: are authors being bullied with one-star Amazon reviews?

Anne Rice thinks there are communities of “parasites” intent on dragging down writers by slating their books online. Is she right – and why are we such slaves to the star rating, anyway?

I frequently fall down internet rabbit holes – I google medical symptoms late at night, I look up animals who have won awards (I have not won awards), I try to find out the exact length of intestinal worms pulled from dogs’ bellies on old episodes of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not that I vaguely remember watching in the ‘90s (results so far inconclusive). I also habitually read the one-star Amazon reviews of books I love. Why? I have no idea. Try it. It’s like sitting mutely at a dinner party with aliens.

Here's Lolita

The book arrived on time in and was in great condition but the actual literature itself was just terrible . . . its turgud, pretentious crap, which is badly written and really just utterly dull, I doubt a combination of the literary talents of Katie "Jordan" Price and Alan Shearer could come up with something more indescribably poor.”

Go find a book you love. Click the one-star reviews – there will always be some. Cancel your plans for this evening.

But one-star Amazon reviews are more than a space for performance art or green-ink rantings. Some authors believe that they amount to “bullying”. Anne Rice, writer of Interview with The Vampire has signed a petition snappily entitled Protect Amazon.com Users and Indie Publishing Authors from Bullying and Harassment by Removing Anonymity and Requiring Identity Verification for Reviewing and Forum Participation – a collective effort to eradicate trolling and abuse in one particular corner of the internet. The petition wasn’t her idea, nor was it one of the dozens of daily causes sent to our inboxes courtesy of 38 “pick your battles” Degrees as a way of enabling Rice’s long and personal war against The Unfavourable Reviewer. (ICYMI: Last year she took umbrage with a small potatoes blogger (who not only didn’t like her book but cut it up for some arts crafts project), posted a link to the offending review on her Facebook and invited comments. Essentially she just set her fanbase on someone who didn’t like her book, and opened the blogger up to a world of shit-slinging from the more slavish of the group (others called Rice out on it).  In terms of picking a postergirl against being a dick on the internet, you could do better than Rice.)

Anne Rice is not the only writer to have gone after a bad reviewer. In 2011, a self-published author in Milton Keynes launched libel proceedings against the guy who wrote a series of bad Amazon reviews of his book, The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know. Also summoned to the courtroom were Richard Dawkins and his foundation (for discussion threads relating to the review on the foundation’s website) and Amazon (for allowing this to happen in the first place). Earlier this year there was a story about another self-published author in America threatening to sue a reviewer because their single bad review allegedly lost the writer $23,000. Whether it’s back-of-the-envelope maths or real maths we’ve only got his word, but at this point it’s irrelevant. Stay with me.

While I’m up late googling intestinal worms I shouldn’t be, there’s a thing I always try not to do and invariably end up doing anyway on Twitter: argue. As a rule, it’s best not to engage. If you engage, you will not come out looking good. I have argued in favour of outlawing shorts. I once swore, in a sleepless blaze, that taramasalata is better than hummus (I GOT MY WORDS AROUND THE WRONG WAY). We all make mistakes. Nobody comes out looking good and screenshots last forever. This rule is also applicable to Amazon.

The author-who-thought-the-one-star-review-put-him-down-$23,000 broke this rule. He engaged. He commented on the bad Amazon review, the reviewer wrote back and by the end of it there was a 19-comment thread right there on the Amazon page where anyone thinking about maybe possibly buying the book would see it. I’m speaking for myself here obviously, but I’d consider that kind of a turn-off.

Had he left it alone that one-star review would have been an outlier compared to dozens of better ones (35 of them being five-stars) and probably regarded as the anomaly it was. But – like Jerry Seinfeld evening up his chest hair in that werewolf episode – he went too far. Could it be as simple as that thing where you don’t remember compliments, but you do remember the place, the time, and the tone in which you’re pretty sure someone implied you have a fat arse? Internet nemeses are easily gained and rarely forgotten. I should know – I have them as saved searches in my Tweetbot.

But of course there is a big difference between bad Amazon reviews and disagreeing on Twitter: here there is money involved. Bad reviews pull the book’s overall rating down – the rating that sits right under the name of the book in yellow stars. The temptation to “game” that kind of system is often irresistible – to fans, to haters, to the authors themselves.

Reputable sites make a point of not tampering with customer reviews, or at least being transparent about what's fair comment and what's not. Richard Longhurst, co-owner of Lovehoney, Britain’s biggest online retailer of sex toys, says that while his staff do go in and correct grammatical errors, Lovehoney will never outright remove a bad customer review from their website – the presence of the bad lends validity to the good.

What prompted Rice to sign the petition were her experiences in an Amazon forum this past January (although she’s been talking about the Amazon problem for some time). She was answering questions while “predatory career bullies” (screengrabbed here) spat venom and abuse, anonymously. She told the Guardian: “They've worked their way into the Amazon system as parasites, posting largely under pseudonyms, lecturing, bullying, seeking to discipline authors whom they see as their special prey . . .  They're all about power. They clearly organise, use multiple identities and brag about their ability to down vote an author's works if the author doesn't 'behave' as they dictate."

Rice is right about one thing: there are reviewers out there who pride themselves on only leaving bad reviews. Meet Chris Roberts.

Roberts has 50 followers on Twitter, where he describes himself as a “short story writer, Pushcart Prize nominee and Lord High Executioner of the Amazon One-Star review”. I first started following him in June 2013. I found him underneath a listing for a book I was thinking about buying and he was rubbishing, in verse. It was a one-star review, the absolute hammer-to-the-balls of the Amazon world. This month he reached a landmark 350 one-star reviews. Authors range from the relatively unknown, to Paul Auster, to Vladimir “nowhere near as good as Katie Price” Nabokov. Since he started in 2010, Roberts has read and loathed more books than I have stacked guiltily and unread by my bed. By review number five he was signing off as “Chris Roberts, God”.

He has reviewed a collected edition of Nora Ephron's work by writing a one-act play in the style of Tennessee Williams. Signing himself “Chris Roberts, lord God of the spooky edge”, he reviewed a Thomas Pynchon book in free verse averring that "YOURS is a cyclical pantomime". He reviewed a book about Bob Dylan by noting, “Insanity is knowing Bob Dylan can't hold a note.../ And calling him a great artist.../ Insanity is his response to the Holocaust...”

I wanted to know why he rubbished, on average, two novels per week consistently for the past four years. I asked him but was evidently too slow in answering my emails (I am shit at emails, I will give him that). It went: less than brilliantly. You can still find these daily updates on his Twitter if you ever need reminding:

Matthew Taub at OTBKB had better luck than me in interviewing Roberts: here he ponders whether he is an “obstinate troll or literary muckraker”?

Roberts has a very clear view on one-star reviews: he likes giving them, and Amazon won't stop him. He told Anne Rice as much: “even if Jesus Christ signed the petition, Amazon will do nothing”.

Chris Roberts is probably right. But would removing abuse make Amazon purer?

While an Amazon rating might matter little to you, it matters a lot to the author. Nobody checks an Amazon rating more frequently than the book’s author. It’s the sort of thing that keeps a person up at night. I should know, I have slept in the houses of the Amazon-ranked.

Here’s what writers do in their dressing gowns: writers write back to people who slate them. We know this because in 2004, for one stomach-flipping week, the anonymous reviewer names on Amazon Canada were replaced with real names. By the time the glitch was rectified we’d already found out that the anonymously named “a reader from New York” was actually Dave Eggers, rebutting bad reviews. Some writers wrote five-star reviews of their own books (and their friends’ books) in order to boost the rankings. Don’t judge those guys, you’d do it too. When ratings equal sales, it’s a means to survival. It’s the online equivalent of going into a bookstore and rearranging the display so that your own book is front and centre (also left, right, above and below if my time as a bookseller taught me anything), or putting in a fake order and then cancelling it so the store is forced to put it on their shelves (where it can be rearranged in a week’s time to front, centre, left, right, etc). In areas of creative work, games are always being played: for good and bad.

Remember that self-published author from Milton Keynes? The judge threw the case out, a) because such a small portion of the reviews would actually be considered libellous and pursuing it would be a waste of time and money, and b) the judge thought the author might have trouble convincing the jury that he had been wronged, considering his own online behaviour. He has been pseudonymously rebutting bad reviews and adding favourable ones. (He owes £100,000 in legal bills.)

Essentially this Amazon petition is just a part of the wider discussion about people being dicks on the Internet. Even if you take away their anonymity, people will still find a way to be dicks on the internet because it’s the internet. As for Amazon reviews, they have become bottom half of the internet at worst, strategic puff pieces at best, and therefore irrelevant unless you're buying a washing machine or being funny about Penetrating Wagner's Ring. In the same conversation you have with your mum about that man from Nigeria asking her for money, you need to explain how Amazon reviews need to be ignored.

Will the petition work? I doubt it. If Amazon’s customer reviews were a stain on your shirt, they’d be a go-home stain. No amount of scrubbing will get this out. 

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain