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.

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
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“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.

 

NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.

 

NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.

 

NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?

 

NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.

 

NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.

 

NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.

 

NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.

 

NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.

 

NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.

 

NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.

 

NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.

 

NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.

 

NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.

 

NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage