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HYPE

Frugal readers! Are you looking for a classy graduation gift that won’t break the bank?  Great news!  At the time of writing, The Possessed has become an Amazon bargain book and will set you back scarcely the price of a Venti Mocha Coconut Frappuccino!

In other Amazon news, it was recently been brought to my attention that the Possessed reader rating has dropped to 3-point-something stars. Looking over the stats, I saw that, although 5-star ratings has a large plurality (thank you, friends!), there are also quite a few 1-stars, which can’t all be from Orlando Figes.

I found myself wondering why the Amazon reader reviews were, on average, less positive than the reviews in the press.  My guess is that satisfied readers of a well-reviewed book are less likely than unsatisfied readers to post on Amazon.  One group thinks to itself, “Why should I write a good review when the Times already did,” while the other thinks, “Aha, a venue to express my outrage at the Times for hyping this book.”  I found support for this hypothesis in the fact that many particularly well-reviewed books tended to have relatively low reader ratings.  So… it’s the old dialectic of hype vs. backlash.

I remember when “hype” used to be a pre-publication phenomenon.  Hype was inherently unreliable, because it came out before anyone had actually read the book. Today, pretty much any good review counts as “hype,” which has thus become a codeword for any positive opinion that you don’t share – a way of disguising a difference of opinion as a conspiracy theory.

Earlier this year, I was struck by a reader’s comment to the Paris Review staff reading recommendations, regarding Lorin Stein’s choice of “The Drunk’s Club” by Clancy Martin:

Well of COURSE Lorin Stein chose Martin’s work.  Stein is Martin’s editor/horn-blower at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and has a very vested interest in getting Martin’s name out there as much as he can.

You didn’t think any of these “staff” actually recommended the works pro bono, did you? I think the only recommendation I can actually trust as being honest is Katy Waldman’s – unless she’s soon to be heading up a re-release of Dinesen’s works, which is probably what’s happening.

It’s all bloody marketing. Now Martin can say, “Look! Look! I got a Staff Pick in the Paris Review!” which will inevitably snowball into a new book proposal for Martin that will, predictably, turn into another big ol’ stinker – but not before both Martin AND Stein come away with the $$$$$s.

Here is a classic case of perceived hype leading to a perceived conspiracy theory. For anyone who has published a book lately, the idea of Martin leveraging “a Staff Pick in the Paris Review” to get an advance big enough to give Stein an under-the-table kickback is so ludicrous, it’s actually beautiful.  As Stein put it, “Ah, Bill, if only one pulled down the $$$$$ so easily!”

In their concern not to seem gullible, people extend more credit to the magical powers of hype, and perceive its workings in every corner. They are encouraged by the hype-producers themselves; see, for example, the highly entertaining pre-pub diary by debut novelist Rosecrans Baldwin:

April 16, 2010

Ahoy! You Lost Me There was chosen by Entertainment Weekly for their summer list. I yelped when I received the news. My publicist and editor were as surprised as I was, especially by the caption, “a much-hyped debut novel,” since this is the first piece of “hype” we’ve seen.

There’s this fantasy that a single mention in Entertainment Weekly or the Paris Review is tantamount to a million dollars and a two-book contract… and the only people whom we don’t begrudge such magical good fortune are those who are already dead. Thus, the one staff pick Bill considers “honest”: Isak Dinesen.

As Benjamin Kunkel points out in an excellent essay in n+1, the worst thing about the “hype cycle” is that it transforms literary criticism, and even reading itself, into an exercise in self-positioning. Readers respond less to the work than to its “relationship to its reputation”: “instead of abandoning yourself to the artifact, you try to exploit inefficiencies in the reputation market” in order to assure your own status on the cutting edge (or as the last bastion of non-commercial integrity, or whatever).

Bearing this in mind, I have made a resolution to write five 5-star Amazon reviews this month of books I love by living authors. I encourage you to do the same! I will also be devoting the next few blog posts to living authors whom I admire. Consider this my way of engaging in polemics about whether I should be engaging in polemics.

See you at the polls!

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10 Responses to “HYPE”

  1. thierry henry Says:

    You recommended Benjamin Kunkel’s n+1 essay. You write for n+1. This blog post is so clearly an insidious effort to further your…uh…CONSPIRACY!

  2. douglas Says:

    “…the worst thing about the “hype cycle” is that it transforms literary criticism, and even reading itself, into an exercise in self-positioning. Readers respond less to the work than to its “relationship to its reputation”: “instead of abandoning yourself to the artifact, you try to exploit inefficiencies in the reputation market” in order to assure your own status on the cutting edge.”

    An excellent thesis. And true not just for authors/readers, but for almost all artists whether they be Tyler, the Creator; Terrence Malick or women (who I assume must get some hype-generating press coverage some place).

    In all seriousness I applaud your work on this post but a warning: Judging a book’s viability through its Amazon reviews is a fool’s game.

  3. ovaut Says:

    I put down this comment over at Duck Beater’s tumblelog. I’d read McGurl, and got irked. It’s a bit bombastic, so caveats.

    If I was indifferent to all this before, McGurl’s essay was self-discrediting, and now I lean towards Batuman’s view.

    McGurl’s use of the Wolfe parable seems to manifest a misconception. Far as I can tell, he’s using it to say that egotistic elitism, on the order of Wolfe’s, not only doesn’t make you write well, but probably makes you write worse.So what are the lessons for Batuman in that? According to McGurl, they are that Batuman shouldn’t be an egotistic elitist. Because she’ll write worse. McGurl seems to have taken Batuman’s piece to frame an ars poetica, whether conscious or unconscious.

    The view of Batuman’s piece as an endorsement of egotism hinges on this conception of it as an ars poetica, which is a conception that is original to McGurl but which he does not substantiate. I agree that it can be read as an endorsement of elitism. Egotism and elitism should not be confused, though. Neither entails the other: they are not the same.

    Even if his conception of the piece is right, it is straightforward to cite counterexamples which prove his parable to fail to illustrate a rule. Vladimir Nabokov was arrogant as they come. Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are so confident of their designs on timelessness that they become self-fulfilling, and enact in the reader–in their being read–the timelessness they assert. McGurl’s own essay–I think palpably–constitutes one of those dick-swinging demotions, or slappings-down, which women writers seem apt to attract. I don’t register any want of egotism in the deliberate flair of his journalist’s prose.

    But his conception is wrong: there’s no indication that Batuman sought to prescribe a Wolfean conceitedness, or that she believes her exhibiting such an attitude should effect her instatement to the canon. Who knows, even, if she would place herself among the elite? Certainly, on her blog, she is spikily self-assured, but if we are in the business of condemning that we should check ourselves, and in the same instance, anyway, she demonstrates more humility than could be imputed to any narcissist.

    No, it is apparent instead that the Wolfe parable *vindicates* Batuman. Here is a writer whose reputation at his death sufficed to leave him convinced of his value to posterity. And yet his work is overheated romantic effluent. It is a mountain of indigestible crap. Few attempt it, and fewer persevere, only three generations after the zenith of its renown. Is not the lesson, in this extent, that not even the object of ubiquitous acclamation can take for granted the resilience of his fame? The parable of Wolfe reveals as axiomatic the elitist nature of literary history and the inscrutable nature of literary fates. As Batuman perceives, time the winnower husbands its grams of grain.

  4. SW Foska Says:

    Quit the Bourdieu-style dissections, just group the 1-star reviews together to make 5-star ones. You need (as I’m sure you can tell) five one-star reviews, and then you can exchange them, like dollar bills for a five dollar bill, and get a five-star review. Easy!

  5. James Says:

    But the only book by a living author I would want to give a five star review is by… waaaaiitt a second…

  6. Jackie Dent Says:

    I frankly wouldn’t trust Amazon reviews — the publisher, the writer’s friends, and other characters with a vested interest in a work could easily be putting up 5 star reviews. I rarely buy a book after reading a review anyway. I am usually inspired in the bookstore itself – staff pick notes taped to the shelf, chatting to the bookseller or simply browsing. This is why independent booksellers staffed with book lovers are so important. Ultimately, my mother is probably the best source of book recommendations!

  7. Robert S Says:

    Elif,

    Good points on hype. And great idea about active blogging for some living non-hyped writers. But while Amazon is the retail force to reckon with, you only enhance their power to control the destiny of your book by providing them with content (reviews) for books. For now, at least, GoodReads is trying to stay retailer neutral in its advocacy for books.

  8. Mike Lindgren Says:

    Dear Ms Batuman,

    The limited exposure I have had to reviews on Amazon leads me to believe that you should only be concerned by a LACK of one-star reviews. The phrase “pearls before swine” comes to mind…

    ML

  9. Pennywhistler Says:

    Then again, some people just didn’t LIKE the damned thing and took the time to say so. Yay for America!

    Granted, most of the complaints were actually about the “hype” – i.e. the good review in the NYTimes. I don’t remember anyone mentioning The New Yorker.

    I replied to one of the complainers, who merely seemed to be upset that Possessed wasn’t what she expected it to be. I think she wanted travel writing and was surprised that it had so much about books in it.

    Learning to read Amazon reviews is like learning to read a foreign language. Fer chrissakes, perfectly good kitchen knife sharpeners get 1-star reviews! When 10 people tell you that the USB connector arrived loose, that’s one thing. When they tell you that Hesperus doesn’t play early music like “they should”, you ignore it and go right to the audio samples.

    Perhaps you should take advantage of that feature where Amazon lets you read a sample page or two.

  10. Bobby Musker Says:

    Dear Elif,
    Did Orlando Figes reallygive your outstanding book a bad review?
    Sincerely,
    Bobby Musker

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