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.
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!