The New York Times reports that a technical glitch at Amazon Canada last week caused the real user names of reviewers to be displayed instead of their chosen pseudonyms. Hilarity ensued:
John Rechy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel “City of Night” and winner of the PEN-USA West lifetime achievement award, is one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon’s highest rating. Mr. Rechy, who laughed about it when approached, sees it as a means to survival when online stars mean sales.
“That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd,” said Mr. Rechy, who, having been caught, freely admitted to praising his new book, “The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens,” on Amazon under the signature “a reader from Chicago.” “How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them.”
But even with reviewer privacy restored, many people say Amazon’s pages have turned into what one writer called “a rhetorical war,” where friends and family members are regularly corralled to write glowing reviews and each negative one is scrutinized for the digital fingerprints of known enemies.
One well-known writer admitted privately–and gleefully–to anonymously criticizing a more prominent novelist who he felt had unfairly reaped critical praise for years. She regularly posts responses, or at least he thinks it is her, but the elegant rebuttals of his reviews are also written from behind a pseudonym.
Numbering 10 million and growing by tens of thousands each week, the reader reviews are the most popular feature of Amazon’s sites, according to the company, which also culls reviews from more traditional critics like Publishers Weekly. Many authors applaud the democracy of allowing readers to voice their opinions, and rejoice when they see a new one posted–so long as it is positive.
But some authors say it is ironic that while they can for the first time face their critics on equal footing, so many people on both sides choose to remain anonymous. And some charge that the same anonymity that encourages more people to discuss books also spurs them to write reviews that they would never otherwise attach their names to.
Jonathan Franzen, author of “The Corrections,” winner of the National Book Award, said that a first book by Tom Bissell last fall was “crudely and absurdly savaged” on Amazon in anonymous reviews he believed were posted by a group of writers whom Mr. Bissell had previously written about in the literary magazine The Believer.
“With the really flamingly negative reviews, I think it’s always worth asking yourself what kind of person has time to write them,” Mr. Franzen said. “I know that the times when I’ve been tempted to write a nasty review online, I have never had attractive motives.” Mr. Franzen declined to say whether he had ever given in to such temptation.
The suspicion that the same group of writers, known as the Underground Literary Alliance, had anonymously attacked his friend Heidi Julavits prompted the novelist Dave Eggers to write a review last August calling Ms. Julavits’s first novel “one of the best books of the year.”
Mr. Eggers, whose memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” made him a literary celebrity, chose to post his review as “a reader from St. Louis, MO.” But the review appeared under the name “David K Eggers” on Amazon’s Canadian site on Monday, and Mr. Eggers confirmed by e-mail that he had written it.
Oh, that Dave Eggers, always so shy and retiring. Will he ever come out of his shell?