A few thoughts on Amazon reviews

My work on turn-0f-the-century novels and their reviews stems from an interest in how novels got talked about in public, at a time when public discussion of novels was much more frequent and took place in a much wider range of periodicals than today. These days, book reviews have considerably less influence on the discourse surrounding a given novel, making them not all that interesting to me personally.

Amazon reviews, on the other hand, are absolutely fascinating. Not just the book reviews, although that’s primarily what I want to talk about. I bought a set of espresso cups from Amazon a couple of years ago and came across the following review: “Maybe it’s just me but I think the cups are just too small. It’s hard to judge how much they will hold by the pictures and description but after receiving them, they seem more appropriate for a child’s tea set. They are a good quality, but I don’t think that many ‘men’ will drink out of these…..they are very tiny. Only hold about 1.5 ounces. ”

For the record, the cups hold 3 ounces, and none of the ‘men’ who’ve used them have had any complaints (at least to my knowledge).

But what does one do with the vast potential of Amazon reviews? Paul Gutjahr’s work on reviewers of the Left Behind books, which I’ve talked a bit about here, provides one example. Gutjahr’s study, though, was conducted in 1999 and published in 2002, and Amazon, as well as the web in general, has changed a lot since then.

The sheer quantity of the reviews is perhaps the biggest problem. There are over 5400 reviews of The Help available right now. Despite my resistance to quantitative approaches to literary study, when confronted with that many reviews, I start to wonder if topic modeling might be one way to start to draw meaningful conclusions from them. I’m also woefully ignorant of the methods used in communication studies, which I imagine may be better suited to dealing with larger-scale data sets.

In addition to the obvious problems of scale, the reviews raise the question of representativeness. Sure, there are a lot of them available, but that doesn’t make them, even in the aggregate, representative of the “average” reader, anymore than marginalia or diary entries from the nineteenth century provide insights into the “average” nineteenth-century reader. The mere fact of having taken the time and energy to write a review makes the reader atypical. Add to that Amazon’s questionable reviewing policies and the existence of editorial practices intended to improve sales, rather than preserve reviews, and you get a lot of potential bias in the reviews.

Which is not to say that we can’t make interesting conclusions based on Amazon reviews, just that, as with all reviews, we have to be careful about how we frame them. One place to start might be by resisting the idea that the reviews tell one single, definitive story about the reception of a novel. 5400 reviews of The Help are going to tell a lot of interesting stories about the novel. Rather than attempting to quantify the significance of one of those stories, it makes more sense to me to look for the story that speaks to a broader cultural or literary context. Find the right story and the right context, and the field of 5400 shrinks considerably.

A couple of months ago, I found myself browsing through the reviews of Elinor Lipman, the author of some of my favorite beach reading novels. Plenty of reviewers said the same thing I would, if I were motivated to write a review: the books were engaging, funny, quick reads that don’t require much of the reader (all necessary qualities for something I’m going to read on vacation). But a subset of reviewers indicated that, while they had enjoyed Lipman’s earlier novels, this book (the reviews for each of Lipman’s books had a few reviews like this—it wasn’t any one novel in particular) was about people unlike themselves, and therefore unenjoyable, tedious, or otherwise uninteresting.

One review, titled, “You don’t have to be Jewish,” assured readers that a lack of identification would not necessarily ruin their reading experience:

“I really don’t care for specialty-group books: mother-daughters, sisterhoods, working moms, etc.; I had this figured to be a good library check-out book, as in, don’t spend any money on it, because you probably end up having to be East-coast Jewish to really get a good read out of it. Wrong. The positives already expressed still apply. Lipman is a skilled author who develops character and situational drama so skillfully that all other ‘specialty’ elements (religion, cooking, etc.) take a back seat to the entirely fun and riveting read.
So, if you are a west coast protestant who really doesn’t enjoy cooking or resort life, read this book for the sheer light, can’t-put-down, literary pleasure.”

I think the attitude expressed in this review can be linked to the readings of The Help and The Hunger Games that I wrote about earlier. That model of reading, which emphasizes identification as a primary interpretive and evaluative tool, is both pernicious and widespread. It affects both individual responses like the one above, and the broader public discourse surrounding popular novels and novel reading. If I were going to try to make some sense of all those Amazon reviews (and to be clear, I absolutely do not have time to do that), that’s the story I would tell.

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2 responses to “A few thoughts on Amazon reviews

  1. That’s really interesting. (I’m avoiding homework tonight… thanks for your help!) Writing believable, identifiable characters is something that’s discussed to the point of exhaustion on the fiction writing blogs I read. Is this why no one talks about them just being believable? Because if people can’t identify with your characters, believable or not, you don’t have a book that will sell? I’ve never thought much about models of reading, but yeah, if that’s the current reading model, no wonder it’s also the writing model.

    • Interesting. My hunch is that yes, identification is probably pretty important if you want to make the case that a novel will be a best-seller. I think when we talk about identification in fiction, it’s worth keeping in mind Kenneth Burke’s argument that “to begin with ‘identification’ is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division.” Identification, according to Burke, is ultimately a partisan move, and that’s something we don’t sufficiently acknowledge when we identifiable characters or novels.

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