So, it seems that RJ Ellory stepped in it, huh? Don’t worry, I’m not going to comment about his practice of writing reviews of his own work under pseudonyms (or the fact that it took people this long to figure out that “Nicodemus Jones” wasn’t real).
No, what strikes me most about this is the fact that people seem to give so much credence to reviews of unknown provenance. Do all of those five-star reviews on Amazon from strangers really carry weight when someone decides to purchase a book? They must, or this wouldn’t be an issue, nor would services like Yelp! continue to thrive.
Sure, the idea of regular-Joe reviews had appeal at the outset. When confronted with the vast marketing machines of major corporations, a few candid reviews from real product users were of immense value. Globocorp says its widget is the ideal thing for your home, but Susie Homemaker in Poughkeepsie begs to differ, citing its cheap construction and confusing directions.
In the arts, it perhaps made even more sense. I was a reviewer for a mid-sized daily newspaper for five years, and wrote about dozens and dozens of books, CDs, concerts and more. But I could in no way get to it all, and that was in a relatively small metro area. What of the goings on in a true population center? What of all of the books in, say, the crime fiction genre, that are only glanced at by the likes of the New York Times? What then?
Enter the common man (and, of course, woman). I read (watch, listen, sew, mow, etc.), therefore I am qualified to review. The slack is taken up, the monolithic voice of the mainstream media is augmented and the corporate shill is but one voice among many.
There are two problems with this sort of layman’s strain of criticism. The first is one of expertise. Sure, Susie might be able to discern that her Globocorp widget is shoddily produced. But can she cogently present an argument for why this product is inferior to another, or why the other is better? And in the arts, perhaps Carl was dragged to the ballet by his wife and deems the performance “stupid” on Twitter the next day. But is that a valid criticism worthy of consideration?
The second problem, of course, is that the powers-that-be quickly learned that customer reviews were trusted far more than their marketing, so they began to market through customer reviews. People constantly are urged to share a review on Amazon or to tweet or to post on Facebook… and those are just the quasi-legitimate uses of the opinions of real people. There are, as in the case of Ellory, innumerable “people” out there shilling for products (books, movies, CDs, lawnmowers, food processors, ad infinitum) for a dime. These reviews are meaningless, just slightly less so, at times, than those written by “real” people.
Which is why, if you rely on these reviews without truly knowing their source, then you have no one to blame but yourself. There are scores of credible reviewers out there reviewing every conceivable thing, and you can get to know them through their work. They are professionals, but they also are learned amateurs. There are blogs I read to learn about good books, but there also are friends on Facebook, people I follow on Twitter. They have track records that are easily discerned. I know how their tastes align with my own. I know that they don’t blindly trumpet everything just for the sake of saying something. I have begun to learn when I’ll like something Janet Maslin praises, or, more importantly, when I’ll love something she trashes. When Jedediah Ayres praises something, I seek it out. Same with the Crime Factory guys. Or Brian Lindenmuth. Or Keith Rawson. Or… well, the list is long and these people are the reason why I my book overflow storage has crept into my basement (don’t tell my wife that’s what is in that one cabinet).
So the real question isn’t why Ellory would do such a thing, or why Amazon doesn’t do something about it or any of the other reasonably indignant questions asked in the past couple of days. But rather, it is this: Why have we allowed this system to take on so much importance that someone would think it is a good idea to game it, so much importance that people get bent out of shape if he did?