Saturday, February 14, 2004

Bad Luck & Broken Hearts

SPEC Chicago's Night of Bad Luck & Broken Hearts was a blast - we read mostly to each other, but MoJoe's Cafe is so small that it looked PACKED TO CAPACITY. Jessica Disobedience was particularly strong. She read an anecdote about an unstable fuckbuddy, full of racuous humor and wry self-awareness. Hey, maybe Jessica and Steve Kostecke could co-edit an anthology of ULAer Sex Stories. I've got a doozy involving a milkshake.

posted by E. Dameron
Michael Jackman Quoted in Feb. 14 New York Times

Amusing piece on Amazon's accidental unmasking of anonymous reviewers, wherein MJ answers Jonathan Franzen's suggestion that you'd have to be a jealous wretch to hate Tom Bissell. From Friday evening's New York times, the fourth major story down on the web equivalent of the front page:

Amazon Glitch Unmasks War of Reviewers

Published: February 14, 2004

Close observers of noticed something peculiar this week: the company's Canadian site had suddenly revealed the identities of thousands of people who had anonymously posted book reviews on the United States site under signatures like "a reader from New York."

The weeklong glitch, which Amazon fixed after outed reviewers complained, provided a rare glimpse at how writers and readers are wielding the online reviews as a tool to promote or pan a book - when
they think no one is watching.

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."

Mr. Rechy is in good company. Walt Whitman and Anthony Burgess both famously reviewed their own books under assumed names. But several modern-day writers said the Internet, where anyone from your mother to
your ex-agent can anonymously broadcast an opinion of your work, has created a more urgent need for self-defense.

Under Amazon's system, any user may submit a review without publicly providing any personal information (or evidence of having read the book). The posting of real names on the Canadian site was for many a
reminder that anonymity on the Internet is seldom a sure thing.

"It was an unfortunate error," said Patricia Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman. "We'll examine whatever happened and make sure it won't happen again."

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.

"I've done that one or two times before, when I like a book and the reviews on Amazon seem bizarre," Mr. Eggers said. "In this case I just tried to bring back some balance."

Michael Jackman of the Alliance, which champions "underground writing" and has been critical of contemporary writers' focus on themselves rather than the wider world, called the presumption that his group had
written the anonymous reviews "the height of arrogance."

"It's interesting that they find some negative reviews and assume that the reason for it must be partisan ax-grinding and not real taste," Mr. Jackman said. "I mean, there's no accounting for taste, is there?"
Whether it is arrogance, paranoia or simply common sense, positive reviews come under suspicion, too.

"Could the five-star reviews (so far all but one from NY, NY) be the work of the author's friends?" asked a one-star review by "A reader from Washington, DC" on the review page for Susan Braudy's "Family
Circle," a biography of Kathy Boudin, the former member of the Weather Underground, and her family.

Reviews are not the only features writers take advantage of to improve their image on Amazon. Many have been known to list their own books as alternate recommendations for any given book, and to compile lists of
favorite books with their own at the top. Not unlike authors who have manipulated newspaper best-seller lists by buying copies of their own books, one ordered books through Amazon to raise his ranking there.

Books are far from the only products subject to anonymous reviewing these days. The growth of electronic commerce has spawned a new kind of critical authority — one's peers. On Amazon alone, customers depend
on one another for advice on CD's, DVD's, garden tools and electronic equipment. On dozens of other Web sites, average citizens anonymously review restaurants, software, even teachers.

The word-of-mouth advice is widely seen as empowering to consumers who no longer have to rely on privileged critics with access to a television station or printing press to disseminate their opinions.
But the reliability of the new authorities is the subject of increasing debate, at least among active Amazon users.

As the Amazon sites expand their visitors are seen as an increasingly important. Mark Moskowitz, an independent filmmaker, sent an e-mail message to about 3,000 people this week asking them to review the DVD of his film "Stone Reader," which goes on sale soon.

"If you didn't see it but heard it was good, go ahead and post anyway, (what the heck)," Mr. Moskowitz told them. "It doesn't obligate you for anything, even the truth."

Despite the widespread presumption that the reviews are stacked, both readers and writers say they affect sales, especially for new writers whose books are not widely reviewed elsewhere.

To increase the credibility of the reader reviews, Amazon has introduced a means for users to vote on the quality of each review, and a corresponding ranking of the top 1,000 reviewers. But the site's discussion boards are full of carping about how people are trying to play that system, too. Many prolific reviewers speculate that Harriet Klausner, 55, who has long reigned as No. 1, cannot possible read all
the books she reviews.

In a telephone interview, Ms. Klausner, in turn, accused the No. 2 reviewer of getting people to vote for him and against her in a "desperate attempt to be No. 1."

But such concerns among reviewers pale beside those shared by a range of naturally obsessive authors.

Late last month on her radio talk show, Dr. Laura Schlessinger used a call about an anonymous letter to vent her distress over some of her Amazon reviewers, who she described as "scummy, creepy people."

The feminist author Katha Pollitt mentioned in a recent New Yorker article that she had considered anonymously posting a nasty review on her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend's Amazon page, but refrained from
doing so. In an interview, however, she said she had chastised a friend whose book had no reviews on Amazon when it came out, telling her to have friends to post some. The friend followed her advice, but
Ms. Pollitt was disappointed. "I'm thinking what kind of friends are these? They've only written one sentence."

The novelist A. M. Homes said the one Amazon review that had stuck in her mind was a negative one from someone who signed off "A reader from Chevy Chase," which is her hometown.

"The world of books is a very small world these days, and any time someone takes the time to share their opinion it's incredible," Ms. Homes said. "But I do want to know who that person from Chevy Chase
was and what their problem with me really is."

posted by E. Dameron

Monday, February 09, 2004

Literary Circus is a hit

After a few readings that went from okay attendance to horrible attendance (maybe 10 people), we rallied the troops and went on a non-stop promotion binge and got folks out to the Highland Coffee Company in downtown Birmingham and had a hell of a good time and a great reading. Here were the highlights:

Reggie Woods: Always a fun guy to listen to. Read a strong short story about a little boy's struggle with religion. Good stuff.

Angie Mae: Had the funniest short story of the night. I laughed out loud at her short story about a carful of girls who get sidetracked on their way to a Janis Joplin concert.

Carl Chang: Great poet. Came through as a last-minute replacement when Adam Baldwin and Karl Koweski, due to circumstances beyond their control, could not make it to the reading.

Emily Sellers: This pretty performer with hot-pink hair and blue roots wove an entertaining yarn about her love of burlesque and whether it conflicts with her feminism.

I, of course, hosted the event and had a good time partying with the 30 or so people who showed up, including two college professors. We sold a couple copies each of Cathedral and Slush Pile and most of us partied into the night.

If you're ever in the Birmingham area on the second Sunday of the month, be sure to stop by and check us out!

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Karl Wenclas announces on alt.zines:

As was previously mentioned, the Philadelphia chapter of the ULA is
sponsoring an East Coast Underground Conclave. This has been scheduled
for some time, and is not any big public affair we're promoting, but
since many of those there will be non-ULAers, we decided to make a
public announcement about it.
Where: the upstairs fireplace room, Pizzeria Uno, 511 S. 2nd Street
(just north of South Street) in Philadelphia.
When: Saturday, February 21st, 1 pm to 6 pm.
Invited: All underground DIY people.
It will be half-party, half-conference; "An Exchange of Ideas"--
discussion, presentations, and conversation.
It'll be very laid-back and informal, so anyone should feel
comfortable dropping in to have a beer and see what's up.
It's not a show, but we may have an impromptu reading or two, given
that a few world-class performers, such as Mad Dog Grover, will be
Cash bar; snacks and food.
While it's hosted by east coast ULAers, people from all over are
invited, and we will have a few people traveling to town for the
event, such as ULAer Patrick King. There may also be a surprise zine
guest showing up at some point, but we'll know that when it occurs.
I'll cover some of the topics to be discussed at the meeting in a
later post.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The Literary Circus

Part three of my Literary Circus Reading series is coming to the Highland Coffee Company this Sunday. Anyone in the Birmingham, Alabama region even slightly interested in literature on the more-or-less whacked out side should check us out.

Got folks with weird names like Karl Koweski and Adam Baldwin performing.

And yes, there is a bar. Stocked.