Dec 10

In Harriet Klausner We Trust?

Posted by A Writer

If you're a writer, or someone with a vague interest in books who spends any time online at all, you've probably heard of Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com's #1 Reviewer.  For those of you who don't know, Ms. Klausner is famous for her, er, review rate; she hit the fifteen thousand reviewed books mark this year (I wrote the number out so the more skeptical of you wouldn't believe I accidentally hit an extra zero.  Suspicious bunch, you people.), and shows no signs of slowing down.  Yesterday she posted reviews for another ten books, and on her top days has reviewed far more than that.  And she reads widely as well: mysteries, romances, horror books, science fiction, young adult, she's got them all covered.  According to TIME, Harriet is "part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made. The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don't care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see…Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can't match. They're not fancy. They don't have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do."  Harriet Klausner Goes To Random House: the heart-warming story of a "citizen reviewer" whose folksy style has won over the jaded regulars of the publishing world. 

Maybe.

But take another look at the prolific HK and you'll find a couple of clouds to this silver lining.  A quick perusal of her reviews indicates that all of her reviews–all of them–are either four or five star affairs.  Apparently every book is good or great, which is a pretty good track record for an industry which has the reputation of producing some schlock on occasion (just scurrilous rumors, no doubt).  Still, you would imagine that one or two authors wouldn't have gotten the "only great books accepted" memo and might, possibly, have written something a little below par.  (I in no way wish to disparage My Beautiful Disaster, of course, which is obviously one of the greater books we've produced as a species.  Jordin Sparks liked it, and it got five stars, for God's sake!)  But it's conceivable that Harriet just has a great eye for otherwise misunderstood talent.  What isn't as easy to explain is how every review reads like something taken directly off the back cover of the book itself, with a couple of vague generalizations thrown in for good measure.  Read the book description and HK's review of the aforementioned MBD and you'll note some stunning similarities.

But wait, wait, wait.  What happened to folksy charm?  She doesn't even get paid for doing this!  And she's a speed reader!  Didn't you read the TIME article?  Are you against quiet revolutions, you industry shill?  All good points.  I love folksy charm, and sign me up for the next peaceful revolt.  But when you learn that she's actually sent advance copies of books "by the truckload" from publishers who are desperate for any kind of exposure for their books, and that she's become widely derided as a "joke" by industry execs, you may start wondering what worth her reviews actually have.  It's certainly not the deathless prose: "Readers along with the two DS will wonder whether Alan has gone over the edge or found a real connection; which premise makes this a deep read."  Now there's a five star sentence.  In fact, there seems to have been a not-so-quiet revolution against poor folksy Harriet, from conspiracy theories that she's actually a fake created by the publishing industry to pump up their books to full-scale attacks on her intelligence and (already shaky) credibility.  There's even a Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society, which is a society but is not appreciative.

But many of my more savvy readers will probably know that the word has been out on Harriet for a while now.  I bring it up again here because over the past few months I've begun to see a disturbing trend, which I call the Harriet Klausner Effect (HKE, patent pending), manifesting itself in more and more places.  The HKE refers to the practice of seeking out, by any means necessary, outside testimonials, reviews, and gestures of approval to validate one's work for an increasingly skeptical public (I told you that you were a suspicious bunch).  The latest example of this phenomenon is the paid blog review craze, where people are, apparently, paid to review other people's blogs.  In fact, there are actually whole sites dedicated to encouraging this phenomenon.  The process is pretty simple: submit your blog to the site, and for a fee (which can run to $300 and more, by the way) one of the site's paid reviewers will post a review of it, either on that site or in some cases on his/her own blog.  The reviewer gets paid, the blog gets exposure, and everyone's happy.

Um–what?!? 

I'm sure I'm late to the party on this, but I think even the most credulous person out there will raise an eyebrow at this model.  Even Google has recognized the problem and started to adjust its search engine criteria to take account of (and more easily reject) sites which rely on this "pay-per-review" model.  Yet rather than either applauding this response or sheepishly admitting we just screwed it all up, a lot of bloggers have instead decided to attack Google and the objectivity argument:  "A blogger's job sometimes goes unappreciated and for granted. Pay Per Post and ReviewME offers models where, at least, they can review products and services they find interesting and give a fair assessment of those products, while being appreciated ($$$) for it."

For the second time: what!?!

In the past, this kind of Conflict of Interest 101 situation would have been justifiably demolished for its utter lack of objectivity.  This is why the famous "industry-funded studies," like those which found no link between smoking and cancer in the 70s, don't get that kind of unquestioned authority from the public anymore.  But thanks to the HKE, "lack of objectivity" has now been removed and replaced with "appreciated."  We're objective, the bloggers say, we are, we swear to God!  The money has absolutely nothing to do with our review.  We would review these sites anyway; now we're just getting "appreciated" for our work.  Uh huh.  Which is why, no doubt, these sites were willing to drop three or four bills just to get you to pay attention to something you would have paid attention to anyway.  I love quiet revolutions, don't you?

Sarcasm aside, the point here is that standards matter, and taking money from a site to review it seriously reduces the credibility of that review, no matter how much you stamp your foot and say it ain't so.  I do theater reviews, and while I'm sure the press people are nice to me when I come to their performances (just as you would be nice to anyone on whom you're trying to make a good impression), that's the extent of their "payment" to me.  My editor and his/her review medium is the one to whom I'm responsible, and thus conflict of interest doesn't enter into it.  It's often impossible to avoid all connections to something you're reviewing, of course; if I say I like WordPress (and I do), I can't avoid the fact that I'm using a WordPress-created site to say it.  But there was no quid pro quo there; I started using WordPress because it was great, and then decided to talk about it.  WordPress didn't send me a check, or a review book copy, or anything else to do the review.  I just liked it and said so.

Such arguments seem to me to be obvious ones, but so pernicious is the HKE that they seem to be getting muddled in people's minds, and I can't for the life of me figure out why.  I want public acceptance as much as anyone, and you better believe that I want my books and music to do well.  I'll even check out Rate My Professors once in a while to see what my students think about how cool I am (and whether I got a hot pepper, and I did, thanks for asking).  But even divines recognize the importance of free will and prayer freely given; forced or solicited reverence doesn't cut it, no matter how pious you claim to be.  Get your name out there, market and promote yourself, talk your work up at every opportunity.  But don't pay for the privilege.  You're better than that.  Even Harriet Klausner says so, and she only gave you four stars.