What If Amazon Reviewers Took On The Classics?

Author and satirist Joe Queenan calls the readers' review section on Amazon.com a "superb innovation of recent times." But he wonders what reviewers might have said about Shakespeare or Homer if the Internet existed centuries ago.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, satirist Joe Queenan savaged citizen reviewers, who, beholden to no man and cloaked in anonymity, do not hesitate to take on the brightest stars of literature by posting capsule reviews on Amazon.com. And he went on to wonder how they might have treated the classics had the Internet and Amazon existed then.

"Deuteronomy," for example. Average reader's rating: three stars. I don't get it, Queenan's fanciful reviewer posts. I've read most of the books in this series and they totally kick butt, but this one leaves me scratching my head. Is there a story here? Am I missing something? Why so much talk about clean and unclean beasts? The author really got on a roll with "Genesis" and "Exodus," and I was on the edge of my seat when I read "The Book of Numbers." But this one runs out of gas early. Now, I'm glad I skipped "Leviticus."

(Soundbite of laughter)

So, imagine for a moment how an Amazon review might have treated the classics the day they came out. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Send us an email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joe Queenan joins us now from our bureau in New York. He's the author most recently of a memoir called "Closing Time." Joe, always nice to have you on the program.

Mr. JOE QUEENAN (Author, "Closing Time."): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And you've - you seem to have some experience with reviews on Amazon.

Mr. QUEENAN: Yeah. There - some of them are really funny. A lot of them are fairly personal. There was one guy who wrote a review. He is a guy who I think I had reviewed his book not the way he liked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUEENAN: And he actually said something nasty about my mother. And I thought he was foolish enough to actually sign his name, which they usually don't do. So I thought maybe one of these days, I'll pay a personal visit and ask him if he'd like to rephrase that.

But as a rule, the reviews are fairly anonymous. So basically, people can write whatever they want, and a lot of times, they do. Some of them are pretty funny. I mean, one of them that a couple of friends sent to me was a woman who ordered a book off Amazon because she had the same last name as the author. Luckily, it wasn't Hitler.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUEENAN: But - and then she got the book and she didn't like it. And it was almost - you almost read this kind of disappointment in her voice that - well, we had the same name, surely, we should've - surely, the book should've come through from me. I thought that was rather sweet.

CONAN: That's nice. But nevertheless, these people are earnestly trying to warn their fellow readers against duds.

Mr. QUEENAN: Yes, they are. And a lot of times, they're successful in doing that, but not always. And I think one of the things that's very interesting is they live in a kind of parallel universe with the other reviewers because they refer to their reviews and they encourage people to read their other reviews as if they were H.L. Mencken or Jonathan Yardley or something like that. And you're not really in the game. That's the thing. You're not really in the game.

So, it is quite interesting to me to read - you know, one of the things about reviews online is that if you don't have your name attached to it, you don't have to carry the water for what you wrote. Whereas, anybody, professionally, who writes a review - if they write a negative review of somebody, which is necessary most of the time, they make lifelong enemies. These grudges literally never go away, and that's part of the reason that being a book reviewer is a serious thing. Just teeing off people and shooting for behind the bushes, the way a lot of people do on the Internet, it's not really quite the same thing that professional reviewers are doing.

CONAN: Yet, as you note in your piece, some of them posit themselves as the only ones willing to speak truth to power.

Mr. QUEENAN: Yeah. Well, that's one of the things. They're like the 50,000 people at the Mets stadium screaming at Chipper Jones. They're speaking truth to power. But he's on the field getting paid, and you're in the stands screaming. He's going to Cooperstown, you're going home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUEENAN: And I think that that's one of the things. I think it's great, actually, that so many people express themselves online like this, because otherwise, I think some of these people could end up in the Dallas book depository.

CONAN: All right. Here's an Amazon Shakespeare review sent to us by email by Wayne(ph) in Flagstaff, Arizona: I love the writing and would read more from this author, but somebody should've fixed his spellchecker before publication.

That's not too bad.

Mr. QUEENAN: That's good. No, no. Exactly. I thought mine was better. I reviewed "King Lear." The reviewer said: As like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. Oh, right. Like I didn't know that, like I didn't know that to be or not to be is the question, like I didn't know that the fault lies not in us but in the stars. Tell me something I don't know, Mr. Bard of Whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And as soon as I heard this idea, I thought of the review of George Eliot, one of her books - she writes like a girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUEENAN: Yeah. Or, why do you use such big words, like in "Mein Kampf"? Why do you have to keeping using words like lebensraum and oberkommandant? I've got a thesaurus. And what's up with that Jewish thing?

And that's the thing that I love about them is that they - you know, if you write a review for, well, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Washington Post, the editor will probably flag four or five places where, say, maybe you don't want to say this, maybe this is libelous, maybe this isn't true, maybe you misspelled their name. But because that doesn't happen so much with these reviews, people just say just about anything. And I think that most of the time, it's quite funny.

CONAN: Let's get Brian(ph) on the line. Brian with us from Chicago.

BRIAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Do you have a review for us?

BRIAN: Yeah. I've read the "Iliad" and I found it, you know, romantic and wonderful and whatever. But it seems surprisingly modern in comparison to other ancient texts like, say, the Bible or the Quran. I just don't see how, you know - it's false authorship.

CONAN: False - what's with that Wine Dark Sea, anyway?

BRIAN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah, right, Brian.

Mr. QUEENAN: I'd give it three stars.

CONAN: Three stars?

Mr. QUEENAN: Not as good as "The Da Vinci Code."

CONAN: No, no. Nowhere near as good as "The Da Vinci Code." I'd like the review of "Oedipus Rex" as well. The average reading rating: four stars. It's pretty good.

Mr. QUEENAN: Yeah. Well, I think that one - it could be easily be read by a lot of readers as a sort of business manual where you can see where a guy's career goes off the rails. You know, don't get involved with your mother. Don't bring your mother into the business. But that's another thing that I like. A lot of times when books are reviewed, the reviewers who don't have any expertise in that field, a lot of times completely miss the point of the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And, again, what good is that?

Mr. QUEENAN: Well, they think it's a chemistry text or something like that. No, it's a novel.

CONAN: Then there are people who, as you say, posit themselves as polymaths.

Mr. QUEENAN: Oh, yeah. There's people who just basically have this kind of self-reverential thing where they, kind of, correct scientists' errors and things like that. Or they have theories that they expound and you get the impression when they're writing them that millions and millions and millions of other people are debating these theories at the same time, whereas it's just like weird stuff that they're saying to each other.

CONAN: Let's get Chris(ph) on the line. Chris, calling us from Poplar Bluff in Missouri.

CHRIS (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. I just finished rereading "Huckleberry Finn." And I would think that the reviewers would have a fit with that. What's wrong with Mr. Twain? Why do we have to hear by and by about every other sentence? Well, what is wrong with his diction? Doesn't he know how to speak? And yet, in reality, it really gave us a great view of America 100 years ago.

CONAN: So, how many stars for Huck Finn do you think?

CHRIS: I would think it would be lucky to get two.

CONAN: Lucky to get two. That's probably about right.

Mr. QUEENAN: You know, I just finished reading that last week. And it seems like everybody is reading "Huck Finn" these days. And I still got to give that three billion stars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUEENAN: If there's a…

CHRIS: Yeah.

Mr. QUEENAN: If there's a better book ever written by an American writer, well, I'm in for a treat because I haven't come across it.

CONAN: Well, perhaps "Closing Time" but maybe with one exception. Anyway…

CHRIS: Ernest Hemingway completely agreed with you. He said there was no book before nor no book after.

Mr. QUEENAN: And I agree entirely with that. It's just a superb book. But it -I agree, there's some racy language in there.

CONAN: Chris, thank you very much.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Peter. Peter, calling us from Ann Arbor where they do a lot of reading.

PETER (Caller): A fair bet. I just called about "The Sound and The Fury" by William Faulkner. It's a book that was definitely difficult to read, concerning the point of view that it's written from, as well as just the language is very time specific. And it's a modern - in modern times it's a pretty difficult one to get through.

CONAN: So, you don't think the Amazon readers would be very kind to it?

PETER: No. I think it's a little difficult.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much, Peter.

PETER: Thanks.

Mr. QUEENAN: I think Amazon readers would have a good time with "The Aeneid," because it would be just like whine, whine, whine. How come you keep - got to complain because you're whole town got burnt down and your family got killed? Stop complaining. Suck it up.

CONAN: Let's go next to Peggy(ph). Peggy with us from Angola, Indiana.

PEGGY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Peggy.

PEGGY: I was calling to - just to talk about a couple of reviews I've read on Amazon. They're one-star reviews for great books - like "The Catcher in the Rye" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" - that have clearly been written by high schoolers who were assigned that book in class, and they hated it. And those almost are more entertaining to me than people who read the book seriously and didn't like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUEENAN: I think there's a whole bunch of people in high school who are writing some of these reviews, judging by some of the perceptions and some of the spellings. But you know what? I got to say I hated "The Catcher in the Rye." I hate school. I hate books about private school boys. I wouldn't even give it the one star. So, I'm totally in agreement with the reviewer there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PEGGY: Yeah. Well, I was also thinking of the phenomenon of really terrible products getting exaggerated glowing reviews.

CONAN: Yeah.

PEGGY: I haven't see it with books but there's a product called "The Three Wolves T-Shirt." And you'll see all these books - excuse me, reviews saying things like, this t-shirt changed my life. And it gets really funny after a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PEGGY: And like, I can imagine that the same phenomenon happens with some terrible books out there.

CONAN: That review may have been written by the printer as we suspect sometimes, Joe Queenan, the glowing reviews may have been written by the author.

PEGGY: I think - yes.

Mr. QUEENAN: I think that the glowing reviews are frequently written by the author's mommy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUEENAN: And the negative reviews are written by the last person you bounced a check on.

CONAN: Or perhaps his ex-wife.

Mr. QUEENAN: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. It could have been the same person. Peggy, thanks very much for the call.

PEGGY: Thank you.

CONAN: I have to read this review that you wrote on "On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres". Average reader rating: three stars. Those who have read my countless reviews elsewhere know that I am a mathematician, astronomer, polyglot and philosopher in my own right, and therefore uniquely qualified to discuss everything from Zeno's Paradox to Gordian's Knot. Mostly, I think my fellow polymath Copernicus has done a pretty solid job here. The thing most laymen don't realize - unlike mathematicians/philosophers/astronomers/polymaths like me - as those familiar with my numerous other reviews can tell you — is that people like Copernicus are really good with numbers. Just as I am. Really, really good - me, that is. Readers seeking more of my unique insights can reach me at igor@mymommysbasement.com. Igor - I supposed that's pronounced.

And Joe Queenan, I guess somebody's going to have to say, you know, A, at least they're reading the classics.

Mr. QUEENAN: Well, the dead people are reading the classics. I don't know how many people are reading the classics today. I do find - a very interesting thing that I find is the chummy quality to these things, because the people actually get the impression that, you know, they're actually reaching out and they're touching the writer, and that the writer might actually listen to what they have to say. I don't think that people like Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster actually need that much input from the public. I think the worst sentence Joyce Carol Oates ever writes in her life is going to be better than anything anybody writes in the review in Amazon.com. But frequently, there is that - it's a nice democratic quality. It's like people on the corner shouting as the president goes by, hey, I don't like your health care policy, and he keeps moving.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. QUEENAN: And that's basically what it is.

CONAN: I never believe ball players when they say they don't read the sports pages, and I never believe authors when they say they don't read the reviews. I bet everybody does.

Mr. QUEENAN: I think all authors read reviews. And I think that all - I really don't think that most baseball players read the newspapers, but I don't think that baseball players hear the noise when they're in the stadium. I really don't think that they do. I think that they're - I've had this thing happened several times when I've interviewed musicians or ball players.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. QUEENAN: They just look past you. The most - you've spent like three weeks trying to think of something interesting to say to Sonny Rollins or Dr. J, and the most interesting thing that you're going to say to them is something that they knew when they were 4 years old because they're professionals. And that's what this is all about. If you're a professional, you're in the game and you got paid. If you didn't get paid anything, you're an amateur. And in the United States, if you didn't get paid for something, we'll try to figure out how much it's worth.

CONAN: Joe Queenan joined us from our bureau in New York. He's the author most recently of a memoir called "Closing Time" - I think he got paid for it. You can find a link to his piece in the Wall Street Journal on our Web site, go to npr.org/talk.

Joe, thanks very much.

Mr. QUEENAN: Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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