Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Great Toothbrush, Pity About the Novel

How good is the average customer review on Amazon, and what does its quality tell us about the health of Western civilization? Or, to ask a less boring version of the same question, how bad is the average below-average review on Amazon, and exactly how fucked are we? Below, selected entirely not at random, is a customer review from the Amazon page devoted to Lucky Jim. The review is entitled “Time Have Changed My Perception.” Feel free to insert your own sics

Years ago, when I had the first oportunity to read this book, it seemed to be real fun, while today it is just description of general problems of academic enviroment, it looks that nothing have realy change or will change. The stagnation of academia is a pemanent dilema: today teachings are the absolite truths, defended by the old guards. 

Reading this, I had a brief dilemma of my own. On one hand, I wanted to do what any good post-modern citizen should do when presented with a display of embarrassing inadequacy: I wanted to look the other way. After all, it’s only an Amazon review. And maybe English is not the guy’s native tongue. Maybe he can speak five other languages besides it. Maybe he’s a refugee from some war-torn hell-hole. Maybe in his chosen field – welding? extreme fighting? – he can perform feats that you and I couldn’t dream of emulating. 

But the highbrow in me refuses to let the matter rest there. He insists that this sort of thing can’t be allowed to stand, because it’s part of an insidious net-wide trend. The illiterate literary critic has become as firm a fixture of the web as the Texan pornographer, the Russian rectifier of penis size. The forums and blogs are being over-run by a bizarre species of pundit who can’t spell or think straight, has no evident affinity for the written word, and yet has this strange urge to go around passing judgement – often very harsh judgement – on serious works of literature. Don’t ask me why such people are drawn to literature, or what they can possibly get out of it. What did a guy like that think he was doing reading Lucky Jimtwice

But apparently he did. The author of the above-quoted review supplies his full name on Amazon, but I’m disinclined to give it here. For one thing he sounds like a bit of a wacko, and I don’t want him Googling himself and reading what I just said about him. Also he isn’t a professional critic, so there’s no point in going after him personally. But he is an amateur critic, and that is no longer a negligible thing to be. The amateur critics are moving in from the margins. Not even scientists are safe from them. In the “debate” about global warming, for example, we seem to have reached a point where the scepticism of the amateurs – such as my hairdresser – is somehow thought to exist on the same plane as the views of professional climatologists, who spend all day every day looking at models and data and core samples of ice they’ve personally extracted from the North Pole. So what chance do we stand in the literary field, where even people inside the academy have embraced the idea that no person’s textual “reading” is any more valid than anyone else’s? The amateurs are getting noisier and more amateurish by the day. They insist that their views must be heard. Well, if we have to listen to them, we also have every right to reply. 

Let’s compromise then, and call the guy by his initials, which are JG. Mr JG’s profile indicates that he’s reviewed a total of four Amazon products in his time. Lucky Jim is the lone book among these. The other items are a toothbrush, a hedge trimmer, and some kind of oil filter for cars. These products are not made out of words, so Mr JG’s manifest inability to speak English properly doesn’t disqualify him from having useful things to say about them. On the subject of the Philips Sonicare Elite toothbrush he’s positively illuminating, pointing out that a bonus head clearly depicted in the Amazon GIF failed to turn up in his box. As for the Remington 17-inch hedge trimmer, JG doesn’t hesitate to award it the maximum five stars (“I can recomend without second gues”). Exploring JG’s profile further, you can read what other Amazon customers have had to say about him – the amateur reviews of his amateur reviews. There are two responses to his strictures on Lucky Jim. The first one says: 

You're an idiot. The book utterly transcends the 'academe' theme – your reading is childishly superficial. Any page of this brilliant book is practically spilling over with insight into the human condition, the complexities of human relationships, and the kinds of mental imbroglios everyday people get themselves into. It's a masterwork. 

And then a third guy, responding to this second guy, weighs in with: 

You, sir, are the real idiot. This book isn't funny; nor does it "explore the complexities of the human spirit". We already know about all this. Why do we need to read a novel to learn about the human condition? Reality check: We are all humans! 

This is the net in a nutshell. First you have that all-too-brief cameo from someone who knows roughly what he’s talking about: the muffled sound of a sensible voice, issuing a faint version of the truth from underneath all the rubble. Such outbursts of good taste shouldn’t be ignored. There really are a lot of intelligent websurfers out there. (Out of Lucky Jim’s 72 reviewers, 50 had the decency to give it five stars.) 

But then, just as you start to feel that civilization isn’t crumbling after all, that second voice intervenes, that voice so swaggeringly typical of the online fray: savvy without being smart; not outright illiterate but brashly philistine; infinitely knowing, but never turning out to know very much, except for a couple of obnoxious catchphrases like “reality check.” By calling up a full list of this third guy’s reviews, you can find out what his idea of a satisfactory novelist is. It’s Ian Fleming. This is another classic theme of web punditry: the moment when the amateur hatchet-man, having finished heaping scorn on some indubitably great writer, at last comes clean about his own literary touchstones. They always turn out to be people like Stephen King, or Tolkien. 

What evidence, what signs from the outer world, persuade such people that they’re even slightly qualified to go around dropping their cracked plastic pearls of clueless wisdom? But here they come: the wizened grammarian who gravely informs you that it’s impermissible to start an English sentence with the word “but”; the swami of spelling and punctuation who insists that he’s paid his “do’s”; the suavely cultivated New Yorker who deems Kingsley Amis provincial, but doesn’t know the difference between England and Britain; the excoriator of Hamlet who – I swear this is true – advises readers to spurn that over-rated play and check out the far superior Titus Andronicus instead. Morons don’t know that they’re morons. In the real world, it took me many years and a lot of inconvenience to work this principle out. On the net, you can have it rammed home to you in about fifteen minutes. 

The work of the cyberpundit, like the work of the moron in general, is done by assertion – preferably very loud assertion – rather than by argument. This is one of the reasons why most online critiques are so short. They certainly don’t have to be. The technology of the net, unlike print technology, imposes no length limit on your prose. It gives a writer infinite elbow room. So you might have thought, way back at the internet’s birth, that the prevailing tone of online writing would be rambling, expansive, unhurried, hippyishly laid-back. This of course is hilariously not the case. Hypertext has led to hyperprose. The online ambience, even on sites that consider themselves literary, tends to be noisy and hysterical. This is the great paradox of the web. It’s a realm of infinite space: but so much of the stuff that’s on it is cramped, frantic, fragmentary. Why? 

I can think of a few answers. One is that most online writers aren’t real writers at all. A real writer isn’t just a guy with an opinion. He doesn’t just tell you whether he likes something or hates it. He uses language to justify his position, to work it out, to nail down its complexities and ambiguities. If he doesn’t like something, he explains exactly why he doesn’t like it. There’s a moment in Lucky Jim when the hero, Dixon, considers delivering a “reasoned denunciation” of his rival Bertrand. How quaintly old-fashioned that adjective – reasoned – is starting to sound in the cyberage! Certainly there’s a lot of denunciation going on – a lot of road rage on the superhighway. But reason is ailing even out there in the real world, and the internet is pressing the pillow down on its face. Reasoning takes time, and nobody these days seems to have any. It takes effort, and not many people are up for that either. And it takes up space. Newspapers don’t give professional critics nearly enough of that any more, and web critics – who do have the space – don’t seem inclined to use it. In this respect the internet, which was supposed to blur the line between the proper writer and the amateur dabbler, actually serves to sharpen it. A proper writer – like a proper bricklayer, or a proper engineer – is someone who’s willing to put a lot of time and effort into the difficult job of getting things right. A non-writer is someone who isn’t. Some people, a lot of people, don’t have the equipment to be serious writers. The web is egalitarian in structure: it lets everyone, or nearly everyone, have a say. But by doing that, it has the effect of proving, in giant italics, that we’re not all equally capable of saying useful things. There really is, after all, something to the wheezy old-time notion that some people are more worth listening to than others. Reading literature and writing about it aren’t easy, and a lot of people aren’t cut out for things that aren’t easy. In fact, as long as we’re out on this tightrope, let’s venture right out to the quivering middle, and quote – with full approval – Lichtenberg’s suggestion that a book is like a mirror: if an ape looks into it, an apostle is hardly likely to look out. In the space of two or three lines, most web critics will have written down every single thought that they have about a book, and they’ll be ready to move on and put the boot into the next one. Their idea of what a proper review consists of doesn’t come from what they’ve read in a newspaper anyway, let alone in a book. It comes from other two-line reviews they’ve read on the net. The shard, the fragment, has established itself as online critic’s ideal form. 

What exactly is the deal with our species? What is the go? On the one hand, we can invent the technology of the World Wide Web. On the other, this is what we use it for. Tweeting. Microreviewing. Influencing. Were we really this stupid to begin with, or is the Internet shrinking the way we think? Brevity might well be the soul of wit, but it’s also the haven of the half-wit. 9/11 was the work of the CIAShakespeare wasn’t actually ShakespeareThe human eye could not have evolved without the influence of some divine designer. A person who knows nothing can assert these things in the space of a single sentence. An expert can prove each of them untrue, but it’ll take a lot more than a single sentence to do it. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but what exactly does that word “entitled” mean? It doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to be listened to, or to be automatically considered anything better than a fool. All it really means that you can’t, in our society, be shot or jailed for voicing your views. That’s all. It certainly doesn’t mean that all opinions are equally correct. Glance at any Amazon page and you’ll see that they’re not. Some people’s opinions are worth more than other people’s. They’re more useful, they’re more amusing, they’re more enlightening, they’re better argued, they’re better spelt. The internet is relativist in structure, but the wildly varying quality of its contents is starting to prove the old-style elitist values right. You’re starting to see exactly why we needed experts in the first place. We need them in science, because the half-informed enemies of fact are brutishly on the march. And we need them in literature, because someone who’s spent an awful lot of time reading an awful lot of books is almost certainly going to be a better judge of literary merit than someone who hasn’t. And yes, there is such a thing as merit, and it doesn’t just exist in the eye of the beholder. I may not be able to prove to you that Evian tastes better than fetid ditch water, but it does, and we all know that it does. With books, the task of defining and detecting quality gets trickier, but that’s no reason to abandon the idea that quality exists. What is it that Dixon thinks towards the end of Lucky Jim? Nice things are nicer than nasty ones, and there is no end to the ways in which they’re nicer.