S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 June 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 


Hit & Run CCXXXI

 
[]

Harriet Klausner is Amazon.com's top-ranked book reviewer. She spoke with us from her home in Georgia.

 

Have you been getting a lot of attention from the media since you were named Number One? Who has been calling you?

People, Associated Press, The Baltimore Sun... I'm not one of those people that get impressed by it. About eight years ago I was on Entertainment Tonight, and quite frankly the whole thing is just nerve-wracking.

Why were you on Entertainment Tonight?

Oh. It had to do with all the reading books I collect. A lot of the books I have are worth a fortune. I was showing that these things aren't just fribbles; some of them could be quite valuable if you know how to collect. But that was another lifetime ago and another interest. Or another part of an interest; I still review romances.

Were you collecting or reviewing?

Well, both. There will never be enough books published to satisfy me. It just doesn't work that way for me. It's a very freaky talent I've got. And I love reading, and there are some books that stand out more than others, and I keep them. And when I have nothing to read — which happens more times than I'd like — I take them out and reread them. And over the years the books add up to value. I don't particularly think about them that way, but they do. I mean, I have the first edition of Salem's Lot.

The one with the really dark picture of a woman's face with a drop of blood coming out the side of her mouth?

Yeah, it's a very black cover. I loved it. And I loved the book. How was I supposed to know it would be worth a fortune? So like I said, Entertainment Tonight tied that into the whole Fabio phenomenon.

How so?

I collect romance books. And he was the cover model. You know, it was just a tie-in. It was nothing. We were never on the same stage, thank God.

Do you regret that?

No! I met him. I can't stand him.

Really, I always thought Fabio was supposed to be pretty cool in real life. He's not?

He's a male chauvinist pig!

Well of course he is; that goes with the territory, don't you think?

No, I don't like being treated like garbage, and that's how he treats women. He hits on them or he treats them like slaves. And I don't like either one.

Well, good for you. Stand up for your rights.

Yeah, I'm one of the few women in America who told him to go to hell.

Do you get any benefits from Amazon for being number one?

No, and I wouldn't take them if I did. That contaminates the review.

Well, it's just compensation. Do you think Michiko Kakutani's reviews in the New York Times are tainted because she gets paid for doing them?

No. But a lot of authors don't particularly like the Amazon setup.

Any authors in particular?

Robert Randisi said in the Baltimore Sun that the real critics should be left to write the reviews, not these amateurs. And I don't agree with him. I think I am every bit as talented or untalented as any other reviewer. All I'm doing is giving an opinion. And I'm not trying to show the masses I'm smart. All I'm trying to do is get somebody interested in a book. Especially the first-time authors, or the mid-list authors; give them a little publicity, a little voice if the books are good. And it's fun. I mean, I love reading, and for me to write up a little three-quarter-page review is absolutely nothing. It's fun, and it's something I can get deep into so I don't have to deal with the problems of every day.

You haven't looked at a book called Dumb Money yet, have you?

No.

Because the co-founder of our site is the author of that book, and he's put out a standing order that we have to plug it constantly.

Is it non-fiction?

Yeah.

My field really is genre. And it's genre fiction. I don't really do a lot of non-fiction, and when I do it I'm never really, really confident. The only time I review non-fiction is when the book is just so utterly, utterly fantastic that even if I screw it up at least I bring it to somebody's attention, and they can do it better.

What were some examples of that kind of book?

Second Opinions by Dr. Jerome Groopman. It was a book by Viking, and it was eight separate case files of doctors who gave an opinion, and the patient didn't like the opinion. You know — a cancer victim wanting another alternative... And the moral of the book was: Ask questions, get second opinions; you have the right to have a voice in your own medical opinion. I thought that was a very important message, because so many people always blindly obey a doctor, don't ask if an ordinary medication they've prescribed can be taken with something over the counter like Tagamet. And Tagamet, as I found out, shouldn't be taken with one of my medications.

What's the Tagamet for?

It's for an ulcer.

Well, if you give Dumb Money a five-star review we'll definitely send you a t-shirt.

Thanks a lot! But I don't accept gifts.

Why would a writer of Robert Randisi's stature want to complain about the Amazon reviewers?

Some of the reviewers — they call them "customer-reviewers," but they're not. They review elsewhere. I review elsewhere. We're not amateurs in that sense. Robert Randisi — I think his whole thing might be because his book got panned.

Well who is he to be talking anyway? You were elected. You were chosen by your peers.

He wasn't talking about me, he was talking about every Amazon reviewer in existence. He has an opinion. I don't agree with him, and I think for him to say it like that was really arrogant. Because he built up a name for himself, but I don't see him helping the other people.

Do you think there's any logic to the argument that authors should only want credentialed critics to review their stuff?

I do have credentials, that's the sad part. I was a librarian. I wrote a countywide book review letter for all the patrons. I wrote numerous reviews for the bookstores I used to work in. I wrote for magazines off and on throughout my life. I've been published. I quit jobs at certain magazines because I didn't have editorial control, and I'm not going to have some editor change a great review to a lousy one because he doesn't like the topic. I think my credentials will hold up with anybody's.

Listen: When you start listing your credentials like this you're just playing Randisi's game.

I'm not playing it. I'm just saying to you that the people that review on Amazon are very sincere for the most part, and they have credentials.

Even if they had no credentials, what matters is that they probably read the book and they have something to say about it. And in your case, hundreds, maybe thousands of people chose your opinion as the most reliable one out there.

Yeah, they don't know I have any credentials.

Exactly, but there's a certain Harriet Klausner feeling that comes through in one of your reviews, even if the person reading it doesn't know you from Adam.

Yeah; that came as a total shock. I didn't even know I was [Number 1] until Amazon notified me. I didn't know Amazon was keeping track of voting and the whole nine yards. I didn't know. Nobody knew. It came as a total shock to me. They were real nice about it. If I didn't want to do it, I didn't have to.

So when we say you were elected, it's not really like you stood for election. It's just a numerical function of how highly people rated your reviews in general.

Right.

Do you have fans, who follow you around and watch for your reviews?

Oh yeah.

That's because there's a certain quality of you that comes through in your reviews. For example, Frank Behrens, who is your runner-up, seems like a bit of a stuffed shirt. His reviews don't have quite the same approachability that yours have.

I don't know about him in particular. But I don't take it like it's a life or death matter. This is a hobby and it's fun. And it's exactly how I feel. I don't take any bribes, any money for it, so I can say exactly what I feel. People who write for the Times and others are very elitist. Half the time you don't know what they're talking about. I aim for the average reader.

If Michiko Kakutani started doing reviews at Amazon, and didn't say who she was, how highly do you think she would score?

I honestly don't know. Because to be perfectly honest I don't think she reviews popular books. People look for reviewers that read what interests them. Not too many people are interested in what she reviews.

Well she's very "feared." People are always saying how much they "fear" her because she writes a nasty review and it kills your book.

Yeah, but she's not a household name like Marilyn Stasio. I think the quality of the reviews speak for themselves. And don't forget: After a while you get a feeling for who is going to like what. I know on other sites where people write radio reviews or movie reviews, I look for certain people because they have the same taste I do.

Well your ranking is really a part of this whole collaborative filtering movement, such as we've seen on Slashdot or at Everything2.com, where you put up a post, other people vote on your post, and you may get elevated to status as a guide to other users.

I think it's one of the greatest things about the Net. It's freedom, individual rights. And I like the idea that people vote for what they want. It's a real good case of the majority rules. But you're talking about an area where you need a computer to vote. Which also implies a certain moneyed class.

How do we get around that?

That'll take care of itself in time. In time prices will go down. A computer used to cost $3,000, now you can get a good one for $900.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson has been touring Silicon Valley making proposals to address what they call the "Digital Divide" — getting people to donate computers, stressing technology development in lower income areas, stuff like that.

I think it's a great idea. It's the wave of tomorrow; and this is a way of getting people accustomed to what's coming. I think it's great. Because I think elitism will become a thing of the past, and intellectual snobbery will dissolve. The average citizen will define what the topic is instead of an intellectual snob. This is a great experiment in democracy in progress, and I hope it works.

Don't you think things like the Amazon Top 500 go beyond straight democracy to a kind of representative democracy where the credentials aren't awarded by big hierarchies or fancy schools? It's almost like you're our Senator now; the people at Amazon elected you to be one of the big honchos in our discussion.

I never looked at myself that way. If I ever looked at myself that way I'd resign.

Well, when leadership is thrust onto your shoulders you have to accept the burden.

No I don't! I look at it as something I have fun doing. I don't look at myself as a leader. I hope I'm not disappointing you.

No, you're not disappointing me. In fact, I think this is why you're a leader. Because you don't think of yourself that way. People just naturally gravitated toward you.

Well, I hope they gravitate toward the reviews, not toward me. They don't know me, they don't know my credentials. And they never will. They don't know anything about me. The little bit of information I put under the personal stuff I put there under duress. Because Amazon wanted people to get a feeling that I was real. And one of the things that made me real was having cairn and a pom — my dogs.

You have a grown-up son too.

Yeah, but like I said, it's the pom and the cairn and the four cats people can relate too. My son's 21. Don't have kids. 21 is a rough age.

What do you mean? That's when you can kick him out of the house and not have to worry about him anymore.

That depends. If you love him you don't do that. You find other ways of coping. That's what the reviews do. They help me cope. I can get into the author's world.

You've reviewed a wide selection of genres — fantasy, science fiction, romance. What other genres?

Mysteries and horror.

Who do you think is top of the line in horror right now?

Bentley Little.

Never heard of him. What kind of horror?

Like Stephen King years ago.

When King was still good.

When he wrote real horror. It wasn't a thriller, it wasn't a gimmick. It was true, true horror. Bentley Little's fantastic. In fact he's been endorsed by Stephen King.

Do you ever write nasty reviews?

No. Well, sometimes I get trapped. But usually not, because I have the 50-page rule. If I don't get into it by page 50, I just put it aside.

And then you don't review it?

Well no, how could I review it?

Oh come on. The pros don't finish half the books they review.

From the time I was 24 and started doing this, I made sure I'd finish the book.

Do you ever read the really long books? Did you review Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon?

Pick another title that's long.

Infinite Jest by David Wallace.

No, what about Patricia Cornwell?

How long are hers?

About 300 or 400 pages.

No, I mean these huge doorstop books.

Are you talking about a big, thick juicy book like Diana Gabaldon's, where it's about 1,000 pages?

Well that's about the length, yeah.

I've done a few of those. Actually if I can find one that interests me I grab it, because it takes a long time to read.

What's your reading speed?

I don't know. I haven't been tested in a long time. And I'll never be tested again. It was not one of the greatest experiences of life to find you're one of a kind.

You're just being modest.

How can you be modest? When you're a child and you're different you're a freak. I still get emails from people saying "What kind of freak reads two books a day?"

What have you read today?

I read the first book of a new mystery series. And right now I'm reading the second book of a different mystery series, called Charlie's Web by L. L. Thrasher.

You're not reading that while we're talking, are you?

No, that would be rude.

How long was this first book you read today?

It was around 350.

And how long did it take you to read it?

About two hours.

Holy smokes! So you're reading about three pages a minute.

I don't know. I honestly don't like to think about it. That goes back to the days when I was getting tested. And then the testers don't believe the results and they test you again.

Yeah, or they think you must have cheated because they don't want to admit you're smarter than they are. They don't know how to deal with you.

No, they don't. My mother used to think I was a liar, until those test results came back.

Well you've been tested by your peers now, and they agree. So you're not fooling anybody. This is the real you.

Well, a lot of people think it's impossible to read two books a day. But think about it — I have two hours a night. And I read in the morning. It's a pleasure. And Amazon is great for allowing it to happen. And that's not a plug for Amazon. I just think they were ahead of their time.

Do you ever dream about the books you read right before you go to bed?

God no! I wish I did. Absolutely not at all... No, actually that's not true. I did once. A couple weeks ago I read a book about the Greek Parthenon, and I dreamt about the Greek gods and goddesses. But that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that I even told my husband about.

Well, you'd better. If I were your husband and you were dreaming about Greek gods I'd want to know about it.

Actually it was more about Cupid the cherub and the half-fawn boy... But you know, I want to stick something in here about my husband. It has nothing to do with Amazon or anything. My husband always believed I did read two books a day, and he always thought I could do three books a day. And he always liked my reviews, and always encouraged me. And he was the only one in my entire life who ever did. He's never gotten more than a thank you from me for that, but there aren't many men who would take it on faith without any proof. And he did that for me a long time ago when we first met.

 

[]

History is made in the kitchen while the men argue. It's the cold, hard language of facts — the documents that drift down from the corridors of power. A memo from H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, a "very private" meeting with Nixon, frank talk about maintaining the facade and the threat to democracy. In the clipped phrases of internal memoranda, information for those who need it for purposes of power, we learn that on the morning of December 20, 1970, "Mr. Presley indicated that he had been playing Las Vegas and the president indicated that he was aware of how difficult it is to perform in Las Vegas." Nixon knew. He knew how hard it is in Vegas. And he indicated it to Elvis. How? Did they use sign language? It was hard talk from well-fed men about protesters, needle freaks, subversives who shit on the flag. And it did not mean anything because neither the President nor The King had the slightest idea what the hell was going on. The President said Elvis could reach young people. Elvis said he was concerned about what was going on and wanted to help. The president said Elvis should be sure and retain his credibility. Elvis hugged the president. All in all, hard to tell the difference between this and Atlantic Records head Janet Bilig talking to anxious, newly-signed grunge-rockers about "street cred" before their record deep-sixed and the label moved on. The only hint of rational thought in the whole exchange was sartorial. "At one point, the President expressed interest in the ornate cuff links worn by Presley." Because those were some pretty god-damn big cufflinks.

No, in understanding history original sources like these are as useless as rock critics' worst excesses, useful only in showing where the political and cultural powers that be moved blindly, like a chewed-up wad of peanut butter and banana sandwich making its way in the darkness of a swollen throat. We must look elsewhere for the true flavor of these things. In the words of forensic pathologist Ed Uthman, "Perhaps having a bit more relevance...is the problem of sudden and unexplained death by natural causes. Careful attention to the autopsy and the patient's history usually establish the cause of death, but a few cases, like that of Elvis Presley, will remain mysteries indefinitely."

Not necessarily. This week they may have buried The King's real killer. Mary Jenkins Langston, who cooked for Elvis Presley for 14 years, died at a Memphis hospital at 78. Ms. Langston remembered Elvis as saying that the only thing in life he got any enjoyment out of was food. "For breakfast, he'd have homemade biscuits fried in butter, sausage patties, four scrambled eggs and sometimes fried bacon," she said. "I'd bring the tray up to his room, he'd say, 'This is good, Mary.' He'd have butter running down his arms." Her Times obituary reports a surgically precise process of trial and error that went into creating the multi-butterstick fried p-b-and-banana sandwich. Elvis's autopsy indicated death by congestive heart failure, along with advanced arteriosclerosis, an enlarged liver, and evidence of drug abuse.

So in the end, what matters is not whether, en route to Vietnam in 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson stopped in LA and visited Elvis for an hour on the set of Spinout. Nor is it important whether Stepin Fetchit wrote two songs for The King that Col. Parker would not let him record. No, what matters is that the man on whom America (Chuck D's objections noted) agreed like nothing before or since — the individual whose works of art ran like a vein of gold through the heart of America — died like a stuffed veal. Elvis's belly, like Rod Stewart's, became a mystery before which this nation of fatsos can only genuflect. Somewhere, David Geffen, in his socks and underwear, smears fat-free cream cheese on a rice cake.

 

[]

One undeniably positive result from the recent rash of Napster-related media coverage: This spring's earlier Internet Culture vs. Corporate America imbroglio — the "Open Sourcing" of the venerable table-top role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons — was kicked back down into the stale, Dorito-smelling basement whence it came.

In case you missed out: In March, industry giant Wizards of the Coast let slip that it was considering an appropriation of Open Source principles to reinvigorate sales of its Dungeons and Dragons line. The basic offer was something like this: "Open Gaming" would make distinctions between the game's core rules and whatever supplementary rules and trappings are used to flesh them out. The core rules would remain protected, but the company would allow fans and business rivals to make their own supplementary books and products. Wizards of the Coast gains by a flood of fresh material that attracts people to the core rules and by co-opting potential competitors. The participating individuals gain access to a larger audience and, one guesses, enjoys the thrill that comes with crushing diversity. In other words, it's the application of Open Source principles to one product in order to increase the audience for another — perhaps the first Realpolitik appropriation of those ideas.

The battery of articles and Usenet arguments that followed the announcement said very little of substance — surprise! — but provided a compelling window on modern geek culture. After reading a half-dozen writers — three on Salon alone — needlessly reveal a former interest in the gaming hobby, it's safe to say that the self-hating confessional remains popular amongst tabletop hobbyists, while nothing underlines the out-of-touch conservatism of your average King of the Rec Room than unironic, storybook outrage that a corporation would actually seek publicity and greater market share at the expense of purer principles. And when fans demanded Wizards of the Coast address company slights from five years ago as a precondition for signing onto the new approach, it was time to say goodbye to the shy victim desperate to be accepted and hello to the maladjusted egomaniac angry at a world that fails to recognize his importance. All in all, not a pretty picture.

There's little reason to ask whether Wizards of the Coast is trying to maximize profits or participate in a movement that will benefit fans everywhere. They're definitely doing the first, and some executives may believe they're doing the second. The only question is, after a snootful of the faces behind their potential expansion in market share, will they still want to?

 
courtesy of theSucksters