Criticism in the Public Space: Personal writing on literature in
readers' reviews on Amazon
The article studies the character of
general readers’ reviews on the internet bookstore Amazon; what is
called private criticism. Patterns, common features, and
contradictions are explored, and the social position and meaning of
new forms of readers’ expressions is discussed. One part of the
thesis is that the freedom of speech in the public sphere has given
readers new and different opportunities to express their opinions.
On the other hand, there is also evidence to suggest that the new
practices of reviewing are only repeating established patterns and
behaviours. If this is the case, the private criticism that has been
applauded as a democratization of the reading and evaluation of
literature does not offer any real change.
literary criticism, book distribution, reading, reception studies
Reviews written by general readers on
websites like the internet bookstore Amazon can be described as
private criticism in the public sphere. Readers commenting publicly
on literature are not a novel phenomenon, but the various mechanisms
involved on the web include both new and old practices of reading
This article is a study of the character
of the private criticism on Amazon and of the social position and
meaning of new forms of readers’ expressions. Patterns, common
features, and contradictions will be explored, and part of the
thesis is that the freedom of speech in the public sphere has given
readers new and different opportunities to express their opinions.
However, the question is also whether or not the new practices of
reviewing are only repeating established patterns and behaviours. If
this is the case, the private criticism that has been applauded as a
democratization of the reading and evaluation of literature would
not offer any real change.
In November 2006, John Sutherland,
British professor of literature and a well-known critic in the daily
press, published an article in the Sunday Telegraph
criticising the amateur reviewing of literature on the internet,
particularly the kind published on Amazon. The web, said Sutherland,
once promised to expand our knowledge, potential, and minds, but
instead it is doing the opposite: “corrupting fact and spreading
falsehood.” His anxiety over web influence on the practice of
reviewing led Sutherland to complain of the anonymity of the
unprofessional criticism, of how ill informed the readers appeared
to be, and of the lack of quality in the writing. His unease is
evidence of changes in critical practices and perhaps also of old
polarisations in new shape. The article caused a heated debate that
emphasised that influence over literature and readers is an
important issue with a longstanding tradition wherein reading and
writing about literature is seen as either a literary practice or a
The British author Susan Hill (2006),
who, apart from having written numerous novels, writes a blog on
literature and reading, was seriously offended by Sutherland. Hill
wrote an agitated response on her website claiming authority by
virtue of the years of professional criticism she had written in the
daily press. She had, however, given it up in favour of what she
call “free criticism” on the web on a wider range of titles.
Professional criticism has become irrelevant to the general reader,
said Hill; instead, reviews on the web have become the ‘new literary
democracy’, wherein there is room for all kinds of literature. To
Hill, professional critics are threatened by bloggers and general
readers writing online.
After Sutherland’s initial article and
Hill’s blog, a number of responses followed, underscoring the
hierarchical divide between professional and amateur reviewers. On
one side of the fence were people agreeing with Hill, hailing the
web and the opinions of the general reader, claiming that it is
their right to do whatever they want with their newly gained power.
On the other side were people agreeing with Sutherland, mainly
critics and editors in the press, arguing that having an opinion is
one thing but a creating well-written review is something very
Literary Criticism in a
Literary critique is an act of
evaluating and attributing value to an artefact, but what is seen as
valuable varies depending on context. Differences can be seen at any
historical point between individual reviewers, media, and
recipients. The evaluation of literature is an ongoing process, or
as Barbara Herrnstein Smith (1990, p. 181) has argued, “The
evaluation of a work is seen, rather, as a continuous process,
operating through a wide variety of individual activities and social
and institutional practices.”
However different from each other,
professional criticism and amateur reviews are in many ways
connected. Techniques and even contents are repeated and re-used,
what the American media theorists Jay David Bolter and Richard
Grusin (1999) call remediation. They argue that new media
technologies integrate older, already established media forms and
content. A similar line of reasoning can be found in Marshall
McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964), where he claims that
all media exist in constant interaction with each other. According
to Bolter and Grusin, both printed and electronic media are trying
to defend their position as new forms of digital media threaten
them. In unstable conditions, which they define as the present
circumstances in the media world, all three forms of media use and
re-use aesthetic expressions and concepts of content. What also has
happened, says Bolter and Grusin, is that both old and new media
“are invoking the twin logics of immediacy and hypermediacy in their
effort to remake themselves and each other” (2000, p. 5).
Bolter and Grusin argue that remediation
is the representation of one medium in another, and also that it is
a defining characteristic of new digital media (2000, p. 45). In
studying criticism on the web, it is clear that a number of critical
strategies depend upon earlier forms of professional criticism and
also on other kinds of personal writing, such as reading logs in
schools, regular letters, and diaries. Personally written texts
about literature or reading recommendations could be found before
the internet in letters to the editor and were particularly
prominent in subcultural genre magazines and fanzines. Today many
sites on the web encourage reviews, which mean that people can
publish pieces they have written themselves, comment on other
peoples’ writing, and discuss what literature is, should, or could
be. Thus, it appears as if the web offers new forums for expressing
opinions and views on literature, and that the reviews on Amazon are
related both to a rapidly developing blog culture and to
historically developed professional criticism.
There is an ongoing debate over whether
or not the internet provides a democratic opportunity for everyone
to influence and take part in the public sphere. The optimists claim
that writing on the web is evidence that people, in their homes all
over the world, can transform what we see as literature, culture,
and reading. Others fall on the side of Jürgen Habermas, who argued
that such freedom is simply an illusion and that individuals can
never formulate self-contained opinions, since they will always be
ideologically produced by others (Habermas 1962). The internet would
be, in Habermas’ perspective, the worst kind of fraud, since it
makes people believe they have the power to influence the public
sphere, when in reality the web is only another way for capital to
The complete mistrust of modern
development that Habermas expresses is partly aimed at the
commercial aspects of the cultural industry, of which Amazon is a
main contributor. The reviews on Amazon have one purpose for the
company—to sell more books. Amazon provides the option to write
reviews because it is a cheap and efficient way to provide
information on its products. It is convenient to let one’s customers
do the editorial work rather than having one’s staff do it. The
reviews also allow Amazon to appear to be a customer-oriented,
non-commercial site. The writing done by customers does not look
like marketing; instead, it is the real thing—authentic readers
commenting on books they have actually read.
Similar concerns over modern development
were expressed by the American literary critic Sven Birkerts, who
argued in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994) that our willingness
to embrace new technologies is a threat to reading and literature.
According to Birkerts, all new media—CD-ROMs, DVDs, the internet,
etc. (he had not yet seen the mp3 download of books into mobile
phones or Amazon’s Kindle reading device)—have detrimental effects
on our ability to read and cause difficulties for the important
No matter what stance we take in the
debate over freedom and democracy on the web, it is possible to view
personal writings about literature as expressions of the need for
something new. Habermas argued in The Structural Transformation
of the Public Sphere (1962) that people have transformed a
reasoning culture into a consuming culture, and if we apply his
theories to Amazon reviews, it does appear as if much focus is
placed on consumption, both in terms of shopping and of reading.
Many reviewers on Amazon write about the experience of reading,
about the physical setting of their reading (“I read it on a plane,”
“on my vacation,” “on the bus,” etc.) and also about how they got
hold of the book (“a friend gave it to me,” “I bought it at the bus
centre,” etc.). There is, however, no need to devalue this manner of
writing or the belief in the importance of reading or book buying.
One of the critiques of Habermas has
been formed by Mark Poster, who argues that Habermas’ model cannot
describe modern technology and that the “formation of canons and
authorities is seriously undermined by the electronic nature of
texts” (Poster 2001, p. 188). Poster has a strong claim when he says
that Habermas’ theory does not apply to digitally mediated texts,
and new concepts are required to understand what happens to
literature, reading, and writing in contemporary society.
Characteristics of Private Criticism
For the last twenty years a flood of
critique, reviews, and reading suggestions has been published in
evening paper supplements, literature columns in weekly and monthly
magazines, fanzine culture membership papers, and so on. Today,
private criticism is written mostly on the internet. There are,
however, also official and unofficial evaluations made on publishing
houses’ home pages, in the marketing of reading groups, on book
stores sale sites, and in literary diaries, reading recommendations,
writing clubs, authors’ personal pages, etc. On these sites has
developed a world of views and opinions on the nature of good
literature far from that expressed in the articles written by
professional critics in daily press and literary journals.
Many readers use reviews to confirm
their personal interpretation or experience of a text. One aim of a
public review appears to be to enhance the value of a particular
work or, sometimes, a whole genre. Another aim is to nuance the
image of a genre by making distinctions between different texts. By
posting their opinions on the internet, private critics often make
statements going against established criticism; or at least they
appear to be convinced that there is a significant difference
between the two.
A distinct characteristic of private
criticism is the frequently heightened emotion, both positive and
negative, expressed. Some researchers, for example James E. Katz and
Ronald E. Rice (2002), have seen a tendency toward a widened social
freedom where one may express one’s feelings more often, or perhaps
just more intensely, according to the relative anonymity of the
media. The release from social restraints is perhaps a prerequisite
for the strong emotions and the intimacy that can be found in
private reviews. Possibly the more or less anonymous signatures on
Amazon are necessary for people to be open about their literary
tastes and for many reviewers to express very strong opinions about
books. Their tone would probably not be the same if they knew each
other, or even if they simply interacted with identifiable names.
Other features of private criticism,
such as self-expressiveness, intimate language, and self-exposing
details, are less related to professional criticism than to diary
writing and similar activities. The reviews on the internet are not
only about literature but also about understanding one’s cultural
position in relation to other readers, both professional and
Authenticity and Impostors Online
Concerns have, however, been raised
concerning a number of aspects of online criticism, one of these
being the authenticity of the reviewers. A technical mistake on
Amazon’s Canadian website in February 2004 revealed the true
identities of reviewers, who included a number of angry ex-husbands,
close friends, publishing house editors, and authors themselves. The
American author John Rechy, who had written himself a five-star
review, defended himself by arguing that his action was reasonable
considering that anyone could trash his books anonymously (Harmon
The incident caused a debate in which it
was claimed that Amazon users are not able to see through fakes and
faults in the system. In the traditional spirit of cultural
criticism, it was argued that the receivers are passive, unable to
understand the system and differ between various kinds of writing.
It is, however, likely that many web users are aware of possible
corruption and that commercial interests produce online texts
disguised as genuine and authentic. However, professional reviewing
is not always innocent, either. There are a number of dubious ties
within the literary industry between the professional reviewers, on
the one hand, and agents, publishers, and authors on the other.
Apparently most American and British
publishers regard Amazon as an important channel for marketing. The
rumour within the trade is that editors in publishing houses
nowadays spend hours on writing fake reviews on Amazon and other
internet sites with high visibility. In the case of literary
dissemination and Amazon, there are a number of complicating
factors, such as agendas other than commercial; for example,
political, philosophical, or even literary.
The effect of the 2004 revelation was a
stronger emphasis on authenticity among Amazon reviewers and on the
necessity to present oneself as a reviewer. Even though the real
names of the reviewers will only appear occasionally, reviewers are
expected to be the real thing, made up by general readers like you
and me. Often comments are made to strengthen the connection to a
real person; for example, mentioning where the reviewer read the
book, how his or her life relates to the events in a particular
novel, or giving rather intimate details about real-life events
connected to the reviewed text. There is an awareness of impostors,
and as a consequence there comments reflecting on another reviewer’s
opinions may raise doubts about the sincerity and authenticity of
that person. The problem of fake reviews has also been addressed by
Amazon; one can now earn the badge “Real Name” under one’s
signature, which offers some proof of identity.
Reviews as Comments on the Reading Experience
Californian commentator manderly123
wrote, for example, about Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary
(1996), “This book has received some of the most vicious and
petty reviews of any in recent history.” This reader regarded her
reading as being against what she was supposed to like. And,
she went on to say, liking this book does not ‘make me a mindless
idiot. It makes me human.” She asserted her right to have her own
opinions on literature, knowing that her reading is looked down
upon, and the Amazon forum provided her with a space to protest
patronizing attitudes toward chic-lit. This particular reader even
made reviewing a gender issue, claiming that the text has received
so much criticism because it is written by a woman on women’s
issues. The reviewer concluded that if Fielding had been a man she
would have been praised for her wit and entertainment skills.
Many readers writing on Amazon openly
declare their desire to talk to someone just like them and to
enhance their feeling of belonging to a global community of readers
with similar daily problems and desires. A form of self-referencing
is characteristic, with comments such as “readers of our kind” or
“readers who like these kinds of books,” indirectly saying that
someone who does not like the same book does not belong. It has been
argued that the internet is a place for people to develop their
individuality, because there is always someone else in the world
interested in the same thing, no matter how obscure. A global
community can give one a sensation of being in the right, and there
is tangible evidence to suggest that many of these reviewers search
Another frequent feature among the
reviews of books by authors like Marian Keyes and Helen Fielding is
references to similar books. Through comparing a novel with others
by the same author or within the same genre, the reviewer shows that
she is well acquainted with this kind of literature, which gives her
a kind of authority to judge quality. Comments like “this one is my
favourite of her novels,” “I know Marian Keyes has done better in
other books,” or “this is not her best work” makes it possible for a
reader to judge whether the reviewer is to be trusted or not.
It is also common to make references to
films, TV shows, fashion, and current events. These references are
directed toward an audience familiar with the cultural phenomenon,
gossip, and details of the genre’s artefacts; they will probably
alienate other readers. It is also clear in these kinds of comments
that reading is not seen as an activity different from watching
films or TV; they are all acts of consumption for pleasure, escape,
or the understanding of one’s own situation in life, and all social
The chick-lit reviews on Amazon show
that readers are conscious of the character of the genre and will
define it through comments like “this is not real chic-lit,” or this
“is British (!) chick-lit at it’s best.” By identifying the
boundaries of the genre and what they regard as the core, these
reviewers display metaliterary competence and a distinct concept of
quality. Good chick-lit novels are defined as fun, witty,
easy and light reads dealing with real issues. Readers have to be
able to sympathise with the main character; identification is, of
course, the foundation of the genre, so this aspect is often
discussed. A further requirement for a good chick-lit novel is that
it is engaging and, at best, should change the reader’s life.
Reviews as a Literary Practice
The reviews on Amazon are, however, not
written only about commercial fiction; literary novels also receive
a great deal of attention. One example is Ian McEwan’s Atonement
(2001), which had been reviewed almost 900 times by March 2008. Most
of these reviews are completely ecstatic, and half of the reviewers
have given the novel five stars. For example, C. B Collins Jr.
(2006) from Atlanta wrote, “Very few works of art are as profound,
moving, and sublime as this novel.” Apart from being so overjoyed,
most of these reviewers write articulate, long texts about plot,
narrative technique, language, and character.
A comparison between the Atonement
reviews and the chick-lit reviews show distinct differences. First
of all, the McEwan reviewers seem to have no need to distance
themselves from professional criticism. Instead, they borrow from
academic discourse; for example, by using literary allusions and
frequently drawing on references to fiction by authors such as Leo
Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and E.M. Forrester.
Another feature of the Atonement
reviews is the referencing of a literary practice of reading. This
activity is described by the reviewers as distinctly different from
the intimate and personal experience referred to in the chick-lit
examples. The McEwan reviewers on Amazon claim that the book’s value
is derived directly from the qualities of the text and the author’s
skilful prose. The positive comments are predominantly grounded in
criteria that a student or scholar of literature would use, to the
degree that one may suspect that many of these reviewers have taken
university courses in literature. One example by D. Srinath (2006)
from Canada describes in detail McEwan’s use of linguistic
complexity to emphasise his narrative: “he utilizes his mastery of
the English language to its fullest extent; the vocabulary is
evocative, effective and sometimes menacing in describing every
intricate framed detail.” This reviewer uses Amazon to write what
appears as almost professional criticism to strengthen his argument.
He begins with a discussion of language and then continues on to
plot, narrative, themes, and the construction of the story.
Like the reviewers of Melissa Bank’s
novel, the McEwan reviewers are well aware of the presence and
character of their potential audience. The message conveyed is that
if you do not like discussing language and narration, then this is
not the novel for you. Defining an audience works similarly in
different kinds of reviews but allows for diverse texts and styles.
In each case the reviews resemble the literature discussed, and by
this use of similar language and descriptions of plot and story, it
is possible for the readers to decide whether or not the book is in
The Atonement reviews show how
varied reviews turn out, depending upon the book discussed. Within
the book trade as a whole, books are often treated according to how
they are labelled by their publishing houses and by press, and these
reviewers adopt a similar approach. Canadian professor of English
literature Paul Delany (2002) argues that the commercialism in
contemporary trade has led to a greater degree of “segmentation.” He
claims that this has led to a situation in which individual genres
have become more distinct and dispersed, “while undermining the kind
of unitary cultural authorities that made possible the masterpieces
of earlier traditional societies” (Delany 2002, p. 7). The
commercial side of Amazon should not be underestimated, and it is
one of the controlling instances of the private criticism on the
web. Regular readers might claim power, but the commercial interests
within the industry are strong and clearly visible.
Reading as a Social Act
One strong motivation in writing
criticism on the web appears to be the desire to connect with
others, mainly through community-creating comments. The spreading of
private views on literature in a public forum further strengthens
the claim that reading is a social act, which American sociologist
Elizabeth Long has called “the social infrastructure of reading”
(2003, p. 8). She claims that reading should be seen as a social
event and interpreted in terms of its function in society. Long’s
study of reading groups in the United States provides one example of
how this works. Reading groups, she says, create space for literary
discussion without preset notions of quality, where texts are
evaluated according to criteria far from those of professional
critics. This argument is, however, in direct opposition to the
tradition of regarding reading and writing as a literary, artistic
practice. Even if we consider this division to be fallacious, it is
clear that it is established and brought into play both by Long, the
internet reviewers, and the professional critics.
In a similar way, today in many
countries book talks on TV air views on literature based on the
experience of reading, rather than on the text. TV show book clubs
such as Oprah’s in the United States and Richard and Judy’s in
Britain have turned literature as a social act into a commodity. It
is reasonable, as has been done by Kathleen Rooney in her study
Reading with Oprah (2005, p. 8), to call into question the
rather superficial and uncritical attitude toward literature
displayed in the book talks on Oprah’s show. On the other hand,
maybe it is precisely the positive approach of the talks, which only
focus on what is good in a certain book, that makes such a
difference to many readers. Similar approaches to literature can be
seen in Amazon’s review sections—they contain a straightforward and
positive attitude toward reading itself.
Clearly these examples are driven by
commercial interests and can be dismissed as such, but literary
interests are not necessarily in opposition to commercial interests.
Literature might even benefit from a general marketing of reading.
It is also a fact that there is an agenda behind non-commercial
interests as well, one that regards certain kinds of books and
readings as better than others.
Previous studies of book talks and
reading groups on the internet have observed that they are short and
mainly discuss the value of the reader’s experience (Söderlund 2004,
pp. 71–72). However, this article has shown that these observations
only cover certain types of reviews on Amazon. How reviews are
written depends mainly on the book being discussed. The reviews of
Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot dealt a great deal with
experience, but the reviews of Ian McEwan’s Atonement did
not. The variety of style and character in the Amazon reviews is
perhaps their most prominent feature, suggesting that this is a
diverse and developing culture with promising beliefs in literature
The differences between internet
literary culture and previous media forms might not be extensive.
Spanish professor of sociology Manuel Castells claims that internet
communication only maintains pre-existing patterns in human
behaviour (2001, p. 119). The difference, as Castells sees it, lies
in “the emergence of a new system of social relationships centered
on the individual,” what he calls “the privatization of sociability”
(2001, p. 128). In using and re-using older forms of culture,
private criticism emerges as something new. The discussion
initialised by John Sutherland focused on what is happening to
criticism but not on what is happening to literature in contemporary
society. The bottom line is whether or not personally written
reviews on the internet bring new titles to readers or, even better,
new readers to literature. The division between commercial and
literary books is one that has a long tradition, but it seems that
the reviewers on Amazon, in part at least, challenge this division.
It has been suggested by Wired
magazine editor Chris Anderson that “the long tail” is
significant for the distribution and sales on the internet. Sites
like Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes Music Store are a combination of
sales, distribution, marketing, and critique, and it is this
character that makes it possible for them to offer a wider selection
than any physical store. What Anderson argues is that not only can
one make a lot of money on marketing low-sellers, one can even make
more profit on them than on bestsellers (Anderson 2006). The use of
reviewers on Amazon might have commercial motives, but its impact on
literature might still be quite positive.
If we, like Friedrich Kittler, regard
the internet not as an extension of the human mind but simply as an
opportunity to explore pre-established practices, it is possible to
argue there are distinct differences between texts, participants and
activities (1988, pp. 289-300). On different levels the internet has
already affected the distribution and consumption of literature in
contemporary society. The reviewers on Amazon are simply adding
their bit to the equation.
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All references to the reviews of The Wonder Spot are
fetched from Amazon on March 25, 2008, URL
This is similar to what Janice Radway (1982) noted in her
study of women’s romance reading, where the readers had a
well-defined literary taste very different from the literary
Contact (by email):
Ann Steiner teaches literature at Lund
University, Sweden. Her PhD was on subscription book clubs,
and she is currently researching terms of production,
distribution, and consumption of literature in the 20th and
21st century in Sweden.