By Erik Ketzan
November 1, 2002
The great thing about the Internet is its levelling effect; online all opinions are equally WORTHLESS.
-- Grant Morrison
Of necessity, the history of reading is also about the history of responding to what one reads, and for a century this has been largely the province of "professional" men of letters and book critics. The access to publishing in the twentieth century has been strictly the privilege of "experts," yet in the last decade we have seen the rise of a completely new forum for reviewing books: the web pages of Amazon.com. These reviews are invaluable documents in understanding what book reviews in periodicals could never show us: who is reading a book, why are they reading it, and how are they reading it.
The present study seeks to analyze the way these reader reviews function: what are their goals, who is their audience, and how do they differ from traditional book reviews? One could hardly perform a comprehensive study of every book at Amazon, so these conclusions will be drawn from the 133 reader reviews currently online for Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow. It has not been chosen arbitrarily, but rather because this particular work is one which fosters extremes of opinion; one either loves the work or hates it. The Amazon reviews reflect these extremes, allowing a good analysis of the system.
Before addressing the Amazon reviews, the present study begins with a brief history and synopsis of the novel and its author Thomas Pynchon, an American writer born in 1937. His large, incomprehensible first novel, V., was published in 1966, followed soon by the short cult hit The Crying of Lot 49. Since that time he has never given an interview and no photograph of him has ever been published; he lives a recluse and shuns every public appearance. His masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow, was published in 1973. The judges of the Pulitzer Prize for literature were so divided over its merits they issued no prize that year, and for the next seventeen years virtually nothing was heard from him, except when he declined such literary awards as the William Dean Howells Medal. Vineland, a short, disappointing work, was published in 1990, and 1997 saw the publication of Mason & Dixon, an ambitious work which nonetheless falls far short of Gravity's Rainbow's achievement.
A summary of Gravity's Rainbow plot is nearly impossible, as the narrative is often non-linear, there are over a hundred characters, and the book's eight-hundred pages seem to conspire in confounding the reader. Roughly, the book traces the adventures of American soldier Tyrone Slothrop in four parts; in the first he is in London in 1945, the last year of World War II. The rest of the book takes place in the postwar "Zone" of France and Germany as Slothrop tramps around in search of the mythical V-2 Rocket 00000. Having given his military the slip, he encounters a whole gaggle of secret agents, charlatans, military, refugees, and revolutionaries, all trying to use him in their agenda of locating Rocket 00000.
Throughout the present study, Amazon reader reviews will be referred to parenthetically by date, as well as by number of stars given (out of a possible five). The names of Amazon reviewers, whether invented or not, are placed in bold.
As shall be evident from the Amazon reviews, Gravity's Rainbow has, since its publication, achieved a cult status among certain types of readers, who declare it the true sequel to such other encyclopedic masterpieces as Moby-Dick and Joyce's Ulysses. On the other side are those who simply do not see the book's appeal (or who do, but reject it). As A Reader (5 stars, 10 May 97) summed up, "you will either love, or hate this book, there can be no in between."
Some Pros and Cons of Analyzing the Reviews
What is to be gained from a broad look at 133 Amazon reviews? First of all, it can be a general guide to the demographic breakdown of a book's readership. From the Amazon reviews, we can first of all surmise that the vast majority of the book's readers are male; of the 133 reviews, only 2 (possibly 3) are indicated as female. This is a bit problematic to figure out, of course, because 53 reviews are written anonymously (labeled simple, "A Reader") while many more who only use an email or nickname give no indication of gender. Even so, analyzing the ratio where gender is (near) certain, it still breaks down to 2:70 or 3:70.
What are the faults with using the reviews too ingenuously? Of course, there is always the danger that people are falsifying information or writing more than one review, but more relevant is the fact that mostly only fans of a book will take the time to write a review, as the statistical breakdown of stars given shows; of the 133 reviews, 86 were five stars, 19 four stars, 9 three stars, 6 two stars, and 13 one stars. See Graph 1:
The readers who finish a book, not the total of people buying the book comprise "readership," so the Amazon reviews still can be said to give a good indication of the demographic. Yet how many of these actually finished the book, an achievement one generally expects from a professional book review? About a dozen specifically say that at the time of writing their review, they had not yet finished Gravity's Rainbow.
And here we begin to see the second set of conclusions to be drawn from the gold mine of Amazon reviews: examining reading habits. Before the advent of the Internet, such a conclusion, that many readers of a certain book never finish it, could never be (even roughly) quantified. One had sales statistics, but no way of knowing how readers treated certain books after adding them to their shelves.
In addition, about ten Amazon reviews of Gravity's Rainbow testify that they were only able to finish the book after repeated attempts. This is a testament to the book's difficulty, yet another statistic shows that of the ones who finished the novel, ten mention reading it (in full) more than once. Thus the function of the Amazon reviews is vastly different from professional book reviews. The latter generally assess the literary or entertainment value of a book within the context of its aims and literary peers. Yet while one sees these as well in the Amazon reviews, one finds out how the book has fared with its intended audience.
Some other little hints of reading habits show through in the Amazon reviews. A Reader (5 stars, 1 June 96), who calls Gravity's Rainbow his "favorite book of all time," has read the novel three times, "once out loud to my wife." Whether he actually read the abstruse 760-page tome aloud in its entirety is an open question, but it is nonetheless amazing to find this practice, which was apparently the norm from antiquity to the 10th century, still in use.
Some More Unique Qualities of Amazon Reviews
The first most obvious quality separating Amazon reviews from professional reviews is the complete absence of editorial review. Amazon does, however, ask that its reviews adhere to some general guidelines. Reviews should "focus on the book's content and context," and refrain from "spoilers" (giving away surprise plot elements) as well as "profanity, obscenities, or spiteful remarks." Single-word reviews are also not welcome, which leads to the question of length. To pick just one example, Richard Locke's piece in the New York Times Book Review is 3,472 words in length, while Amazon limits its reviews to 1000 words (although "The recommended length is 75 to 300 words"). The average word count of the reviews is in fact 181.5 words, so on the whole readers are within Amazon's recommendation. As for how this breaks down along star-rating lines, see graph 2:
The only anomaly is in the 2 star reviews, the reason apparently being that many who gave the book 1 star wrote longer reviews, but there are a great many only a few sentences long, bringing down the average. The 2 star reviews are consistently longer because these reviewers, while never dismissing the book (as many 1 star reviewers did), felt such a low rating deserved some explanation. The 2 star reviewers all acknowledged at least some redeeming quality to Gravity's Rainbow, such as "I am not so arrogant as to assume that everything I don't get is not worth getting," "This book is full of potential, but it never quite works out," and one who "enjoyed the play of color and symbolism." Yet most of them felt the book was simply too incomprehensible. Michael Manley (2 stars, 15 Jan 02) says that although he "WORSHIPS" Pynchon's earlier novel, The Crying of Lot 49, " I just don't buy the idea of books that need to be 'decoded.' "
The readers who gave 1 and 2 star ratings were also often frustrated by the tone of Pynchon's most ardent fans: "The rabid nature of his cultish fans is unnerving to say the very least." Another writes, " I find alarming, however, the cult-mystique that readers have towards writers." And it is certainly true; many reviews which mention their hero Pynchon sound positively evangelical: "The Bible for the Church of Paranoia...GR is our new Bible, and Pynchon's a zany Moses in America." ; "In my house Gravity's Rainbow is "The Good Book." " ; "Pynchon is God." Another review describes the book as a great awakening of sorts:
imagine for a second that you've been walking around all your life with a blindfold on, and one day you start picking at the fabric on your face, and you say, 'Hey, wait a minute.' And then you unwind the blindfold and see for the first time. You can feel impulses running down every axon and dendrite and making a thousand brand new neural connections a millisecond.
The review practically makes Pynchon into a Jesus-figure, bringing eyesight to the blind!
The fanaticism of these passionate readers is a quality certainly absent from professional book reviews. Yes, the latter can give reserved hints, for instance with Earl Shorris: "The novel of satire is no more than a road map, full of symbols, an accurate guide to the explored world, a Baedeker, an amusing preachment, even a commandment." There is, in fact, something to be gained by observing the comments of worshipful fans: namely, one becomes aware that Gravity's Rainbow is not simply a literary event, but one which takes place in the real world. The novel becomes a lifestyle.
A work of art functioning as a lifestyle is common enough in the world of popular music (observe the Grateful Dead). Pynchon's fans, however, have been among the few in recent memory to make a lifestyle of a novel (although other examples could perhaps be drawn from Kerouac, Ayn Rand, or Hermann Hesse). Until the Amazon reviews, however, no forum existed for these scattered Pynchonites to find and recognize one another.
This notion is in fact thematically linked with Gravity's Rainbow; the novel discusses the Puritan dialectic of "elect" and "preterite" (those destined for salvation and the masses who are not) by making a hero of the preterite, just as Marx made a hero of the lower-class. The heroes of Gravity's Rainbow are the losers, drug-addicts, smugglers, forgotten film stars, the doomed, and the world-weary. Pynchon makes demons of every sort of "secret elect," for instance the executives of German chemical cartel IG Farben, whom Pynchon implicates as a primary cause of World War II.
This dialectic runs through the Amazon reviews, as well. Many reviewers are proud to be ignorant, and many are proud to be anonymous, it seems. Some of the five star reviews also express their preterition by criticizing academia. Stephen Rice (5 stars, 17 Dec 00) is proud to state, "I am not an English major. I did not read it with a dissertation or any sort of annotations." A Reader (5 stars, 29 April 99) begins his review, "This book will change your life!
It's more than a novel, of course -- it's an experience." He then follows with some sharp criticism of academia infringing on his Bible:
do not, I repeat, *do not* refer to annotations or any other academic ramblings on the first read. This point is essential if the novel's venom is ever to seep under your skin. I don't care how many degrees you have, where you went to school, etc., the first time you read this novel it must be an act of faith that becomes a direct experience in the making. Later on, if you want to engage the lit-crits in their game, then by all means read all their po-mo stuff on Pynchon. But always remember--Pynchon did not write this novel to serve as a topic for some grad student's dissertation.
This leads into the next function served by the Amazon reviews: advice. While professionals acknowledge the novel's length and difficulty, they offer no practical advice on structuring one's time to get through the it successfully. The Amazon reviews, by contrast, serve essentially as a support group, littered with encouraging words and advice for those wishing to finish and understand the titanic novel. "You may struggle with this book initially," writes one, "but as is true with many things in life, you will be rewarded for your efforts."
Amazon Reviews vs. the Traditional Book Review
Let us see how some professional reviews have been responded to in the Amazon reviews, in both agreement and retort.
The most eloquent contemporary review of Gravity's Rainbow was by Richard Locke, an editor at New York Times Book Review. Locke looks back on the sixties' many novelists, and gives what he considers high praise by stating, "only Vonnegut, Barth and Heller are [Pynchon's] peers." In fact the review's headline reads, "One of the Longest, Most Difficult, Most Ambitious Novels in Years." Locke was full of praise for Pynchon's new novel, yet praised its intellectualism only, declaring that in "feeling" and "heart" it fell behind the peers just named: "Its teetering structure is greater by far than the many surrounding literary shacks and hovels. But we must look to other writers for food and warmth."
Locke's sentiments are echoed in some of the Amazon reviews. Dr. Faustus (3 stars, 25 April 02) agrees that "This novel lacks a visceral quality," while Edward de Jong (4 stars, 25 Jan 98) declares it "Not as human as Catch-22, but still very rewarding." B. Johnson (5 stars, 5 Dec 01) recommends Locke's essay by name, although noting that "There is [an] aspect of Locke's review that I tend to disagree with: He considered the book is too long and doesn't feel "together." " B. Johnson uses the Amazon reviews as a forum for engaging former reviews in a critical debate much as any literary journal (although, granted, with less academic rigour).
One recent form of book review, which some Amazon reviews respond to, is surprisingly one which makes no mention of Gravity's Rainbow at all, the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the Century (in the English language) list. In August 1998 this list, as posited by the prestigious editorial board of the Modern Library, was announced to considerable criticism. Although numerous online forums became centers of debating the list, many Amazon reviewers of Gravity's Rainbow bemoaned their favorite book's exclusion. Andrew Bruske (5 stars, 11 Apr 02) expressed his indignation: "Gravity's Rainbow is perhaps THE novel of the twentieth century
And yet it is not on the list. ML, wake up. No one reads Finnegan's [sic] Wake."
The Harpers review by Earl Shorris classifies Gravity's Rainbow's firmly in the genre of satire, from which its strengths and weaknesses stem. While acknowledging Pynchon's greatness as a "genius of the arcane history of man," Shorris believes the novel, as a satire, is only a way of viewing the world, not in fact a creation, the necessary ingredient of a masterpiece: "Perhaps it is the genre that fails, perhaps hopeless and haughty satire can be no more that Mr. Pynchon has made of it." Shorris goes on to expound the satire's proper function: "The novel of satire is no more than a road map, full of symbols, an accurate guide to the explored world, a Baedeker, an amusing preachment, even a commandment." In this statement Shorris was keen enough to understand the nature of Gravity's Rainbow so admired by its most ardent fans; it is a commandment, a Bible, or an example of what Dylan called a "road map for the soul."
Shorris also uses an unconventional technique also used in a few Amazon reviews, namely, review through creative writing. The first paragraph of Shorris begins as such:
The Debaters -- Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Pythagoras -- are seated on the altar of the church of Saint Germain-des-Près [sic]. Behind them, a great mural depicts Christ, Aphrodite, and Orpheus in an endless odyssey. Noam Chomsky, Claude Lèvi-Strauss [sic], and R.D. Laing sit in the audience, each in his separate pew. Overhead, V-2 rockets and B25 bombers pass each other en rout to their respective targets
This literary beginning is meant to give the reader an idea of Gravity's Rainbow's bizarre complexity and unique mix of high art, myth and religion, and radical politics. It is a technique used by several of the Amazon reviews, first by Marodu (5 stars, 3 Nov 00), who devotes his first paragraph in attempting to imitate Pynchon's prose style:
There is a whole lot of Fighting going on here in the Zone. Too many French soldiers fighting and writing... Nobody Smokes in Germany... but then again, how can Englsh [sic] folk Smoke when Their mouth is filled with Cream Pies? So I wouldn't listen to any of Them. Does anyone out there have a Light? Someone give me the directions. Of course, You Understand, now the Darkness demands a little Plot and Clark Gable and movement into the SouthWest...
While not the most authentic re-creation, its is nonetheless a unique technique.
The lack of an editor has numerous effects on the Amazon reviews. The sum of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, contractions and generally "un-professional" use of English gives the Amazon reviews a refreshing informality not be found on the pages of Harpers or NYTBR. It would be difficult to find a professional reviewer with the conviction of Jeremy (5 stars, 20 June 00), who begins with, "Whine and complain if you want...but I'm 15 and I absolutely loved this damn book." The informal tone of the forum however, more than once lends itself to personal insults, also not likely to be found on the printed page. Fourteen-year-old Philip Kaufman (26 Mar 99) had the following words for negative reviewers: "QUIT YOUR WHINING RETARDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Joseph Balsama (5 stars, 27 Apr 98) has his laugh as well, "It's fun to read these reviews, especially the ones where the reader "didn't get it... GR... is panned for being too long (poor babies, is all them words too much?)."
Although neither informality nor insults can necessarily be deemed worthy additions to a book review, some of these examples show that young teenagers are also using the Amazon forum. One clear advantage the Amazon reviews have over literary reviews is that they can incorporate the opinions of child readers in the debate, a historical first.
Another positive stemming from the forum style of the Amazon reviews is that it allows readers to respond to a book over time. Professional reviews of Gravity's Rainbow are almost entirely from 1973, its year of publication, and 1974, when the slower critics finally finished reading it. The Amazon reviews, however, allow reviewers to comment on how a book has aged, whether it maintains its original importance and relevance, or whether time has given it new, unexpected relevance. Daniel Conley (5 stars, 10 Apr 00) addresses these issues: "It's been said that the world still hasn't caught up to Pynchon, but I'm not so sure. The mix of absurdity and profundity is everywhere today ... X-Files, Brazil, TC Boyle, The Matrix."
The Collective Review
To conclude, there is a common thread in many of the Amazon reviews. Gravity's Rainbow is a unique beast in terms of review because many consider any review of it futile or worthless. Michael Wood's review in the New York Review of Books acknowledges this: "Gravity's Rainbow is literally indescribable." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times wrote that the novel's complexity "may also constitute an elaborate literary trap that Pynchon has set to catch seekers after cause-and-effect." In other words, trying to make sense of the novel (a book reviewer's occupation) may, in this case, be futile.
The difficulty of reviewing Gravity's Rainbow is mentioned in many of the Amazon reviews. "Reviews of this book are basically pointless," writes firstname.lastname@example.org (4 stars, 12 Aug 97), elaborating that:
There are a number of reasons one might write a review of a book. Most of these reasons aren't all that helpful when it comes to Gravity's Rainbow. One reason is to provide potential readers with a sense of the book (plot, structure, style, characterization). The best way to get a sense of Gravity's Rainbow is to read the first page.
He goes on to show his contempt for intellectual analysis of the novel, stating:
you can save that stuff for your weekly book club
. I've found that many such GR reviews fall into one of two camps: "I read 'X' pages and couldn't/didn't finish it" or "Thomas Pynchon is God". The problem with reviews like this is that they say more about the meta-experience (sorry, but that is the appropriate word) of reading the book than they do about the book itself.
Here we have hit the main distinction between professional reviews and the Amazon reviews; many of the latter deal with the meta-experience. This is hardly a bad thing, however, for the historian; it is what makes them such interesting documents. We see how people are reading a book, why they read it, and what they get out of it, precisely what NYTBR cannot tell you. It is a uniquely 1990s invention.
Returning to the book's incomprehensibility, The Kenosha Kid (23 July 01) echoes Michael Wood: "the only word I can think of to describe "Gravity's Rainbow" is indescribable." Is Gravity's Rainbow the one book that defies a review, and which can only be approached from the Amazon reviews? The question can be answered in terms of reason. One negative reviewer noted that, "I've read all of the reviews on this page and, interestingly, the tone and arguments of the detractors seem much more reasoned and sensible than those of the supporters," while another negative reviewer complained, "Excuse me, but the book doesn't make integral sense." Interestingly enough, the positive reviewers, the novel's greatest admirers, could not agree more. If there is one great statement to be made through the Amazon reviews, the following paragraph, a collective review comprised of sentences from many different readers attempts to spell it out:
"It seems almost pointless to try to draw any comparisons or analogies to any other work of art of any genre, because "Gravity's Rainbow" is one of a kind." "I stopped reading it when I realized I was trying to contextualize everything in some time and place I heard about through a history text -- as if fiction only gets good when it seems real ; upon my second try I attempted to read it as a poem. I read it all the way through like this. Without any meaning, significance, or thought of satirical connotation, the book becomes a simple feast for the ears." "The point of this [book] is simply to read it -- savor the prose, laugh out loud at the narrative, immerse yourself in the experience that is the language and spirit of this masterpiece." "I realized it made just as much sense to read it in a non-linear manner -- you won't gain any more reading it sequentially and the "ending" does not function as one in any traditional sense." "YOU MUST LET IT SET ITS OWN RULES!!!!!!!
If you didn't "get it," ha! it got you."
Many of the reviewers agree that Gravity's Rainbow teaches one how not to think in terms of reason, linear plot, cause-and-effect, and is thus an almost impossible subject for a book review.
As a final note, there is one renegade review who lashes out at Pynchon-fan, Pynchon-hater, academics, and all Amazon reviewers, yet one who considers himself a true, anonymous, believer of Gravity's Rainbow:
Less talk, more reading. It appears to me that the worst thing about this novel turns out to be the people who read it and feel compelled to post their reactions on Amazon.com. It's hard to know which are more pitiful, the glowing reviews or the irritable dismissals. I guess my only consolation is that GR will continue to be GR long after all of you dweebs and feebs and illiterate college graduates have ceased farting in your corduroys.
Postscript : Language and the International Forum
Gravity's Rainbow, like Finnegans Wake, is littered with foreign language. German appears on 204 of the novel's pages, French on 27 pages, Spanish on 19 pages, and the maddeningly obscure African language Herero on about 20 pages. The Amazon reviews reflect the novel's multi-lingual approach, and there is even one entirely in Spanish. A Reader (5 stars, 3 Dec 01), like many, attempted the novel numerous time unsuccessfully. He was frustrated to find so many allusions and concepts he did not understand, so in a unique move: "I then found it translated into Italian and since my Italian isn't perfect, I relaxed in my reading. The English text is now in my hand again. Just enjoy the ride, folks."
The novel has yet to receive a Spanish translation, and in France L'Arc-en-ciel de la gravité enjoys only minor fame. There are no reader reviews on Amazon.fr, and a search on Google.com (of the translated title) yields only 56 matches with no significant French Web sites devoted to Pynchon or his work. In sharp contrast, Die Enden der Parabel has become a cult hit in Germany. Amazon.de contains four reviews and a Google search reveals 369 matches, with a wide range of Pynchon-devoted web pages auf Deutsch. The reason for this is probably that although part of Gravity's Rainbow takes place in France, there is little to no comment on French culture, people, or history. Germany, however, is dealt with in all these ways, so it might be safe to assume that Gravity's Rainbow's popularity in Germany stems from this. Italians can enjoy L'arcobaleno della gravità (83 matches on Google, with roughly equal interest as in France), along with one Amazon reviewer already mentioned.