Sat 17 Apr 2004
Got the write stuff for a Rankin tale?
• TV series lets viewers end tale by crime author
• Other famous writers taking part in interactive show
ASPIRING authors are to be given the chance to write the ending for one of Ian Rankin’s thrillers.
The Edinburgh-based crime writer is taking part in a new interactive BBC series which will see the public asked to write the conclusion of half-finished tales.
Along with the Inspector Rebus creator, well-known writers such as Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend, comic Alexei Sayle and Chocolat author Joanne Harris will be providing short stories for the BBC3 series.
Rankin said today: "I think there is at least a short story in everyone, I’m not sure there is a book in everyone though.
"The intriguing thing about this is that you are given half a story to start with. I have got absolutely no idea how the story I have contributed is going to end.
"I can see about half a dozen ways in which it could end, but I’d be curious to see whether people see them too or if they come up with something totally different which I had not thought of."
Rankin has written a six to eight-page story and describes it as "an intriguing tale of an Edinburgh ne’er-do-well who may, or may not, be using supernatural powers".
The story centres around a "lowlife" and has a criminal element, but Rankin stressed it is also "completely new" and does not feature Rebus. "He is not there, but people could bring him in. That will be interesting too. I’ve tried to keep it as vague as possible," he said.
The novelists’ half-finished stories will be published in a pamphlet which will be distributed across coffee shops, libraries and on the internet next month.
Readers will then have six weeks to try to complete the tales and get their entries judged.
The eight winning stories - which will be judged by a panel including author Muriel Gray and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah - will be showcased on BBC3 in the autumn.
A selection of entries will also be broadcast on Radio 4.
Rankin added: "As a writer you tend to think of yourself as having a particular style, so it will also be interesting to see whether people try to mimic that style or if they bring their own twist to it, and whether readers can spot the join between the two halves of the story.
"I agreed to do it because I don’t think there are enough outlets for short stories. When I got started it was in short stories. I’m doing this to try and get more people interested in the genre."
Like most authors, he occasionally suffers from writer’s block, which he tackles in two different ways. "I either put the story aside and just hope that inspiration will eventually strike, or I talk it through with people, in the pub over a drink, saying: ‘This is the story...’"
BBC3 controller Stuart Murphy said the channel wanted to uncover the next generation of writing talent across Britain.
He said: "This project is very exciting for anyone who has read a book and thought they could do better.
"With the stories covering a variety of genres there’s something to suit everyone’s style of writing. This series could change the path of some people’s lives."
End of Story... will be launched on BBC3 and BBC2 this weekend.
The eight half-stories will be fully revealed in a launch programme on BBC3 at 9pm on Sunday, followed by an airing on BBC2 at 10pm.
Winners will meet the authors whose work they have completed and may even land a publishing deal.
Ian Rankin & Rebus:
Ian Rankin (official site)
Scotsman.com News - Entertainment - Got the write stuff for a Rankin tale?
Saturday, April 17, 2004
Sat 17 Apr 2004
Posted by BookBitch at 4/17/2004 05:25:00 PM
Thursday, April 15, 2004
April 15, 2004
Call Me E-Mail: The Novel Unfolds Digitally
By ADAM BAER
A CORPORATE e-mail message goes astray. Two young strangers flirt in cyberspace. They agree to meet. An assault ensues. And a mystery built on digital clues is born.
It's not a plot that breaks new ground. But then, the earnest new "novel" that it fuels, "Intimacies," by Eric Brown, is drawing notice more for its style than for its content.
A former English professor who teaches executives how to write, Mr. Brown, 59, calls "Intimacies" a digital epistolary novel, or DEN, terms that he has trademarked. The plot of "Intimacies" is based on "Pamela," the 18th-century work by Samuel Richardson that is one of Western literature's first epistolary novels. It is the format of Mr. Brown's work rather than its story that makes it postmodern: it is meant to be read with the aid of a software interface designed by Billy McQuown, an employee at Mr. Brown's consulting firm, Communication Associates.
The story unfolds through e-mail messages, instant-message conversations and Web sites, all within a window generated by the DEN software; the program can be downloaded free from Mr. Brown's Web site, www.greatamericannovel.com.
But more intriguing than "Intimacies" itself is Mr. Brown's plan to begin selling a version of the software that he used to write it, one that will help fans of the form execute their own digital epistolary novels.
Of course, writers have long experimented with e-mail narratives; some say that by now it is almost impossible to avoid, given the prevalence of e-mail communication.
"E-mail fictions have been going for at least a decade - it's a pretty primal urge," said Rob Wittig, 48, a writer who began posting fictional messages on electronic bulletin boards in the early 1980's. In 1999 Mr. Wittig created "Friday's Big Meeting" (www.robwit.net/fbm), a story set in a virtual chatroom, as well as "Blue Company 2002" (www.robwit.net/bluecompany2002), arguably the first epistolary e-mail narrative to be written and published for paying e-mail subscribers in real time.
Other examples of what Mr. Wittig called message fictions have ranged in style from "Online Caroline" (www.onlinecaroline.com), a multimedia story that lets users interact with a fictional character by means of timed e-mail messages, her Webcam and her Web site, and SMS cellphone text-messaging and pager-message shorts. Then there is "The Case of the Molndal Murder," a September 2003 project at the Molndal Museum in Sweden, where people using Bluetooth-equipped hand-helds followed a map while their devices received short movies and chunks of text that told a mystery story.
Mr. Wittig, whose current project is a fictional blog, www.robwit.net, said he believed that Mr. Brown's interface for "Intimacies'' and the composition software he plans to market were the first of their kind. The interface, for PC's only, mimics e-mail and instant-messaging programs; the reader opens and reads each character's messages in sequence. A second version due this month will deliver the messages at timed intervals, Mr. Brown said, so that reading them will more closely resemble the experience of receiving e-mail and instant messages.
With the current version of the program, DEN 1.2, the screen is divided into four windows: one for e-mail, one for instant messages, an imitation Web browser and an imitation pager screen. At the top of the main window are tabs that read: "Week One," "Week Two" and so on. Below that menu, in the program's e-mail window, is a list of messages that the reader clicks through in chronological order (though it is possible to backtrack or jump ahead). Sometimes there are other links that summon transcripts of instant-message exchanges, Web pages, or pager messages in the program's other windows.
The composition software that Mr. Brown plans to market, DEN WriterWare, which is expected to cost about $150, resembles the reading application and works much as popular screenwriting programs do. The user creates a cast of characters, then writes the story in e-mail or instant-message installments that can be saved individually. To create ancillary story aids, writers can incorporate virtual snapshots of screen images that are created with a small toolbar or taken from real Web sites. The saved messages can be sorted by sender, time or subject, allowing writers to change the sequence of a story or to write one character's side of the correspondence at a time, a feature that would allow children to write stories together.
Mr. Brown said he was inspired to create "Intimacies" after watching young people use e-mail and instant messaging.
"My younger employees say they don't have time to read books and instead focus on e-mail and Web writing," he said. "There's this huge group of readers in our office - a communications company! - and they're reading snips and pieces. It got me thinking: Why not write stories in this form and in the process give readers a way to write their own?"
The response from young readers who visit Web sites like www.theonion.com, a satirical online newspaper where Mr. Brown advertises, suggests that the form has struck a chord. "I'm not much into staring at a computer screen for any longer than is strictly necessary, since I work in front of one all day, everyday, like most people," said Roberta Gray, a 26-year-old editor at The Sunday Tribune in Dublin. "But I really found 'Intimacies' quite addictive, and ended up reading the whole thing more or less in one sitting."
Alex Michas, the 25-year-old director of business development at Spring Street Networks, a New York Internet personals company, said he found Mr. Brown's concept to be in tune with the times.
"There's a very different rhythm to e-mail and chat - it lets our users reveal a lot about themselves very quickly - and this form of storytelling is similar in that regard," he said. "There aren't too many books that have successfully captured how these interchanges really work."
Although they have attracted a lot of attention, digital epistolary and message fiction like "Intimacies" are not the only electronic forms of literature vying for attention on the Web. A small community of so-called hypertext writers, many of them affiliated with academia, have been publishing more experimental work in online journals like The Iowa Review Web (www.uiowa.edu/~iareview) and BeeHive (beehive.temporalimage.com) for more than a decade. Such writing includes texts with animation and works created by using rules and random processes to generate something different for each reader.
Thom Swiss, editor of The Iowa Review Web and a professor of English at the University of Iowa who focuses on those forms of hypertext, said that to him Mr. Brown's creation seemed mechanical. "While inventive if buggy, I'm not sure how useful it is," he said. "At this stage of its development, it's more of a game and less literature - and not because of the pulp story but because the formal elements of composing the piece are given to you: you just fill in the content."
Still, Mr. Brown's digital novel has drawn praise from some scholars interested in new media, especially those who hope to take e-literature mainstream.
Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a 31-year-old traveling scholar at Brown University and visiting researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said texts that take the form of fictional digital artifacts like e-mail or blogs held promise for a generation that grew up with computers. "I read more on the screen than I do on paper," he said, "and I'm pleased to see people take imaginative writing and put it into the spaces where we do our living."
Mr. Wardrip-Fruin compared "Intimacies" to an epistolary story by one of his students that consisted of e-mail messages with attached photos and diary entries and that was published through a Yahoo e-mail account. He said that such projects, as well as some narrative and life-simulation video games, qualified as literature worthy of attention.
"These are forms of e-writing as surely as experimental hypertext poetry," he said. "We just have to understand that like traditional literature, e-literature has a range of styles, including popular ones."
What will take electronic literature to the next level, Mr. Wardrip-Fruin suggested, are multimedia projects involving so many inventive procedures that they cannot be reproduced or mimicked on paper. "Think of the textual analogue to video games," he said. "You can't really capture the way a video game works by printing it out; that's what will have to happen with electronic literature for it to become popular."
"Intimacies" has achieved a level of popularity: in the four months it has been available online, Mr. Brown said, about 5,000 people - over 10 percent of the visitors to his Web site - have downloaded it, and youth-oriented Web sites like Fark.com have included links to it.
His next step, he said, will be to use e-stories in communications training for executives and to teach writing to schoolchildren who may enjoy computers more than they like reading. He said he was also working on customizing the third version of his software for hand-held organizers and cellphones in the hope of reinvigorating the concept of the e-book.
"The problem with e-books has always been that they use traditional text and layout," Mr. Brown said.
With "Intimacies," the interface had to be developed before the narrative could unfold. "We made it especially to look like the place where people get their most interesting and vital forms of information today," he said. "How else is a modern writer supposed to get involved in his readers' lives?"
The New York Times > Technology > Circuits > Call Me E-Mail: The Novel Unfolds Digitally
Posted by BookBitch at 4/15/2004 11:12:00 PM
Monday, April 12, 2004
Book Groups Less Price-Resistant; Favorites of 2003
Cost is not an obstacle if a reading group has strong interest in a book, according to a recent survey conducted by Reading Group Choices of more than 2,400 book group members. Among other findings, although 58% of all book group selections are in paperback, this year's results showed groups bought hardcover versions of The Da Vinci Code and The Five People You Meet in Heaven rather than wait for their release in trade paperback.
"The surprise of this year's survey results is how the number of hardcover selections have climbed to 42% of the total number of books chosen for book group discussions during 2003," Donna Paz Kaufman, publisher of Reading Group Choices stated. "Nearly a 20% increase over the past year." The online survey was conducted between January and March 2004.
The survey also indicated that backlist titles with visibility can have a long life in the book group market. Pope Joan (1997), The Red Tent (1997) and Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999) have all enjoyed years on the Reading Group Choices Book Group Favorites list.
The survey also provided "a clear indication that most book group members prefer topics that address the literary nature of the book and those that draw out the reader's own personal life experience," reported Kaufman.
Favorite Book Group Choices of 2003 were:
1. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking)
2. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (Doubleday)
3. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (Picador USA)
4. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (Random)
5. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Harcourt)
6. Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Plume)
7. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Grove)
8. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins)
9. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown)
10. Empire Falls by Richard Russo (Knopf)
11. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Picador USA)
12. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor)
13. Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross (Ballantine)
14. Atonement by Ian McEwan (Anchor)
15. Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier (Vintage)
Reading Group Choices was launched in 1995 to help readers identify and select "discussible" books, simplify the process of facilitating group discussions and keeping them on track, and introduce readers to a variety of appropriate books from a range of publishers. The group's Web site (http://www.readinggroupchoices.com/ ) offers select reading guides that can be printed directly from the site and links to publishers Web sites with resources for book groups.--Kevin Howell
Posted by BookBitch at 4/12/2004 10:40:00 PM
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT
April 11, 2004, 11:27AM
SPYWARE: THEY CAME FROM CYBERSPACE
Step 1: Avoid spyware
By DWIGHT SILVERMAN
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
THEY CAME FROM CYBERSPACE
• Step 1: Avoid spyware
• Step 2: Let Windows remove it
• Step 3: Removal software
• Step 4: Turning off spyware
• Step 5: Removing browser objects
• Types of spyware
• Got spyware?
The best strategy in the fight against spyware is to avoid it altogether. With a little vigilance, common sense and safe-surfing practices, you may never need to follow the steps in the rest of this guide.
• Update software. Keep your operating system and most-used programs updated with the latest patches and fixes. Some spyware programs, like viruses, take advantage of known security flaws in Windows and Internet Explorer.
• Avoid bad online neighborhoods. Just as you wouldn't go walking late at night in a bad part of town, don't go wandering around Web sites with questionable content. Sites that offer pornography, free downloads of copyrighted music and hacked copies of popular software programs are often also distributors of spyware and browser hijackers.
• Just say no. Web sites of all types may try to install plug-ins to your browser. Some are fine, such as Macromedia's popular Shockwave plug-in for view Flash animations. Others, though, can install spyware or hijack your browsers. When a site wants to install software, you'll see a popup called a certificate that will give you some information about the software and who is offering it. If it's a name you know -- such as Microsoft, Macromedia, Apple, etc. -- it's probably safe. But if you don't recognize it, or particularly if the plug-in offers to provide free software, music or porn, then decline.
• Tweak your settings. Your browser's security settings for Internet Explorer should be set to at least medium to prevent automatic launching and installation of Active X and Java programs which are often used to perform actions in a Web browser. In IE, click on Tools, Options, then Security. From here you can adjust your settings. Keep in mind that if you increase security above medium, some Web sites may not work properly.
• Investigate free software. Although there is lots of free software that really is free, a lot of it comes with a catch. Do some research before downloading a program by entering its name into a search engine such as Google along with the words "adware" or "spyware." Carefully read the fine print on the program's source Web site, and if you do install it, pay close attention to the licensing agreement that will appear as art of the installation routine.
Certain kinds of software are more apt to contain spyware or adware than others. For example, peer-to-peer, music-file-sharing programs, such as Kazaa or Grokster, are notorious for components that come along for the ride. In general, any free software that purports to get you something else for free is likely to contain spyware or adware.
Step 2: Let Windows remove it
Some spyware and adware programs do allow computer users to remove them easily. Check in the Add/Remove Programs module in the Windows control panel for the offending item. Try running the uninstall process.
If you don't see it listed there, check in the Windows Program Groups -- Start, Run, Programs -- for a folder related to the program. If there is a corresponding folder, there may be an uninstall icon inside it.
Some spyware uninstallers, though, will only generate error messages. If that's the case -- or if no uninstaller can be found -- you'll need to take more drastic measures.
Step 3: Spyware removal software
Spyware has become such a universal problem that an entire industry has grown up around software designed to remove it. Initially the purview of developers of shareware and freeware, the demand for spyware removal tools has inspired giants such as Symantec and Network Associates to jump into the market.
But the most popular programs -- and often the most effective -- remain those developed and created by programmers as freebies online.
A warning: Spyware removal programs aren't perfect. They won't remove all programs, and using them could cause other programs to stop functioning -- for example, if you remove adware that's required for another program to work. And some of them make changes to key system files, including the Windows Registry. Use at your own risk.
• AdAware -- www.lavasoft.de One of the most popular removal programs, AdAware takes aim both at spyware and browser cookies. It's also one of the simplest to use.
After installing, check for online updates to its database of bad programs and download it if one's available. Follow the prompts to check your computer for spyware and tracking cookies.
When it's completed -- it may take several minutes -- you'll see a list of cookies and possible programs. Right-clicking on any program in the list brings up a menu with lots of options, including the ability to select all the items on the list. Once you've chosen the items to remove, click Next and AdAware will delete them.
If you remove something you later wish you hadn't, AdAware's Quarantine feature lets you restore it.
• Spybot Search & Destroy -- www.safer-networking.org A little harder to use but more thorough, Spybot Search & Destroy is the other leader in spyware removal.
After installing, you can launch Spybot in either advanced or easy mode. Spybot also can download updated information about new spyware programs, so be sure and download its definition files before scanning.
Like AdAware, a scan takes a few minutes and produces a list of suspects. You can click on some items and get more detail about them before deciding whether to delete them.
Spybot also has an Immunize feature, making it impossible for some programs to change them. In Advanced mode, you can delve deep into system settings, including turning off programs that are set to launch at startup.
Here's a tip for both AdAware and Spybot. Restart your computer before running either one, and don't launch any browsers before launching Spybot or AdAware. This prevents programs designed to launch with the browser from loading into Windows' memory and can can keep them from being removed. Failing that, try running both in Windows' Safe Mode (at bootup, just before the Windows startup logo appears, hit the F8 key, and at the menu that appears, choose Safe Mode). This keeps spyware from launching when Windows itself starts up.
• Hijack This! -- www.spywareinfo.com/~merijn/ A program designed to fix browsers whose home pages and settings have been altered or "hijacked," Hijack This! requires some knowledge to be used safely.
After scanning your system, which takes just a few seconds, it shows in a single window a list of items that could be related to browser hijackings.
• CW Shredder -- www.spyware.info.com/~merijn/ Developed by the same author as Hijack This!, CW Shredder removes a very common piece of spyware known as the Coolwebsearch Trojan. It takes advantage of a flaw in a key component of Windows -- Microsoft's version of the Java Virtual Machine -- to install itself via popups often found on porn and illegal software (a.k.a. "warez") sites.
Run CW Shredder after installing, and have it look for updates. Then click the "Fix" button, and the the program will both scan and fix any problems it finds. If your system does not have this kind of spyware, it will give you the good news.
Step 4: Turning off spyware
In those cases where spyware is stubborn, you may be able to prevent it from starting up when Windows launches.
If you are using Windows 98, ME or XP, click on Start, Run, then type MSCONFIG and hit Enter. This will bring up the System Configuration Utility, and from here click the Startup tab.
Here you'll find programs that are activated when Windows boots, and by unchecking the boxes next to them, you can prevent most of them from starting. The list can be mystifying for even experienced computer users, but there's a searchable guide to the most common startup programs at www.sysinfo.org/startuplist.php.
Once you've determined what you need or don't need, you can uncheck the undesirables, then click Apply and OK. Restart your computer.
After the restart, the utility will appear again. You can check to see if any of the items previously unchecked have been rechecked, which some of the nastier spyware programs will do.
(Windows 2000 users will discover that the System Configuration Utility is not available on their PCs. Instead, try using Startup Control Panel, available at www.mlin.net/StartupCPL.shtml.)
Step 5: Removing browser-based spyware
Some spyware components are browser plug-ins, also known as Browser Helper Objects.
You can find Browser Helper Objects, or BHOs, in the Temporary Internet Files area. Click Tools, Options, then Settings on the General tab. From there, click on View Objects.
A folder called Downloaded Program Files will appear, and from here you can identify and possibly delete suspected BHOs. As with the startup items found in the System Configuration Utility, the item names can be cryptic. A list of common BHOs can be found at www.sysinfo.org/bhoinfo.php.
You may find you cannot remove some, because the browser is open and using them. An alternative is to restart the computer, then go to the Internet Options module via the Control Panel. This lets you get to the same menus without opening IE.
You can also get to it by clicking on My Computer, the C: drive, the Windows folder, and then opening the Downloaded Program Files folder.
Finally, if those tricks don't work, try removing the BHOs while in Windows' Safe Mode, again making sure you don't launch Internet Explorer first.
Even these strategies may not work. For advanced help, try some of the tips located at www.spywareinfo.com, or ask the experts that hang out in the forums there.
Posted by BookBitch at 4/12/2004 12:54:00 PM
The boisterous world of online literary commentary is many things. But is it criticism?
By James Marcus
Sunday, April 11, 2004; Page BW13
Due to a widely reported technical blooper, the Canadian division of Amazon.com revealed the identities of several thousand of its anonymous reviewers. For just a few days in February, until the company restored their electronic fig leaves, these stealth critics were effectively unmasked. For the most part, of course, this was no big deal. What difference did it make if "a reader from Saskatchewan" turned out to be named Keith -- and actually lived in Hoboken? Surely such minor mendacities could be forgiven. Maybe Keith was just shy, and longed for the Great White North.
Yet there were also some alarming discoveries to be made. A fairly large number of authors had gotten glowing testimonials from friends, husbands, wives, colleagues and paid flacks. A few had "reviewed" their own books. The novelist John Rechy, among those caught in flagrante, pleaded the equivalent of self-defense: He was simply fighting fire with anonymous fire. Other miscreants cited the ancient tradition of self-puffery, practiced by both Walt Whitman (who wrote not one but three unsigned reviews of Leaves of Grass, and quoted them all in the second edition) and Anthony Burgess (who paid for the stunt with his job).
Still others dismissed the idea that there was any conflict of interest to begin with. Lisa Jardine, a British academic heavyweight and occasional paid consultant to Amazon's U.K. site, made no attempt to repair the online giant's critical reputation. Indeed, she suggested that it had no reputation to lose. As she saw it, Amazon was essentially a promotional hog heaven, where any author with a brain in his head would quite naturally shill for his own creations: "There's nothing immoral about it. This is a marketing website."
It's hard not to chuckle over what one company spokesperson called "an unfortunate error." The exposure of such brazen fibbing inspires a certain relish: It's like that moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when the curtain is yanked aside and Frank Morgan is revealed as a fake. Yet the sheer variety of reactions to the glitch -- from outrage to embarrassment to jaded indifference -- suggests that something more is afoot.
Can this latest chapter in Amazon's long, complicated romance with the vox populi tell us something about pitfalls of Internet democracy? Perhaps. At the very least, it's a reminder that art and commerce can make for extremely strange bedfellows.
A little personal history may shed some light. I worked as a senior editor and writer at Amazon from 1996 to 2001. When I first started at the company, it was still a vest-pocket operation with 50 or so employees. Visitors to the site encountered a vast, bare-bones catalogue: We sold more than a million different titles, but offered little information about them beyond the card-catalog level.
To begin addressing this information deficit, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos came up with a two-pronged approach. On one hand, he hired people like me, former journalists and editors -- slowly at first, then in droves. Among our main duties was to write old-fashioned book reviews, complete with byline. Despite the occasional flicker of unease about our role -- were we critics or sales clerks? -- we functioned more or less like traditional reviewers, reading the books and rendering honest judgment, preferably in 250 words or less.
No editorial staff, not even a burgeoning one, could spackle in the giant holes in the catalogue. It would have taken centuries. Luckily, Bezos had already come up with a canny expedient: customer reviews. By the time I came aboard, Amazon was already encouraging visitors to comment on the books they had read. What began as a trickle would turn into a steady stream, then a torrent: Soon there were thousands, then millions of reviews. Who would have thought that the book -- an archaic information product already slated for extinction by various starry-eyed futurists -- could elicit this mighty outpouring of opinion?
Day after day, they kept coming, running the gamut from stylish elegance to stream-of-consciousness blather. At that point, they struck us professionals as something of a sideshow -- a virtual mosh pit where the customers could play by any rules they chose. Most of us came to enjoy the racket, with its noisy assertion of electronic populism.
True, there were some flaws from the very start. A simple piece of software could comb through the incoming reviews to detect specific naughty words and ethnic slurs. Yet a less common obscenity, or even a misspelled one, snuck right in the back door. If a customer came across one of these smears and complained, we usually removed it -- a process that might take weeks, since Amazon's gleaming, high-tech chassis sat atop a Dickensian-era infrastructure. Sometimes, though, we weren't sure how to weigh in. During my first few weeks on the job, a Wiccan from the Midwest took us to task for a nasty customer comment about casting spells. Were witches truly a minority in need of our protection? Only after a heated departmental debate did the comment disappear -- as if by magic.
Then there was the problem of false attribution. When William Shakespeare or Jesus Christ posted a customer review, it was a simple matter to press the Delete button. Famous living celebrities posed a more ticklish dilemma: As I recall, their contributions were verified by e-mail whenever possible. That aside, customers were free to take on any identity they liked. This was the Web, after all, where we were supposed to slip the constraints of the material world and function as pure spirits. If one of these spirits happened to plagiarize most of his customer reviews from the book section at Salon.com -- and then indignantly accuse the magazine of stealing his work when the deed was exposed -- well, purity was a relative thing.
You could argue that these were mere technical difficulties. A teenage programmer with a six-pack of Jolt could probably attend to most of them in the course of a weekend. Yet the snowballing popularity of the whole process forced the editorial staff at Amazon to confront some more pointed questions. What exactly was the relationship between professional reviewers and casual readers? By opening the conversation about books to millions of amateurs, had the Web more or less destroyed the notion of cultural authority? Had the Bastille of elitism finally fallen?
We pondered these questions long and hard. We pondered them even harder once it became clear that the company was casting its lot with the customer reviewers and subtly ushering its editorial staff out the door. When I left Amazon after five years, I thought these matters might no longer bedevil me. Yet they still do -- and in the wake of last month's high-tech pratfall, perhaps I can share some basic conclusions.
For starters: Imagine that you're circulating from room to room at an enormous cocktail party, with millions of guests, eavesdropping. Undoubtedly you will be treated to some gems, some brilliant bits of repartee, the occasional burst of intellectual fireworks. Most of what you hear, however, will be pretty mundane, given the law of averages and the general human tendency to lose track of our thoughts halfway to completing them. Well, the same rule applies to customer reviews, both at Amazon and elsewhere. There's plenty of wheat amid the chaff -- but there's lots of chaff, acres and acres of it, much of it lacking coherence, clarity, charity and punctuation. In a sense, it's now the audience, not the editor, shouldering the burden of culling out the good stuff. Whether this represents a seismic shift in the cultural terrain or merely a fresh division of labor remains to be seen.
If only there were some way to combine the speed and democracy of the Web with the more meditative character of traditional criticism. Oh wait, there already is: blogging. In some cases the convergence is quite literal -- witness the case of Terry Teachout, reviewing for such Bronze Age bastions as the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Commentary with his left hand while blogging like mad with his right at his site, www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight. But even those bloggers who never venture into print have something in common with their opposite numbers in the traditional media: a name to besmirch, a reputation to smudge. It keeps them honest in a way that anonymous, duck-and-cover reviewing never can. It also encourages a kind of snarky civility, very welcome in our polarized era.
This may change, of course, as the blogosphere moves further into the mainstream. Already there are turf wars, low-level spats. No doubt a pecking order will gradually materialize, since even cyberspace operates according to the familiar logic of Animal Farm: All bloggers are created equal, but some are more equal than others. There will be stars, contract players, boffo traffic numbers. There will be a proliferation of advertising on the most visible sites -- there is already, in fact -- and a defiant tug-of-war between the early bloggers and their entrepreneurial successors.
Perhaps I'm being too cynical. If the blogosphere turns out to be a brave new world after all, where logrolling and cronyism fear to tread, I'll be the first to applaud. In any case, there's no denying that the practice is on the rise: According to a recent study by the Pew Institute, up to five percent of all Internet users have created blogs in the last year alone. We do seem to be on the verge of that radiant future in which everybody, as the saying goes, is a critic.
A confirmed Luddite myself, I confess to viewing this prospect with mixed emotions. I'm grateful to the Internet, I love its Whitmanian capacity to contain multitudes, yet I cringe at the thought of keeping up with it all, the endless tsunami of argument, the compulsion to send our ideas into battle like guided missiles. Too bad: There's no turning back the tide, no depriving the populace of its niftiest microphone ever. Like it or not, we're going to hear America singing, and the really intriguing question is what the chorus will sound like. •
James Marcus is a former senior editor for Amazon.com. He sat on the board of the National Book Critics Circle from 1996 to 2002. His book "Amazonia: Five Years at the Center of the Dot.com Juggernaut" will be published in June.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The boisterous world of online literary commentary is many things. But is it criticism? By James Marcus (washingtonpost.com)
Posted by BookBitch at 4/12/2004 10:50:00 AM