May Amazon’s Book “Vine” and its Bitter Fruit Wither, Shrivel, and Die

I loathe Amazon’s book business for a few reasons, but one of the deepest is its Vine program that offers free books to customers who are prolific in their opinions.

The Vine corrodes the boundary between “opinion” and “review.” For this reason, it further tatters the flimsy remnants of public intellectual life in America.

Vine members get a list each month, off of which they can check stuff, including books, that they want to get for free. It’s like ordering off the sushi menu—except, well, it’s a book, and, as such, represents someone’s soul, blood, sweat, and tears. The only obligation is that the Vine person must post an opinion about the book.

Amazon thinks the opinions are reviews, but they aren’t. They’re opinions. Opinions are all well and good. But they’re not book reviews.  It would be like saying that your friend’s opinion about that worrisome mole on your thigh is a “diagnosis.”

One of the major things about books is that their audiences are self-selective.  We buy books that are likely to interest us.

I wouldn’t buy inspirational books about how to apply a particular apostle’s wisdom to everyday life situations. I’m not the intended audience for that book, and it would be unfair to the author and other readers for me to review it, because I’m not inclined toward the topic, and would never pick it up in a bookstore. It’s not just that I wouldn’t like that particular book. I wouldn’t like, or really understand, the genre.

Then again, give me a copy for free—and perhaps mischievously, or even maliciously, I decide that I’ll review it, and lambast the author because she has a worldview, not my own. It’s the new American way, after all—pure, unbridled intolerance toward dissenting points of view.

Or, say I’m in a cultural warrior mode, and I get my list of commodities that Amazon is willing to send me for free, and I check off an Ann Coulter book. One pops out of her almost every year, it seems like.

This, too, would be unfair. Why? Because I would never buy a Coulter book. People who buy books on Amazon have skin in the game. They care. Or, they are curious. Or, they are at least politically engagé enough to want to know what their opponents say. They are inherently inclined toward the topic, and the purchase is certification of their interest. Call it the currency of a writer-reader contract.

Sure, plenty will buy the book and trash it, and some will buy the book for the sole purpose of trashing it. But at least they’ve purchased that privilege. Or, if they borrow it from a library, they made a special trip, and the library bought a copy. Someone, somewhere, lifted a finger for the privilege of saying mean things about Ann Coulter.

Not the Vine reviewers. For them, nothing disincentivizes malice, envy, political contrarianism, laziness, or other murky motives--some of which break in the author's favor, such as  sycophants hoping to suck up to the author by posting falsely positive opinions. We don’t even reliably know who these people are, since a good number opine under cover of pseudonym. The most heavily-trafficked market for books has opinions written by the likes of CatLover or BaconGirl.

It’s true that book reviewers at newspapers and blogs get free advance copies all the time. The huge difference with book reviewers is that they’re professionals, and their names go on what they write. They’re accountable.

A book review is a genre, and something more than an opinion. The blurring between opinion and review is another example of the de-professionalization of intellectual labor that I described in an earlier column. Reviewers think that when you review a book, you must say something about what it is about, and you must instantiate your beliefs as to the book’s merits in relatively sane, perhaps emotional yet at least reasonable language. They never believe that a book review is an occasion to engage in ad hominem attacks. They try to contextualize the book in culture, and vis a vis its peers, or its literary and intellectual traditions. Occasionally they engage with other book reviewers and authors.

Typically, serious book review sections adhere to standards that that they don’t permit avowed enemies of an author to review his book, nor do they permit avowed friends—those praised in the acknowledgments, for example—to review it. Nor do they pick people who are so obviously political adversaries that they couldn’t give a book a fair read, on its own terms. Nor do they pick reviewers, with nonfiction, who have no obvious engagement with the topic, or who lack even the mildest qualifications or experience by which to opine on the topic.

Most importantly, a book reviewer has to put her name on the review. She has to own it. She has to take responsibility for what is, in fact, the rather solemn task of taking another person’s work in hand. These are all differences between an opinion and a review. It's a rather sacred intellectual and emotional task.

But not at Amazon, that desacralizing emporium of the fungible, where a book is interchangeable with a plunger, an ear bud, or a California Roll.

For my next book, I will make sure that it never gets hung out on The Vine.

If you want to speak on a book publicly, in a forum that gets 17 million hits a day, you need to pay the $30.00 or so to support the author’s work by actually buying the book. That amounts to less than $.000002 per potential reader of your words. It’s an exceedingly small price to pay, really, and a small courtesy.

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