by Peter Selgin
Not long ago a writer friend emailed me in distress. She had gotten an Amazon customer review for her new novel, which I’d read in manuscript and admired. The one-star review panned the work as sentimental and derivative. What made the review so damning was that it was intelligent and well-written, therefore hard to dismiss. Worse, it was the only review she’d gotten so far.
Feeling terrible for my friend, I wrote my own review, in part to relieve my own distress. It worked—until a more disturbing thought crossed my mind. What might such unprofessional critics have to say about the novels that I’d loved as a younger man? I hesitated to find out, yet I couldn’t resist.
I started with The Man With the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren’s 1948 novel about a heroin junkie set in Chicago’s seedy, neon-lit Division Street. I discovered the book when I was thirteen, while alphabetizing the basement library of a parsimonious neighbor who lived alone in a modest shingled house. Mr. Boyd’s books were all cheap paperbacks. As I pulled them off the shelves their spines snapped and their brittle pages fluttered to the floor. The first page of Algren’s novel begins:
“The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query room desk.”
I took Algren’s novel home and, over the next week, gulped it down. It was the first novel that ever gripped me from beginning to end. Now, thirty years later, what would Amazon’s customers have to say about it?
There were fewer than a dozen customer reviews posted, with the average rating a respectable four-and-a-half out of five possible stars. Most were laudatory—no wonder: the book did win the first National Book Award. Still, as I scrolled through the reviews a sinking feeling came over me, a sense that the positive reviews were not representative of contemporary tastes, a suspicion reinforced when I came upon this review by “mojo navigator”:
“[The Man With The Golden Arm] is ponderous, turgid and lacks any sense of urgency and desperation that its central theme—heroin addiction—should necessitate. Situations and relationships are one-dimensional and cardboard-cutout-like rendering them thoroughly implausible. However, the real failure of this novel is in its dreadfully antiquated ‘hip speech,’ a failed attempt on the part of Algren to capture the street lingo of the time… Bottom Line: If you’re looking for an accurate depiction of drug addiction in ‘50s America, you won’t find it here.”
Ouch! The worst thing about “mojo’s” review is that he (or she?) is right: Algren’s novel has aged badly. It was as if I’d been shown a photo of my first heartthrob only to realize that she had crossed eyes, pimples, and big ears.
Okay, so The Man With the Golden Arm was a great book in its time, and remains a good one, but eccentric and hardly for the ages. I tried another favorite, one that, for my generation, certainly qualifies as a “classic.” I typed the title into the Amazon search field and then, with breath held, scrolled down to the reviews.
Of 562 reviews of On the Road, the first dozen or so aren’t all favorable, but they aren’t so bad. A Matt Martin of Fort Collins, CO damns Kerouac’s masterpiece with faint praise, then distills the book’s main problem down to its “fusillade style” which “preemptively fore[goes] . . . real character complexity or narrative development.” Matt dismisses On the Road as a “personal travelogue” and gives it a paltry two stars.
But Matt’s review is relatively generous. Having coughed up a single star for the book that sent me and thousands of others hitchhiking across America, “manwithnoname” of Melrose, California, opens his review with a typographic snooze, “ZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……” Having proclaimed On the Road utterly plotless, he excuses himself and goes back to sleep. Richmond “Spider” of Florida, after casting his own “death star,” describes On the Road as a “disjointed story” about a “dude with no background being led around by a pseudo-intellectual jerk [Dean Moriarity, a.k.a. Neal Cassady] with no respect for anyone but himself.”
Even when first published, On the Road was a controversial book that got mixed reviews. So maybe it’s not the best example of an unassailable classic. How about that other monument to youthful rebellion, The Catcher in the Rye? Surely this classic coming-of-age novel would suffer a kinder fate among Amazon’s loyal customers.
Indeed, Salinger’s book still has its fans, as indicated by the four- star average. But the bad reviews come fast and furious, with Linda “Ayeldee” warning potential readers that, though funny in parts, Catcher will make you “want to kill yourself,” and pitying those forced, like her, to read it in school since “you can’t throw it out the window and get rid of it.” Two reviews down, another involuntary reader, “Cher630” of the Bronx, calls the novel’s protagonist a “whiney, immature, angst ridden teenager who need[s] a smack in the head.” Cher goes on to brand Salinger’s hero “a phony.” Holden Caulfield, a phony? Say it ain’t so!
If this is what contemporary readers thought of Kerouac and Salinger, I hesitated to imagine what they’d say about my other hero, Henry Miller.
“Sex belongs in the bedroom, NOT the library!!!!” writes Jon Deepcreek in his review of Tropic of Cancer, and goes on to say, “This book is filthy. I had to take a shower after I read it. Why doesn’t [Miller’s narrator] get a job? Why does he have to live in France? Why doesn’t he save his money instead of investing it in alcohol and hookers?”
These are practical questions to ask of Miller’s alterego, but also ones that fail to take into account the spirit of rebellion in which Miller’s book was written, and which, aside from its notorious (yet surprisingly infrequent) sex, is its chief virtue. Though the counterculture wholeheartedly embraced work like Miller’s, the next generation has apparently taken to wagging their fingers at their parents’ favorite authors, blaming them for the less-than-enlightened world they’ve been born into, explaining why vast majority of Tropic’s customer reviews boil down to three words: “Get a job.”
So much for rebellion.
By now I was all but convinced that there is no such thing as an unassailable classic. Two final tests remained. To perform them, I’d have to find books that had been both popular and critical successes, bestsellers beloved by millions—not just for a decade or two, but for at least, say, forty years.
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s perennial bestseller about murder and racial injustice in the deep South, has its flaws, including Atticus Finch, that stick-in-the-mud emblem of paternal righteousness, and also its child narrator’s tendency to favor words like “assuaged.” Still, what’s to hate, right? Indeed, of a whopping 1,529 customer reviews, most gushed, with “AWESOME CLASSIC!!!” a typical response, down to its orgy of exclamation points.
I had to scroll through seven pages to find the first dissenter: “It seems like a book with no clear objective to convey,” Yoo Win writes. “It might be the greatest literature book as is claimed, it is just not my kind of book.”
Not a knockout punch, but no love-tap, either. But the decisive blows were yet to come. Like this one from “Kid,” whose staccato caption delivers its verdict like a judge pounding a gavel: “Worst. Book. Ever.” Kid continues: “Let me just say this: the book is boring. It starts out with Scout talking about how her brother once broke his arm. Who cares? The book’s most exciting part [the trial?] is extremely confusing, and don’t tell me I’m stupid; I have an IQ of 140.” But even this genius’ may be counted a fan compared with Nadia of Wisconsin, who writes, “This book is very nasty. It depicts scenes I would not care to see if I was being PAID. It’s just a sick book. Don’t read it, kids.”
So much for To Kill a Masterpiece—er, Mockingbird.
I’d try one more book, this one bringing with it critical adoration spanning more than a century. What nasty things would Amazon’s customers say about Jane Austen’s greatest novel?
This time I had to scroll through seventy out of 715 reviews to get to one even mildly excoriating. “Read this,” writes Ikaro Silva, “if the sole goal of your life is to get married.” Ikaro goes on to reduce Pride and Prejudice to “just a new version of Cinderella” and one that “portray[s] all women as conformists.” Take that, Jane!
But even Silva gave the book two stars. The single one-star review I found was by Juan Camarillo of San Antonio, who writes: “From a fan of IMMANUEL KANT, this was too boring.” Juan continues: “I had to study the Diamond Sutra and the Book of Job to get the vapid feeling out of my head.” Juan then quotes another reviewer who had written, “as Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, so did Austen see the world in a drawing room.” To which Jake appends, “There is a vast difference in seeing the world in a drawing room and thinking that the world IS a drawing room.”
What strikes me about even the most outrageous of these reviews is that they all hold some truth—if only the truth of one reader’s experience. Novels are meant to be experienced intimately, by individuals, not en masse, and just because the views expressed are those of a minority doesn’t make them less valid. Nor can they be written off as the opinions of amateurs, since novels are written for amateurs, not for professional critics. That said, there’s something deeply upsetting about having your favorite books flogged in public, even if the flogging is administered by a few cranky dissenters amid a mob of rabid devotees.
Still, ours is a democracy where, so far, people are still free to say what they think. Which leaves works of fiction not only open to interpretation, but subject to opinion. Then again, though a novel may be subject to opinion, its greatness isn’t. That masterpieces exist is all the evidence we have against the artistic relativism suggested by customer reviews, but it’s solid evidence. These books’ quality is no more a matter of opinion than the shape of a snowflake, or the smell of rotten eggs: it just is. Like those who so freely voice them, opinions come and go. But masterpieces endure. The only stars that matter in the end are those cast by time.
Meanwhile, since we have no choice, we should welcome the opinions of others, even if we must take them with a Taj Mahal-sized grain of salt. In so doing we might take comfort in the immortal words of G. C. Lichtenburg: “A book is a mirror. If an ass looks into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”
Peter Selgin’s first book of stories, Drowning Lessons, won the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award. His novel, Life Goes to the Movies, has just been published by Dzanc Books. His work has appeared in Salon, The Sun, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, Poets & Writers, Colorado Review, and Best American Essays 2006. He is also the author of By Cunning & Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers, and the forthcoming Fiction Matters.