Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Deep In The Amazon: One Writer's Disease
This is what happened. I wrote a book, submitted it to several publishers, got rejected. I wrote another book, found a New York agent and a New York publisher. Within a week I had sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox, quit my job, and settled into what felt like an extended dream world, one in which I was able to go to sleep and wake up without the scenery changing. This is it, I thought, my beginning of a writer’s life. I bought a new car and each time I went outside I expected to find it gone, with a note that read Terrible Mistake Now Rectified.
Several weeks before my actual publication date, a friend informs me that my book is listed on Amazon.com. Already? I said, the faintest suggestion of coy surprise in my voice. I attempt to sound casual but inside I am hula dancing naked with George Clooney and he is saying Baby I didn’t know you were a writer.
After a period of insensate glee at my book simply being for sale on the Internet, the first Amazon customer review is posted. Five stars, from my mother, cleverly disguised as A Reader. “Suzanne Finnamore is the spokeswoman for the nineties.” A couple more people write reviews, either four or five stars. In a quasar of accolade, my Amazon sales rank number soars from 1,439,003 to 707. I begin thinking about a new house, something with an extra bathroom and a pool. Perhaps an Olympic-sized pool for the staff to enjoy while I am in Aix choosing a villa.
Then it happens. My first bad Amazon customer review. My husband peers idly over my shoulder as it floats into view on my laptop computer. As in tornadoes, there is no warning. One star. A Reader From DC wishes I would catapult myself from a tall building. Then I should be chopped into tiny pieces, like a vampire. Pieces which are then mailed separately to different continents, so that I won’t reconstitute myself and start looking for a pencil.
My husband pats my arm and goes for vodka. I cry for an hour: Why me? Why?
I then call ten friends and insist they write Amazon reviews. Five stars, I mumble, I need five.
But I haven’t read it yet, my friend says. It doesn’t matter, I say. He laughs, not realizing I'm serious.
Eventually the good friend reviews are posted, knocking mister one star off the top. Then a Reader From New York writes an even worse review -- for some reason giving me two stars. He loathes my writing, my characters, my plot and my publisher; it is the grand slam of reviews. What would merit one star to this person, I muse. A grease trap?
More friends (and acquaintances who have been upgraded to friends) are encouraged to write five star reviews. Oddly, I even get a few great reviews from strangers. I write to thank them but also to ferret them out: I secretly feel they must be my mother, who has become dangerously proficient on her computer. I also believe that the bad reviews are from my enemies. I will never be able to prove it, of course.
Later, a blinding flash of lucidity reveals that the bad reviews are in fact from friends, jealous alcoholic friends who write bad reviews on Amazon and then black out. I log on every hour, to monitor my triumph/debacle. It is all I can do to keep myself from setting the alarm for 3 AM so I can properly stay abreast. As part of my system, I regularly cross reference numbers with Nathan Englander’s For The Relief of Unbearable Urges and John Le Carre’s Single and Single. I also look up Memoirs of a Geisha, which has been out for well over a year and is still in the top 25. Janet Fitch’s debut novel isn’t even out yet and Oprah named it as an Oprah pick, so she’s number 6. I mentally will her under a bus.
After three weeks of this my husband forbids me to log onto Amazon.com. I agree, sensing this is what’s best, the healthy response to what has perhaps become a fixation. I haven’t put on a bra since this whole thing started, and the baby has a bald spot from being laid in his crib so mommy can log on. I have however lost nine pounds. Soon breasts won’t be an issue.
I tell everyone I am not going to check any more. Then I check. 659. I am in the sixes. So I feel good, am able to have coffee and write and even leave the house for milk. When I return, I log on but I don’t check my own sales rank. In an inspired flurry, I try to spread the good sales rank number karma around. I start looking up books I admire and writing five star reviews. It is then that I realize the gross inequity of the system.
Eudora Welty has received two stars for The Ponder Heart. I write a review for her. Since there is only the one other review, I am able to boost her average from two to four stars. One person can make a difference. I’m sure she’s appreciative. I also write a five star review for Germaine Greer, whose new book I haven’t read yet but have ordered from Amazon (40% off) and will certainly enjoy. Probably.
At five till midnight I log on. (Amazon updates not just every day but every hour, a fact that a writer friend has been kind enough to point out.) 666. This is significant; I file it away, under Coincidences That Involve Satan. Exactly fifty-eight minutes later as I am landing with a sad frenzied thud on my book site, I notice that it says Linda Hamilton is the co author if my book, instead of the reader of my audio cassette version. This does not worry me, but the fact that I am 1311 does. It makes me feel homely. I look in the bathroom mirror. Uh huh. Definitely thirteens. Additionally, a Reader From Albuquerque suggests that the best use for my book would be as a doorstop. I am finally drifting off when my infant son Pablo wakes up screaming, about two hours earlier than usual. He is cutting his first tooth -- or maybe he senses my sales rank, which I have just checked, wondering whether my numbers rise at night. 8,810. The sales rank of a high school yearbook.
It’s not checking my Amazon sales rank and customer reviews, it’s checking to see if I am licit. The mentally intact need not apply. I do not write any more, of course. That would take me away from my real work, which is checking my sales rank on Amazon.com.
I consider calling Anne Lamott and offering to be her Amazon eyes for her new book, Travelling Mercies. I could give her a status report at the end of the day (5:57 PM: Anne 29, me 922. 6:59 PM: Anne 41, me 2,004.) I don’t call her, though. I already phoned her for reassurance after the savage Kirkus review came out, and I have only two wishes left with the magic flying monkey cap. If you don’t get this reference, then you have never read:
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Amazon Sales Rank: 35,623
Five stars from
Anisha Zaveri (email@example.com) from Bombay,India. , November 14, 1998
I THINK IT IS A VERY INTERESTING BOOK.
I LIKE THIS BOOK VERY MUCH. I ESPECIALLY LIKE THE PART IN WHICH DOROTHY MEETS THE WICKED WITCH OF THE EAST.I ALSO LIKE THE 'TIN-MAN' AND THE 'WINKIES'.
Three stars from
A reader from Bountiful, UT , October 21, 1998
A Classic Satire on the Populist Party
Most people look at L. Frank Baum's classic novel as a simple children's story, but it has a deeper significance. Baum lived in the Great Plains of the American West during the Populist uprising of the 1890s, and the characters and events of the Wizard of Oz are based upon what he observed. For example, Dorothy represents the innocent Midwesterner who must contend with the wild nature of the West (the Wicked Witch of the West) and the deceptive idea that all solutions can be found with money (following the path of gold, or the Yellow Brick Road). The Scarecrow represents American farmers, the Tin Woodsman represents American workers (his transformation from human to tin man represents industrial accidents), and the Cowardly Lion represents Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (a great orator but a pacifist, hence the cowardly lion). Following the path of gold leads Dorothy and her companions to the Emerald City, which represents Washington, DC, and the corrupt influence that money has on the city. The Wizard is the President of the U.S.--a weak and powerless humbug who nevertheless manages to convince the innocent Dorothy that it is he and not the moneyed special interests that control the land. Anyway, there is much more, but in the end Dorothy conquers nature (the Witch of the West), and with the help of the Silver Slippers (the Populist Party's Free Silver issue), finally finds her way home to truth and happiness. A wonderful book when read in the proper context.
Phew. I am finally able to have a context, something I feel I have previously been lacking by only looking up my own book. I look up a few more, just to get a sense of where I stand.
Angle of Repose The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Wallace Stegner
Amazon Sales rank: 3,331
One star from
A reader from Minnesota, April 4, 1999
Waste of 600 pages
I was required to read this book for school. It was probably the slowest book I have ever read. Don't waste your time. The only reason I gave it one star was that I don't have the option of giving it less.
Rabbit, Run, by John Updike
Amazon Sales rank: 73,122
One star from:
firstname.lastname@example.org from Chicago, IL, January 28, 1999
I agree with the reader for New York City. This Book was a total waste of time and I dreaded every turn of the page.
One star from:
A reader from New York City, September 15, 1997
Uggh!!! Updike can't write worth spit! This is just pure junk. Not only is it dull, but it's about nobodies. A total waste!
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Amazon Sales rank: 3,585
A reader from New York City, September 17, 1997
“Bad reading; the descriptions are okay, but the characters stink. The heroin doesn't seem lovable and great, she's crazy and stupid. It's bad. The drawing on the cover is as good as it gets.”
A reader, July 2, 1997
Hemingway rode on the coat tails of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
None of Hemingway's work including A Farewell To Arms should be touted as "Classic". Hemingway caught a ride on the coat tails of F. Scott Fitzgerald and without him as a predecessor Hemingway's body of work would have died the timely death it deserved. A Farewell To Arms is yet another example of Hemingway's inability to forward narrative in an interesting manner or to develop characters that anybody could care a whit about.
A closer look confirms that Hemingway’s not doing well on his Amazon Customer Review Average. This is doubtless because he is dead, and can’t get people to write reviews for him. Mental email: Stay alive.
I log onto my site again. 1,590. Re-read my Kirkus review. They’ve placed it right up front so strangers can read it without breaking a sweat in the magazine aisle. Realize suddenly that the reviewer didn’t compare me to Nora Ephron, as my editor had said -- he compared me to Erma Bombeck. In abject horror, I call my friend Augusten and read it to him, and as I hear the words spoken out loud, I laugh for about a minute. It feels like surfacing for air. Kirkus doesn’t matter, according to Augusten. Who matters? I say. I don’t know, he admits. The New York Times Book Review, I guess.
I wonder what my therapist is doing right now. I call him to see. I leave a message saying that I am having some “popularity issues.” Would it be a conflict of interest to ask him to write an Amazon review, I wonder as I hit the Search key.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare
Sales rank 2,130 (Unabridged hardcover)
A reader from USA, February 24, 1999
Shakespeare is highly overated
Not to deny Shakespeare’s incredible talent, but he is certainly overcredited in the creativity area. if you're looking for a true, unique and original read, i reccomend any famous ancient greek playwrite, such as aristophanes, euripides or sophacles. you'll find thier style a little less decorative, and little more simple, but still very similar (afterall, shakespeare did have the works of these men to study and emulate.
A reader from Japan, July 5, 1998
I admire the brevity of the Japanese reviewer. There is simply no room in Japan for the verbose. I go to the front menu of the Amazon site to glean the overall view. In Amazon’s Hot 100, Number one is Body For Life, by Bill Phillips -- a man with biceps the size of Virginia hams. Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar To Trim Fat is number 11
Apparently I have made a grave error in writing a novel. Mental Email: Stop trying to write fiction. I’m sure the Reader From DC would applaud this decision, and the Reader From NY would crack champagne. Meanwhile I write emails to my friends and sign off with my Amazon sales rank number of the moment.
“Hope your liver tumor isn’t malignant. I’m sure it’s not. 704.”
I log on at 5:45 and again at 6:01. In less than twenty minutes my sales rank went from 636 to 4501. It’s Mothers Day, I rationalize. Still, 4501. I mentally affix a cleft palate to my lip. Dinner is out of the question now. I will be sucking horse tranquilizers.
It occurs to me, not for the first time, that getting published isn’t exactly the way I pictured it. Yet there is still time to make it right. There is still time to burst into Amazon’s Hot 100. If not, I will marinate in shame and defeat, along with Stegner and Welty. And John Updike. Let’s not forget that popsickle stand loser.
Epilogue: In June of 1999, Otherwise Engaged: A Novel climbed to #35 on The Amazon Hot 100.