An argument for Amazon’s one-star reviews reveals the role of cultural critics

A professional critic praises Amazon’s one-star reviews:

About a year ago, while shopping online for holiday gifts, I became an unabashed connoisseur of the one-star amateur Amazon review. Here I found the barbed, unvarnished, angry and uncomfortably personal hatchet job very much alive. Indeed, I became so enamored of Amazon’s user-generated reviews of books, films and music that my interest expanded to the one-star notices on Goodreads, Yelp and Netflix, where, for instance, a “Moneyball” review notes the movie “did not make you feel warm and fuzzy at the end as a good sports film should.” How true! A rare opinion on a critical darling!…

But there is a visceral thrill to reading amateur reviewers on Amazon who, unlike professional critics, do not claim to be informed or even knowledgeable, who do not consider context or history or ambition, who do not claim any pretense at all. Their reviews, particularly of classics, often read as though these works had dropped out of space into their laps, and they were first to experience it. About “Moby-Dick,” one critic writes: “Essentially, they rip off the plot to ‘Jaws.'” About “Ulysses,” another critic writes: “I honestly cannot figure out the point, other than cleverness for cleverness’ sake.”

Likewise, to seriously dismiss “The Great Gatsby” as “‘Twilight’ without the vampires,” as an Amazon reviewer did, may be glib and reductive, but it’s also brilliantly spot on, the kind of comparison a more mannered critic might not dare. “Whoever made that ‘Twilight’ comparison, whether they know it, is showing their education, that they can connect new media with old works and draw fresh conclusions,” said David Raskin, chair of the art history, theory and criticism department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago…

Speaking of honesty: It should be pointed out here that, in general, online amateur reviews are not mean but usually as forgiving as the professional sort. Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied online reviews — “partly because I was curious if they were real or just someone gaming the system” — told me that 60 percent of Amazon reviews are five-star reviews and another 20 percent are four-star. The information research firm Gartner released a study in September predicting that, within a couple of years, between 10 and 15 percent of online reviews will be paid for by companies — rigged.

It sounds like the argument is this: you can find the average American in the one-star Amazon reviews. Instead of getting the filtered, sophisticated review typically found in media sources, these reviewers give the unvarnished pop culture take. Discussed in this argument is the idea of social class and education. An approved reviewer or critic, the typical gatekeeper, is able to put a work in its context. The educated critic is trying to make the work understandable for others. The educated critic often has experience and education backing their opinions. In contrast, the Internet opens up spaces for individuals to post their own reactions and through aggregation, such as the Amazon five-star review system, have some say about how products and cultural works are perceived.

This new reality doesn’t render cultural gatekeepers completely irrelevant but it does do several things. One, it dilutes their influence or at least makes it possible for more critics to get involved. Second, it also makes more visible the opinions of average citizens. Instead of just theorizing about mass culture or pop culture, we can all see what the masses are thinking at the moment they are thinking it. (Think of the possibilities on Twitter!) Third, it provides space like in this article for reviewers to admit they don’t always want to write erudite pieces but want to have a “normal person reaction.”

Just one problem with this piece: the critic says he doesn’t really read the one-star Amazon reviews for information. Instead, he appreciates the “visceral thrill.” He quotes an academic who says such reviews reveal cultural gaps. Thus, celebrating the one-star reviews may be just another way to assert the traditional reviewer’s cultural capital. Read the one-star reviews for entertainment but continue to go back to the educated reviewer for the context and more valued perspective.