Scary Reviews on Amazon

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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - 10:04 am:   

OK - this may seem crazy, but I'd appreciate knowing if people would be willing to participate in a project to see if it's just my imagination, or that there is a pattern of denigrating reviews on Amazon.com for minority or female authors - especially if the work addresses matters of race or gender equality in any way.

Amazon.com reviews are often brought up here and there -- for example, I know people whose personal lives have caused trouble (disgruntled former in-laws posting bad reviews, former spouses, significant others, etc.) This isn't what I'm talking about. I know writers who've gotten this type of review successfully removed.

I had a kind of crummy review for my first novel for a long time. I didn't pay any attention to it, because it wasn't that bad and I had no reason to think it was anything other than a reader who didn't care for the book. This was there for like, four years, until about six months ago, I think someone drew my attention to it. They said, "that guy says your first novel was better - but IMAGO is your first novel." Well, of course I thought, he probably didn't really read the book, and you never know why people say those things. But I did go back, and I did click the reviewer's name.

I saw that he only wrote one review: of MY small press hardcover book. Why on earth would someone do only one Amazon.com review, of such an obscure book?

I then googled the name: Randolph Calverhall. It went immediately to the author of "The Serpent's Path," a seemingly legendary Neo-Nazi, white supremacist work of alternate future history, in which Hitler's elite forces return to fix the world "the way it should be." This name is not a real name. It is one of a number of pseudonyms used by William Pierce, who died only a few months after my review was posted -- the author of the Turner Diaries and leader of the white supremacist movement in America.

I have like THREE reviews on Amazon for this book and this obvious anonymous drive-by is number three.

Considered as an isolated incident, it's just creepy and weird. I, my editor, and publisher tried to get the review removed because it's an obvious pseudonym and one for a white supremacist, not a "real person," and it doesn't seem as though the person has actually read any of my work - just read commentaries and cobbled together that review.

Just my luck. It's always something.

But yesterday I was looking for more books by one of my favorite writers, Ralph Wiley, who was a sportswriter for Sports Illustrated and ESPN. The second review under one of Ralph's book had a tone that I found familiar.

A Poor Writer Spreads Hateful Conspiracy Theories, April 23, 2006
Reviewer: Stan Swift (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
Understandably defensive about his unfocused and rambling writing style, the late Ralph Wiley used his limited talents to lower the standard of discourse on race relations in America. Wiley's various conspiracy theories, which comprise the bulk of "Why Black People Tend To Shout," don't withstand scrutiny, and they offer no solutions. His book has value only as a sociological example of one African American male's mindset in the late 20th century. The most accurate review comes from a paraphrasing of Wiley's own words: "A very unoriginal human being, this [Ralph Wiley]. Poisoned by the deciders in his youth, he learned his hate, and also learned how to pass off his own inadequacies on other people. If he didn't get something, it was somebody else's fault, not his. [Ralph Wiley] didn't leave such thinking behind in the seventh grade, like most everybody else. He had hit upon a business."

Like Randolph Calverhall, "Stan Swift" wrote only one review: this one. Googling "Stan Swift" goes right back to this Amazon review -- there is no other "Stan Swift" easily findable.

I then found a similar review for Octavia Butler's PARABLE OF THE SOWER - a single review, written similarly.

This is the pattern: the one-off reviewer puts as much information as can be gleaned from cover copy and the editorial reviews, or other reviews, to make it seem as though they've read the book. They sometimes try to seem fair, referring to other works they thought were better, then they attack the writer's skill and intelligence.

I looked for Percival Everett having gotten one or more of these. I found one possible -- this reviewer wrote only one review. This is a really crude, basic version of the "pattern," and it could just be somebody who didn't care for this book, and put this up for whatever reason.

0 of 17 people found the following review helpful:
Reviewer: Jo Lowery (Minneapolis, MN)
Glyph Glitch, January 18, 2000
Glyph was a disappointing book. For one thing, it was not as represented. The "satirical" premise, narration by an infant prodigy, might have been sustainable in a short story, but extended to book length, it grew tiresome. It became an excuse for an ostentatious display of erudition. We former schild prodigies found it a sort of intellectual slur.

This is EARLIER than Randolph Calverhall, and much earlier than the really awful one for Ralph Wiley. So, it could also just be an early attempt before the technique was refined. There are some negative reviews of Toni Morrison's BELOVED along with the many positive ones.

I think this could be one of the "one-offs."

Nobel Prize?.....Maybe Not, February 6, 2006
Reviewer: Sara Ann - See all my reviews
Beloved is an American slavery novel based on the struggles faced by an ex-slave and her acquaintances and relatives. With the opening of the novel, diction and tone are used strongly to accurately portray the feelings and opinions of the people from this time-period. " Them the feet you runnin' on? My Jesus my." (Morrison 32), is an excellent example of Morison's use of diction in order to portray Southern African American people and the way they behaved and conversed with each other. In this instance the main character of the novel is in the process of escaping the previous enslavement of a plantation, all the while getting closer and closer to giving birth to her daughter. This instance also relates to the theme in that it shows an experience that would rob the heart and round the personhood. In the end, this experience ends up robbing the main character, Sethe, of her passion, motivation and drive, all of which are characteristics figuratively found in a person's heart. The diction of the novel helps to expose the true sentiments and struggles of ex-slaves.
After reading Beloved I have concluded that it isn't all its cracked up to be. The book received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, which I honestly don't really agree with. The characters in the book weren't well developed, although their emotions and reactions were seemingly exaggerated most of the time. I was unable to become engaged in the novel and found it hard to read. It is possible that I am too young, and I don't fully understand the influence this novel has had on others. I have talked to a friend who read another Toni Morrison novel, and she had the same complaints as I. She mentioned the over exaggerated characters and the lack of interest she had. Throughout the novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison blends diction and a linear repetitive pattern in order to reinforce the reoccurring theme of the pros and cons of a previous life of discrimination, confinement, and mistreatment. These literary terms also help to portray the idea that a previous life of imprisonment can harbor the soul, rob the heart, yet round the personhood.

The phrases in this are cut and pasted from online study guides for high school students - it is "Sarah Ann's" only review.

This is how to look for these, if you're willing to help:

1) It's not just a negative review. It's a dismissive review that attacks some aspect of the writer's ability to write or their ideas - using fairly sophisticated language.
2) The reviewer isn't a "real name." Those are automatically disqualified no matter what they say.
3) The reviewer has only reviewed the ONE book, no others, not even movies, toys, products, etc.
4) Obviously, if upon "googling" the name, it links to some type of White Supremacist thing, that's one of them. But "made up" names or initials or screen names qualify too, if everything else matches.
5) The review starts out by referring to something factual that makes it seem "fair" or "informed." It then progresses to making slams upon the book and author, dismissing the work (this is the pattern). A "snarky" tone is present in many ("two shiny stars will do").

So far I have not looked at the work of a single author of color that doesn't have at least one review that fits these criteria.
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Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - 10:48 am:   

I'll try to help.
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - 11:04 am:   

Thanks, PM. Now that I've stuck my neck out again, I might as well go all the way. I'll try to publicize this elsewhere.
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Wolfgang Trubshaw
Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - 11:40 am:   

Hi, don't know how far you googled your "own" one above, the one from your novel.
But on his profile page his nickname is given as "stellarcivilization".

Googling for that finds -- from the _very same day_ -- a post in a (Race Relations themed, of all things) guest book entry of that "stellarcivilization" as part of an e-mail adress, and gives another name there as "Tom Jennings".
Second from the top:

In the guestbook he pimps a sci-fi book seemingly about only white people surviving some apocalypse kind of thing, or whatever ...

The book on amazon has some wonderfully "funny" reviews, really. ;o)

http://www.amazon.com/Hold-Back-This-Ward-Kendall/dp/0595201601/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/ 102-2185316-2357722?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1177525998&sr=1-1

Two five-star-givers, "Gladius" and "Robert West" also only gave that one review on that one book.

But not to make you paranoid or something, it is probably more common than you think for people to only make one comment.

That Kendall guy seems to have written a few other books in that vein, too. At least that's the notion I got scanning through the reviews of his other books on Amazon.

But yes, it stinks most certainly, that whole thing you stumbled across there.
Just how "organized" this might be is another question.

Some people get their kicks out of oozing their hatred on the net, but they need not necessarily be part of some greater movement doing that or anything.
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - 12:24 pm:   

Oh, no, Wolfgang - no I hadn't seen "stellar civilization."

I just did "Ward Kendall" and here is his first entry: http://overthrow88.blogspot.com/2007/01/ward-kendall.html

Look who the commentator identifies himself as being in HIS blog. I think Tom Jennings must be a pseudonym for "Ward Kendall."
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Amy Sterling Casil
Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - 12:26 pm:   

And - probably not a coincidence that "stellar civilization" uses the name Tom Jennings, when this man is also named "Tom Jennings" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Jennings
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Junior Member
Username: Asterling

Post Number: 116
Registered: 09-2006
Posted on Wednesday, August 19, 2009 - 03:34 pm:   

This is a long time later, but by coincidence, I discovered that this message board and my documentation of the racist reviews on Amazon is the #1 Google result for "Randolph Calverhall" - not his pseudonymous racist sci fi book called The Serpent's Path, and not even his Wikipedia. That's a small type of comfort. This review is STILL UP THERE for my first novel. I spent a couple of hours trying to talk to Amazon and the author relations people were horrified at what I said; impossible to make further progress (i.e. - they couldn't DO anything).

My current position is in opposition to the EFF in this sense: the Internet does not need to be a free home for abuse and racism. This type of thing that is meant to HURT other people on a race, gender, sexual orientation or other basis, should not be freely allowed. It is NOT allowed or rewarded in the real world.

Not that "Calverhall" hurt me, he just freaked me out. But to let that type of obvious racist troll harassment hang around is . . . ridiculous.

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