I was saddened to read today that Amazon’s most prolific reviewer, Harriet Klausner, passed away at age 63. (The woman who wrote 31,014 Amazon book reviews and upended the Internet, dead at 63 – The Washington Post).
I met Harriet through the Dorothy-L newsgroup back in the late 1990s. I confess that I didn’t particularly like her style of review, a little too positive without enough critique and a little too pun-laden for my tastes. She almost always posted positive reviews, partly as she said that unless the book was good, she didn’t read past page 50, and sometimes not even that far. I admired her dedication to writing and posting the reviews. And, like anyone who posts away, and in such a prolific fashion, you get the fans and the haters, sometimes in equal measures.
The fans were obvious. Legions of people read her reviews and followed her missives; publishers included her gushes on the covers of book-jackets. The haters were equally legendary, often emboldened by finding other skeptics. Most of their popular criticisms of her had little resonance with me.
They questioned how one person could read so many books so fast. I too could read 3-4 books in a day if I had the time, and have done so many times. I don’t do it very often, and it has to be a certain type of book — serials, procedurals, Travis McGee sized novels, etc. Lots of YA. My record from my mis-spent youth was seven Three Investigator stories in a go, and from my adult years, 5 Kinsey Millhone stories in a go. I don’t recommend it, as they all blend together. So I had no trouble believing she was reading them all although as with most speed-readers who are not photographic-readers, retention becomes an issue even within hours of finishing the book. Even Harry Potter, for example — many people spent hours engrossed in the pages over several days; I read the fourth one (the first big one), in a single go, one day. It’s an immersive-type experience, but there’s little time to savour the flavour before it’s done. It’s almost like fast food instead of a gourmet meal. If I went into full skim-read mode, I could finish the first one in about 1.5 to 2 hours. And, if I was really into it, I could skim read 10 books in a day. Not my idea of fun, but to each their own.
They questioned the validity of her review, often citing the fact that her reviews were short, relatively content free, and error-prone. I find those same “errors” to be more reminiscent of someone who skim-reads tons of books, then sits down to review and finds that the details aren’t as sharp as they were when she finished the book. Jim becomes John; Mike becomes Martin. I have the same problem when I’m reviewing TV episodes — if I don’t do the review right after the episode, i.e. as soon as it ends, I find it really hard to go back and write the one-line tweet review even four episodes later. They just all blend together. Add in the fact that her reviews weren’t really reviews, they were short blurbs, about the equivalent of a dust-jacket and dashed together in 3 minutes with no going back to ensure she got the name right, etc. Not my style, but she was a perfect example of a type of internet dweller — the prolific commenter, writer, reviewer who cares more about writing a review and posting it to share their opinion than proof-reading, editing, tweaking, fact-checking. It’s a quick review, not painstaking journalism.
Harriet is, in my respects, the opposite of me when it comes to writing reviews. She could dash off 150 words and consider herself done, sending it out into the world. My reviews have detailed structures — plot / premise, what I liked, what I didn’t like, a summary, info about publisher, year, stars, series, tags — and I’ve agonized over things to include or not. I’ve spent 2 hours reading a short novel, and another hour writing the review to get it down to 300 words that I think are fair, reasoned, pithy but substantive. I’m anal. If it goes out the door with my name on it, I fuss. The result? Really low volume of reviews. I have tons of books on my TB Reviewed list because they are just too time consuming. I can’t let go.
So while I could never switch to Harriet’s approach (short, formulaic, and in some cases error-laden), I wish I had her laissez-faire approach. It’s just a short review, one of hundreds. For me, even if people don’t agree with my review, I hope they find it helpful. Thorough even. In a word, professional, which falsely suggests that I think Harriet wasn’t…in actuality, I think it was just a different standard of self-analness.
A frequent complaint was also that she *gasp* profited from her amateur reviews. She probably did, in at least four ways, but not in the way most people assume. There’s no evidence, ever, that she “sold” reviews, so let’s ignore that particular claim — people assume she must have been selling them to do so many, since why would she do it for free, but that was how her brain was wired. And is likely linked to the first form of profit — there is a huge selfish thrill to having people read your reviews. I love it. It’s addictive. I suspect, without knowing of course, that this was her main drive, and if so, she profited immensely. 30,000 reviews? Millions of people reading her reviews. Secondly, she was an Amazon affiliate too I believe. So if they clicked on her review site and got to Amazon to buy it, she would have got a few pennies if something sold. Is it enough to live on? Hardly. But it might pay for a few books a year. Third, she got TONS of free books from publishers. As an executive mentioned back in ’05, it was a way to get yourself reviewed when the big reviewers didn’t have space for you. Harriet would read just about anything. And did! Plus, it was risk-free — if she didn’t like it, she would stop reading it early, and not rate it. If she finished it, you would get at least 3 stars and probably 4 or 5. Again, risk free.
The fourth way she “profited” was how she got into some hot water with people, and understandably so. All those free books? She sold them off used on used book websites. And I totally understand why some people would say, “Wait, I sent that to you for free, you can’t sell it and make money!”. I get that, makes sense. But I do know there’s a larger spectrum at play, another side so to speak, which is part of what was apparently stressing her out — she was throwing them out, didn’t have room to keep them all. A pretty large volume. It’s hard to imagine a former librarian not finding that incredibly traumatic on its own. Plus, lots of people said, “Hey, shouldn’t you give those away instead?” so that they wouldn’t end up in landfill. Plus another group of more mercantile types who said, “No way, don’t give them away, sell them, you did all that work, you should get something for it!”.
Taking books out of the equation for a second, partly as it is so visceral to the soul of a reader, this is to me just human nature — some people can get quite lively about whether you throw something out like a used toaster vs. e-recycling it vs. donating it to Value Village vs. trying to sell it online. In that vein, I have a used microwave. Works fine, a few years old, we bought a bigger more powerful one. But the old one works great. Do I want to sell it? Not really. I’d be far happier to give it to someone who needs it than sell it, but I have family and friends who think that is almost heresy. Equally, I have 3000 books I need to get rid of — if someone would take them for free and use them, I’d happily give them to them. They represent thousands of dollars of my investment, so there are TONS of people who are aghast that I’m not trying to have a book sale of my own, or donating to the library (they won’t take them, too many and too old) or a host of other options because “Well, they’re worth money.” I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable selling ARCs, but I can understand that not everyone has the same reservations as me. I hate the idea of the profit, but I love the idea they’re not being recycled. I wonder if the people would feel differently if they were sold, but all proceeds went to a literacy charity?
None of these criticisms really resonate with me, because in the end, it comes down to something far simpler for me.
Some people liked her, some people loathed her. Yet for the authors of the books for the 31000 reviews she did, they generally got a 4-star review and some positive words about their story posted by someone who didn’t know them, wasn’t related to them, and didn’t profit much (if at all) from doing the review.
I didn’t always agree with her, I didn’t know her that well. But I’m saddened she’s gone from the review world…
She came, she read, she reviewed a life spent reading. There are far worse legacies.