I’ve probably been more than a little snooty in the past about reviews on Amazon, and not only those that have neglected to offer unabashed praise to my own work. Too often their combined effect is to reinforce one’s prejudices about a particular book rather than to provoke or challenge. Sometimes they can completely confound their intended purpose. Consider, for example, the reviews of 50 Shades of Grey: the one-star dismissals suggest the book might be a source of dumb fun if read while very drunk, while the five-star paeans conspire to make it sound tedious. And that’s before you confront your snobbish instincts and ask whether reviewers’ poor spelling and grammar entitle you to disregard what they have to say about the literary quality of a book.
But every now and then a review catches me off guard. I was particularly taken by what Annie Wright had to say about Douglas Coupland’s essay collection Shopping In Jail:
I probably didn't understand the reason for this book being written in the first place or maybe it's just gone ovr [sic] the top of my head.
Oh, the sneery literature graduate in me might want to dismiss Ms Wright – whose main interests, if her Amazon profile is anything to go by, revolve around doing interesting things with wool – but those 26 words do what all great literature should. They tantalise, they tease, they make the reader wonder. Why did Annie put down her knitting to read this book? It’s not one of Coupland’s novels, something she might have overheard them discussing on Front Row, or just picked up because the cover looked enticing and she needed one more paperback to make the 3-for-2 work. It’s a short, slightly overpriced selection of his musings about contemporary society, more like a selection of blog posts than anything.
But Annie’s going to have her say, oh yes she is. And her say is devastating: not that this is a bad book or a dull book or an offensive book, but a book that, as far as she can see, has no reason to be. It’s worse than bad. It’s pointless. Sadly, the cultural cringe then kicks in and she starts to wonder whether it’s all her fault after all. But for half a sentence, she was the critic who lives inside every writer’s head, the one asking why you even bother to turn on the laptop of a morning. Her tone is level, polite, even apologetic: oddly, she reminds me of one of Coupland’s own characters, Karen from Girlfriend in a Coma, who wakes up from a 17-year sleep, at once confused by the world into which she has appeared and also more aware of what’s happening than anyone else around her. It’s as if Coupland has been confronted by his own creation, who calmly stabs him through the heart with a huge knitting needle. And to be honest, if I could provoke a reaction like that from a single reader I’d be more than happy. So long as she gave me at least four stars.