Friday, December 12, 2008


So I was just in DC for a few job interviews. I arrived at Reagan National Airport a bit early for my return flight and was left in the waiting area with nothing to do. I did have a copy of Thomas L. Friedman's The World is Flat, which my grandmother had sent to me with high praise, but I just didn't feel like reading it at the moment. I popped open my laptop and connected to the airport's free Wi-Fi and suddenly, for no reason at all, remembered that there is a series of books based on the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. So off to I went.

Oh yes indeed, they exist. Basically, they're Jan Karon rip-offs, but that doesn't stop people from giving them glowing five-star reviews, including this particular gem:
I first heard about this book, recommended on QVC. Of course, Thomas Kincaid's name is what attracted me. Sure, we all know he is one of the best painters of modern times, so I was very curious to see if his writing could prove as pretty as his idyllic paintings. Well! I was not only *not* disappointed, but thoroughly sated by this book. It slaked in me a deep thirst to know more about the fascinating mind of Thomas Kincaid. Who better than the Master of Light, with his outstanding success--proving his intuition for the Real America, a better America--to reveal this "simpler life" and its pleasures? "The most collected living artist" is destined to be a success in more than one medium. Life is short, and it's far better and pleasant to spend some precious hours reading Thomas Kincade's moving visions than wasting time on tedious and outdated 'classics' like Tolstoy, Dickens, and Hemingway, who, unlike Kincade, pollute their 'art' with vulgarity. Thomas Kincade is surely not just the Painter of Light, but a true Master of Light. Thanks to Katherine Spencer and Thomas Kincaid for teaming up and, like the Cape Light lighthouse, casting forth this beacon of light. So simple, so pretty! Read it, and you, too, will feel simpler.
Yes, I am the one who commented on it. So yes, I am also on Amazon. More on that later. (To see that poor soul get pwned, click here. LOL, "cultural Prozac.")

But I also discovered a phenomenon even more fascinating than the prospect of the Painter of Phosphorescent Kitsch turning out cozy small-town soap operas: that of the singular Harriet Klausner, Amazon ├╝ber-reviewer, profiled two years ago in Time magazine for their ill-conceived "YOU are the Person of the Year!" (Because the new Internet is now user-driven – although to be fair, Friedman also talks about the new power of individual innovation in The World is Flat.) At the time of the article, she had written 12,896 reviews. Today, the number is approximately 17,895. I found her while gazing slack-jawed at the five-star acclaim for the fourth book in the Kinkade series, entitled A New Leaf. #1 reviewer, I thought, and yet she enjoyed this? I mean, presumably she's read many books and can write well about them; otherwise, she would not be so highly ranked. Right?

Wrong. I was suspicious right from the start – her review for A New Leaf sounded like it came from the publisher. She concisely summarized the plot, provided a single phrase of mild criticism, and then settled into a few sentences of warm but useless praise that could just as easily have been jacket copy. Here it is:
Cape Light, New England resident Molly Willoughby works very hard bringing in income while raising her daughters (fourteen years old Lauren and eleven years old Molly) with no help from her Peter Pan like ex-husband Phil. Instead her family provides as much assistance to her as they can. For instance her sister in law currently watches her children while she cleans the rental for a Dr. Matthew Harding of Worcester, who is arriving in town tomorrow. However, before she leaves to pick up her children and treat them to pizza, Dr. Harding shows up. They talk about the area and being single parents. He invites her and her two daughters to meet his daughter fourteen years old Amanda.

As Matthew and Molly become better acquainted they begin to fall in love with one another. However, she distrusts matters of heart as Phil shattered her hopes and dreams and he feels hesitant to dive into a relationship ever since his wife died. Additionally, they must consider the children.

Though the climax seems to simplistic, fans of the series or anyone who enjoys a warm contemporary tale with a strong cast will enjoy the latest Cape Light tale. The story line centers on second chances at love if the individuals are willing to risk their heart and perhaps their soul to take a risk. The children are a delightful trio and the townsfolk open their doors to the audience, but the novel belongs to the M&M lead couple struggling whether they gamble on love.

I soon discovered, however, that this is extremely typical of Ms. Klausner. ALL of her reviews (at least, all the way to page 34, which is how far I got and still only dating back to November 1, 2008) are like that.

Clearly, you can polish off something of that ilk in about two minutes without even having read the book. In the Time piece she claims to be a speed reader who shoots through four to six books a day, and yet I'm not the only doubting that claim. Just perusing her reviews, one can find the occasional comment pointing out facts that she had gotten blatantly wrong. Most damning: John Birmingham, an author military fiction, slyly slipped a character named "Harriet Klausner" in his book Designated Targets. And so, quite predictably, Harriet came out with yet another vacuous five-star review that never once mentioned this. Shot down! Still others have pointed to the fact that she often posts multiple reviews in a single day. Now to be fair, I have done the same thing. But that's because all of my reviews were originally blog posts here (in other words, they were pre-written) and I suddenly, belatedly realized that more people would read them if I put them on Amazon. *smacks self in head* Now why did it take me three months to realize that. . . ?

But then again, I still think it's pretty obvious that I READ the damn books.

Here is a possible, partial explanation: the vast majority of books Klausner claims to have read are not exactly literary, and therefore not exactly novels you need to sit, ponder, and savor. As this article about Klausner on Bloggasm puts it:
“I’m a bit of an obsessive reader myself–I read fast, and I read a lot–and I would say that when I read the kind of paranormal romance, say, that Harriet Klausner is fond of, it would probably take me less than an hour and a half. . . I try not to do this too often, it’s the novel-reading equivalent of binge-drinking, but I have certainly had quite a few days in my life where I read five novels straight through, all in a row; usually crime fiction. So my take is that she’s sincere but misguided, not deliberately fraudulent.”
Harriet's reading material consists primarily of Harlequin romances, "urban fantasy" tales with sexy half-naked pseudo-Goths on the covers, "NASCAR romances" (no, really!), chick lit, "paranormal romances," cheap thrillers, Tolkien-wannabes, bored-housewives "erotica," and every contemporary vampire novel published in English. (Although I've made my Anne Rice fanship known in the past, there's still a difference between Queen of the Damned and Vampire Apocalypse: Descent into Chaos or All I Want for Christmas is a Vampire, Love at Stake Book 5.) Klausner also makes sure we get the genre just right, giving her reviews titles like "powerful romantic suspense," "amateur sleuth romantic suspense," "excellent futuristic science fiction," "excellent extremely complex medieval saga," "wonderful urban fantasy," "exciting werewolf romantic suspense," "charming contemporary romance," "deep slowly simmering psychological suspense thriller," "excellent military science fiction," "urban fantasy whodunit," "great suspense thriller," "engaging Christian thriller," "superb historical mystery," "excellent police procedural," "deep character study," "excellent regional thriller," "superb quest fantasy," "fabulous historical romantic action adventure thriller," "engaging treatise," "terrific sidebar Corean investigative fantasy thriller" (huh?), "engaging manga graphic comic book" (!), and I could go on.

Now before you accuse me of being an elitist, let it be known that not everything I read is high-brow. I happen to be very fond of Star Trek novels and the detective stories of Faye Kellerman. Arguably my taste in music falls several rungs below my taste in books. One of my best friends is studying to be an opera singer and hopes to get into the Eastman School of Music. She has a collection of hundreds of classical music CDs and can talk at length about everyone from Brahms to Stravinsky. When I told her about symphonic metal, which mixes in elements of opera (such as "beauty and the beast" vocals, in which a classically-trained soprano soars over male death growls), she was horrified at the thought of such a Frankenstein-esque fusion. But I love After Forever, Theatre of Tragedy, Flowing Tears, Nightwish, many other European gothic/symphonic metal bands no one in the US has ever heard of. But you can also make the case that, since this stuff is definitely not mainstream, it at least indicates a presence of original thought. According to the Blogthings quiz "Has American Culture Ruined You?", my ability to enjoy something other than the current Top 40 is a very good sign.

You Have Not Been Ruined by American Culture

You're nothing like the typical American. In fact, you may not be American at all.

You have a broad view of the world, and you're very well informed.

And while you certainly have been influenced by American culture (who hasn't?), it's not your primary influence.

You take a more global philosophy with your politics, taste, and life. And you're always expanding and revising what you believe.

And I'm a Republican! Who knew we could be so cosmopolitan! (Note: the best part of that After Forever song I linked to begins around 2:20.) But I digress.

So I've established that not everything you enjoy has to be cultured and intellectual. But thirty pages of reviews and Harriet Klausner has read absolutely nothing else. And if you refer back to my list of her review titles, another pattern immediately jumps out: a multitude of complimentary adjectives. Thirty pages of reviews and Harriet Klausner has evidently not read anything she didn't like and couldn't write anything less than a four-star appraisal about. Get it? Just about every last one of the literally thousands and thousands of books she's read has been, according to her, "excellent," "engaging," "great," "wonderful," "charming," "fabulous," "entertaining," "fun," "superb," "gripping," "intriguing," "terrific," ad infinitum. Holy crap, now WHAT is the point of having the God-given gift of speed reading if you possess 1) seemingly no power of discernment and 2) apparently no desire to read actual literature? In the words of Time magazine:
Klausner is a bookworm, but she's no snob. She likes genre fiction: romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror. One of Klausner's lifetime goals—as yet unfulfilled—is to read every vampire book ever published. "I love vampires and werewolves and demons," she says. "Maybe I like being spooked."
Personally, I resent the article's implication that speculative fiction is inherently low-brow. Someone please give that writer a copy of Hyperion. But really, if by now you're wondering why I've adopted such a vehement tone about a matter that is entirely trivial in the greater scheme of things, THIS is why!

. . . But luckily my plane came in and I had to put the laptop away. I then flew home and wrote this post the very next day while the discovery was still fresh on my mind.

There is hope, however! Amazon has recently revamped its review ranking system. We are now ordered by number of helpful votes, NOT sheer volume of writing. And thus, Harriet Klausner plummeted. Triumph.


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