harrietkLegendary Amazon mega-reviewer Harriet Klausner has passed away. I assume she’s leaving loved ones behind. My condolences.

She embodied everything wrong with criticism, both at the professional and amateur level (it’s unclear which class she belonged to). For people who mistrust online reviews, for people who assume it’s all just an incestuous, payola-greased web of marketing, cross-promotion and buddy-buddy backslapping, Harriet Klausner is Exhibit A. She is the smoking gun, with a complementary five star review on Amazon.

31,014 reviews, largely of romance novels. 99.7% of these reviews had four or five star ratings. She reviewed everything, and loved everything, but it’s clear that she didn’t read everything. Someone wrote a book that (strategically?) included a character called “Harriet Klausner”, but her obligatory glowing review made no mention of this. There’s also the fact that there’s only 24 hours in a day.

Her reviews had a nebulous, creepy quality, like they were written by a computer. She was the queen of vague adjectives, vapid cliches, and rewritten cover blurbs. Have you seen the video where rapper will.i.am has bullshits his way through an explanation of logos and branding? That video is Harriet Klausner’s entire life for the past fifteen years.

She was so prolific and so worthless that for years there were conspiracy theories about Klausner – that she didn’t exist, and was an account controlled by a shadowy cabal of publishers. In the end, it was confirmed that she was a real person, which is probably worse. At least a shadowy cabal could conceivably have the manpower to actually read the books. The truth is this (h/t to this guy’s sleuthing): she received large numbers of Advance Reader Copies from publishers. She didn’t disclose that she was getting ARCs (in breach of FTC disclosure rules, but nobody on Amazon cares about that) and she would then re-sell them via a third party (apparently legal, but frowned upon). Books got promoted, Klausner could pay her cat food bills, and everyone won except for the people reviews exist for in the first place.

With Amazon now taking steps to protect the integrity of their reviews, but you wonder if outright grifters are the problem here. The issue seems to be an economic one: reviewers want free shit, publishers and writers want favourable reviews. The actual consumer is very much an externality here – they don’t have a skin in the game, so they just have to hope and pray the reviewer has the integrity not to whore out their opinions to keep the majestic Free Shit River flowing in full flood.

I used to read a metal site called Teufel’s Tomb. While every other metal site had a chummy “support the scene, bro!” ethos, Teufel’s opinion was that 90% of bands, labels, and distros should just eat bullets and die. It was a refreshing attitude. You could trust their opinions.

Someone had the misfortune of interviewing Teufel. The guy was obviously drunk and spent most of the interview pushing the interviewer’s buttons, but he also says some interesting things about “objectivity” while staring down the barrel of payola. “Objectivity, in metal reviews, is to say as much about the music, without saying anything at all. All the bands and record labels want is for you to say things that will help them sell more records. They don’t want you to state an opinion, unless your opinion is positive. Really, objectivity in metal reviews is to simply drone on and on and on about “this is the lyrical subject matter, this is the band line-up, this is the style of music they play, they sound like these bands, you should buy this album if you like these bands.” […] I’ve been on all of the major metal label promo lists, and they all took me off after they actually read that I was stating opinions that some of their releases are just plain boring or sucked.”

Pauline Kael once said “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.” To which Harriet Klausner and her spiritual descendants say “why not both?”

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