I am signed up to Amazon Vine. Amazon customers belonging to this initiative are given the opportunity to select two products per month to review. As I write, the programme is ‘invitation only’. I think I was invited because I wrote a clutch of reviews of Alfred Hitchcock movies several years ago, and I had clocked up enough reviews to gain an invitation.
There are plusses and minuses. You get to keep the review products for free – and that’s a big plus, especially if you’re on the ball enough to bag some pricey loot. A big plus too for the Cancer Research shop at the top of Cartway, if the loot isn’t the kind of thing I’d like to own long-term.
Minus: I wouldn’t know how to construct a good review if I could craft a witty end to this sentence.
Genuinely worthwhile reviewing is a formidable skill, and one I don’t naturally possess. It goes without saying that hardly any reviews on the Amazon site achieve anything like my definition of success, but most particularly not those by people who have been invited to review. Democratic reviewing means a deluge of ill-informed bile and unchecked opinion. I’ve read in numerous places the opinions of web-savvy writers and artists who say they’ve had to develop a hugely thick skin to the acid bile of Internet opinion.
Now, as a reviewer, I’m not a ‘flamer’. I try to keep it balanced. (I’m embarrassed by the sheer number of three-star reviews I give out.) Paul Morley once said that the worst thing to happen at the now-ailing NME was the introduction of star ratings. Reviewing is so much more subtle than that.
Stars are fine for those snappy first reactions: “I didn’t much like this; not as poppy as their first album”, and for technical specs: “The transfer to high-definition is flawless…”, but be honest, who has this amount of snap or the technical gumption to comment?
So every review I write becomes a battle with myself to understand quite why I’m reviewing what I’m reviewing. Those Hitchcock reviews were from a perspective of how successful I felt the movie was, in terms of its storytelling and construction. ‘0 out of 7 people found my review helpful.’
“Listen mate,” came one user’s review of my review, “we don’t care what you think about the film, what’re the extras like? What’s the transfer to DVD like? Is it in 7.1 surround sound or 5.1?”
You know, I have no idea. And nowhere near enough enthusiasm for such things to look at the back of the DVD case. I just concern myself with the creative aspect. I’m a 1D reviewer.
The inevitable outcome of such a democratic approach to reviewing is a total devaluation of critical points of view. I don’t take on board what Amazon reviews say. Do you? Unless I really have no idea which – I don’t know, ADSL router – to buy, because they’re all much of a muchness to me.
The latest review I am cobbling together in my mind is on Graham Swift’s Making An Elephant – a collection of short pieces and ephemera about “Writing from within”, so the subtitle says. I’d already decided what I was going to write after the first ten pages. What sort of a review is that? It’s based on what I think of Graham Swift, and what someone else wrote about him once in Private Eye.
I have come to my keyboard now, typing these words, to discard this initial decision about what I am going to write, and hopefully come up with a response worth reading.
Perhaps I should be suspicious about why Amazon Vine is feeding me through this particular mangle: what does Amazon want? A bunch of mouthy freeloaders who are desperate to crow for the reward of a free item (and who simultaneously are unclogging Amazon’s Ridgemont storage facility).
I’m spinning in ever-decreasing circles here, aren’t I? I’d better go an take it out on Graham Swift.