Bizarre Behavior at Amazon Reviews

I have found the review section at Amazon.com to be a mixed bag in some cases.  To be sure, some reviews are thoughtful and informative, and others point out areas of disagreement or place a book into context.  Once in a while one comes across someone with an axe to grind. That’s part of the business.

Then again, occasionally one comes across someone like this, a soul so brave that one might at first overlook the fact that the reviewer is afraid to identify himself/herself.

The reviewer offers eighteen reviews, all awarding a single star. I am one of the targets, although at least in my case the reviewer struggled to come up with something more substantial (even if in the end those claims fell far short … the reviewer simply doesn’t understand what I wrote about Grant and drinking, choosing instead to engage in a mindless rant).  However, the reviewer spews his vitriol across a broad spectrum of authors, attacking Larry Daniel, Thomas Lowry, Benson Bobrick, Chester Hearn, and Richard Williams. It is in his review of Mr. Williams’s book that the following howlers appear: “I am one of the nation’s leading Civil War historians and thus feel qualified to comment on the merits of this work…. My apologies for the tone of this review; it’s hardly my practice to invoke invective.”  Yeah, right.  Elsewhere the reviewer assures us: “As the author of sixteen books on the Civil War and Indian Wars of the American West, I feel qualified to judge the relative merits of this work.”

The comments section following his review of Mr. Williams’s book is engaging.

I saw the hostile review about my book years ago, and shrugged. Recently, when I was looking at more recent books, I came across more wild accusations against another author, and I decided to take a look at the reviewer’s track record.  As you can see, it’s an interesting one, leading to some speculation among commenters as to the identity of the author.

Oh, well.

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24 thoughts on “Bizarre Behavior at Amazon Reviews

  1. I think this situation illustrates the perils of cheap book reviews by anonymous reviewers. If you can’t stand behind your work under your own name then you have no business reviewing anybody’s work. Accountability seems to clean up a lot of hatchet jobs.

  2. You need to quit your academic-day job and go into the realm of politics, specifically “black ops.”
    Definitely have the skills. And it pays more.

  3. Brooks-You haven’t seen the most malignant variation of the Amazon review bizarro world: concerted attacks before publication against a book, or, more accurately, a book’s author. It’s seen most often when the author is a celebrity. The “reviews” are often viciously personal and are directed not only against the author(s) but against other reviewers who question the attack reviews/defend the author(s). After a while, Amazon will act and delete but it takes a while and a lot of damage can be done in the meantime.

  4. That’s pretty amazing stuff. I don’t normally read reviews posted by readers because you don’t know who posted it; they might have been done by shills. I’m more interested in the editorial reviews and give them credence.

  5. If this character had any integrity and you-know-whats, he’d make these (in some cases serious) allegations without hiding behind an internet handle. Amazon should take more seriously reports that a review is an abuse if the report provides factual backup.

  6. Bummer is not a “leading Civil War historian”, however he has read and researched Grant’s drinking rumors and innuendo for 40 years and will probably never know the truth. Beside’s who cares? Any analysis by this “scholar” would definitely be questioned, dedicating more time to reviews than to the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. Nothing more productive than character assassination. However, Bummer has a gut feel of a more sinister and subtle motive.

    Bummer

  7. Brooks,

    I noticed this guy several weeks ago. I can’t remember now which book I was looking at, but I was searching around for a few books to buy after receiving some Amazon.com gift cards for my birthday. I saw the one star review with the incredibly hostile language and did what you did, checked out the guy’s profile. Sure enough, all one star reviews with ridiculous comments on the books. The guy is either an incredibly bitter person who is honestly a professional historian, or an excellent troll. My vote is for the latter. If you read these reviews looking for humor, they’re worth multiple laughs.

    • The fellow who is posting these reviews has left enough hints that anyone can figure out who the reviewer purports to be. Either the person’s not very clever (if the reviewer is who one can conclude he is) or he is pretending to be someone else, which is not fair to that person (and I’ve met the person the reviewer hints at being). In either case, the review of my book was simply misleading, dishonest, and incompetent.

  8. Some of his comments make sense but the “1 star” ratings do not. Reminds of many bizarre restaurant/hotel reviews on-line. You’ve probably seen them: “Food was great and only cost 15 cents but the waitress took 31 seconds to take our order – what an outrage! One Star!”

  9. Not to defend the fellow, obviously if he’s a professional historian he should be up front about who he is, BUT..

    like him I get annoyed at Historians who do nothing but read secondary sources and then “re-package” the results. This ‘re-packaging” is often done without any new insights or even better writing, You wonder why the thing was even published. Even worse these ‘dumbed-down” new books often drive better, older ones off the library shelves.

    Note: None of this is aimed at Brooks’ work which I like and respect.

    • Of course, unsubstantiated allegations of “criminal” and plagiarism don’t fit this category. Why those “reviews” are even allowed by Amazon (especially if reported) is itself bizarre.

    • The problem with that sort of criticism in reviews is that sometimes it is valid, sometimes it is not … but it’s used to discredit books fairly and unfairly. When I see it used unfairly, it’s usually used in a disparaging way by a rival author who wants to knock a book down. Thus I found it difficult at first to say much about H. W. Brands’s new Grant biography. I don’t find much that is new in it, but it is a mostly able synthesis of what’s out there that a general reader would find useful and informative. I don’t think it’s a “bad” book. I sense that most informed reviewers share that sentiment. But what often happens is that authors (and their publishers’ PR departments) sometimes make claims for originality that aren’t valid.

      Geoffrey Perret, on the other hand, clearly had an axe to grind with me when his review of the first volume of my Grant biography came out. In his eagerness to score some smug points, he slipped badly.

      Professor Simpson relates the stories others have told many times — the unwilling and unhappy West Point cadet, the young lieutenant tested in the Mexican War, the abrupt resignation from the Army in 1852.

      Of course, Grant resigned in 1854. Perret’s claim for originality must rest in having claimed that Grant resigned in 1852.

      What follows bears comparison with what our unnamed reviewer claims:

      He recapitulates the well-known stories about Grant being forced to resign on account of drunkenness, without adducing any new evidence to support them.

      Recall that our unnamed reviewer asserts:

      Within fifty pages of the outset, Simpson interjects his opinion that Grant never drank to excess. He backs this up with no evidence, but rather interjects this to anticipate his subsequent belabored efforts to discredit every source – primary or otherwise – that contravenes his conception of the man he idolizes.

      Both of these statements cannot be true, and it may well be that neither is true. But what’s clear is that neither reviewer is reviewing the book.

      • Yep. In addition, in a “big picture” way, I have no problem with an author reviewing a “rival” book so long as the reviewer is disclosed. If that’s done, I can take that into account to the extent I think it appropriate. I’ve seen what I considered fair/accurate reviews in such circumstances. My bigger problem is with authors who produce “another Gettysburg book” or such and make no effort to explain why this one is worth my money given what’s already out there or, worse, fail to even acknowledge what’s already out there. In either case I view it as Holmes’s “dog that didn’t bark”.

          • And that’s all the buyer is (1) looking for or (2) entitled to. Although (hats off to the host of this site, for example), sometimes the name and its track record (in ESPNese: body of work) alone can be relied on when the credit card gets pulled out.

  10. I had one asshat criticize one of my books for not addressing Carhart’s bizarre theory. Given that my book was published several years earlier, that would have been a neat trick. That, however, did not deter the asshat, who slammed my book anyway. And Amazon would not remove it even though it was an inappropriate and unfair review.

    • And that, of course, is entirely apart from the separate question of why anyone would waste ink/paper addressing Carhart’s ridiculous fantasy, with its magic signal guns, etc. Amazon used to remove junk like that “review”. They no longer do, unfortunately.

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