A MATTER OF OPINION: ABOUT AMAZON READERS’ BOOK RANKINGS

(It feels very nice to return to this blog after a much necessary three-week summer break, which, like all Literature teachers, I have spent chain-reading… Shouldn’t this count as work time??)

Among my summer reading I have included Iain M. Banks’s last Culture novel Surface Detail (2010). He happens to be my favourite sf writer and I buy his sf novels (12 so far) as a matter of habit, not even checking first whether they’re worth reading. I know they are (same with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, or Terry Eagleton’s essays). However, at one point, 70 pages into Banks’s book, which stretches to 640, I thought I would fail this time to read the whole volume (mark this: I’m speaking of MY failure, not his). Too much information to digest, too many threads to follow. I decided to trust Banks, let him push me as usual to the farthest margins of my capacity to visualise bizarre creatures, spaces and gadgets and go on. My reward? One so big I have decided to re-read the novel as soon as possible to savour the, well, surface details, now I’ve got the story (I’m in the middle of the Narnia Chronicles, long overdue).

Do I recommend Banks’s book to you? No, not at all. Unless you love sf, particularly post-cyberpunk space opera, you won’t enjoy it. If you’re curious about Banks, you just can’t plunge, anyway, into the middle of this immense Culture saga. Take his sf first novel, Consider Phlebas, and enjoy!! I have promised myself not to spoil the fun by re-reading them all pencil in hand to write a paper, as I have done with Ian Rankin’s Rebus saga (essay forthcoming in Clues, this autumn), but I do feel so tempted…

As it is my habit every time I read a book, I checked what other readers have to say in (at?) Amazon, where else? Americans like Surface Detail better than the Brits (4 stars on average rather than 3,5, out of 5). I can’t tell whether the 67 opinions at Amazon.com and the 124 at Amazon.co.uk account for 1% or 10% of the total English-speaking readership, possibly more 0.01%, but what never fails to fascinate me is the statistical distribution of opinions. Most books I read or check out of curiosity rank between 3 and 4,5 stars and, inevitably, between 50% and 75% of the readers are enthusiastic or quite happy. Also inevitably, around 10% just hate the book. I tend to read the negative reviews on the grounds that pissed-off readers who bother to waste even more of their time usually have an interesting point to make. It never fails… (I just need to put up with the usual complains that a) the book is overhyped, b) the author is losing touch with his/her own talent and was miles better in previous books). The 191 sf connoisseurs who have bothered to leave an opinion tell you thus simultaneously that Surface Detail is perfect, not so perfect, passable, just passable, and an utter, complete failure. How can one recommend any book any more?

My personal experience, anyway, is that Amazon readers’ opinions work well to curb down my own enthusiasm and be more critical when I love a book (yes, yes, Surface Detail might not be that coherent). When I hate it, I just feel smugly confirmed in my own prejudices. And, no, I don’t want to become an Amazon reviewer and get emails from other readers telling me how wrong my opinion is…

Someone should study all this to see how literary canons, of whatever genre, are being formed in internet era, by the way.

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