The Joys of the Amateur

In his book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen gives a scathing indictment of the brave new world of the internet, arguing that user-created content is lowering the standard and preventing true talent from rising above the tide of garbage. His predictions are nothing if not apocalyptic: he pictures a world where newspapers go under to HuffPo, recording companies crushed by YouTube, and the end of literature brought about by blogs. Also, I think Facebook might herald the Antichrist.

The book came out in 2007, and to the best of my knowledge the rivers aren’t yet boiling with blood. There are some serious criticisms about amateurishness; for instance, I can’t tell why anyone reads my blog—assuming anyone does—since my only qualifications are owning a computer and having extra time on my hands. But it’s unfair to blame this fad solely on the internet: after all, it wasn’t the internet that gave us Real Housewives, Dance Moms, or Wife Swap. (Full disclosure: I love those shows and am grateful to whoever did gift us with them.)

But there’s a pleasant side to letting every man have his fifteen seconds of ranting fame, and Keen can’t be blamed for failing to anticipate it. After all, the greatest joy comes from the e-reader, a device in its infancy when Keen was writing. I’ve written about the e-reader before, but, in my analysis of its pros and cons, I failed to note its best feature: the user review.

Certainly, the user review isn’t new: long before the Kindle, Amazon has let users sound off, to mixed and hilarious results. But they’re at the bottom of the page, too numerous, and occasionally some rational person with a reasoned opinion slips through the cracks. On the e-reader, though, the opinions are just a touch-pad push away, making them easier to read than the book itself. They tend to be few; I can’t give a definitive reason, but typing on e-reader can be a chore, which makes hammering out your screed a difficult proposition.

But, God bless them, there are some real troopers out there. And their results make for some of the finest ironic reading out there. There are roughly three categories of reviewers: the serious, the average, and the weird, and they each have their own merits. The serious reviewers write in a combination of research paper and professional review; their entries usually begin with, “X is the story of…” and contain everything from plot summary and thematic analysis. They’re long, and I can’t imagine why anyone would read one; I actually can’t imagine why anyone would write one. Don’t they know the only reason you read these sorts of things is the comedy?

The average are so average that they hardly need comment. They include the people with the succinct but uninformative review (“It was ok,” “Couldn’t get into it,” etc.) and those who just didn’t get it. Sometimes they understand a work so little that their misunderstanding creates some interest, like the person who complains about all the big words in Lolita.

And Lolita brings me to my favorite review, which comes from a review of the novel so misguided it has to be categorized as weird. The writer clearly considers himself something of a literati, which would indicate he’s one of the more serious critics. But his review is fairly short, which would put him further in the average column. But it’s this combination of delusion and lucidity that makes it so bizarre. He said that Nabokov is “a lazy writer” because he used “adjectives and adverbs in place of vivid verbs” and said that his masterpiece—ranked the fourth greatest novels of the twentieth century—is great for Danielle Steele fans. Go ahead and let that sit; meditate on the mystery of how absurd that is.

The key to user-generated content, if I may tack some moral onto this ramble, is to control its influence, not the content itself. Idiots spouting off on books they can’t understand aren’t going to destroy literature unless we give them that power. Quite literally, we should laugh them off, treat them as one more funny and misguided person making a fool of themselves online. People who care about culture and quality don’t need to worry about the amateur, but our own reaction.

Ian McCaul has spent his whole life in Kalamazoo, MI, except for a brief detour at Grand Valley State University, where he recently graduated with a degree in English and writing. His short stories appear in the online journals Pulse and Laptop Litmag.