On Harriet Klausner (or Everyone Hates Harold Bloom)

On who? Harriet Klausner is Amazon.com’s no.1 customer reviewer. She has reviewed 13000 books for the site. Even being generous and assuming that she’s been stalking Jeff Bezos reviewing books from day one of Amazon, that’s about three books a day. But let’s not be generous – most days, she posts something like a dozen reviews. Who on earth, I hear you cry, reads that many books in 24 hours? More to the point – is she even actually reading them? As a great post over at SQT’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy-Lovin’ blog points out, most of her reviews are just poorly-disguised re-hashes of the back page blurbs accompanied by an inevitable 4 or 5 stars. This has lead to more than the occasional suggestion that, well, Klausner may be little more than a paid-to-post shill who’d recommend the Autobiography of Chantelle if the price was right.

Klausner swears up and down that’s she is just a “freaky kind of speed reader”, and Time magazine has described her as ” an extraordinary talent” – but what’s really interesting is how they also note that

“(She) is part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made. The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don’t care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see. They’re increasingly likely to pay attention to amateur online reviewers, bloggers and Amazon critics like Klausner. Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can’t match. They’re not fancy. They don’t have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do. Publishers treat Klausner as a pro, sending her free books—50 a week—in hopes of getting her attention.”

Patronising, some? More after the jump…

I’ve got no problem with Time‘s initial statement – taste creation is getting more democratic. That’s got to be a good thing: canon schmanon. My gripe lies with what seems to me the obviously unsustainable nature of the new set-up, especially in Klausner’s case. For how long, exactly, can someone who is sent fifty books a day by publishers maintain a sense of (try not to throw up) “just-plain-folks authenticity”? Klausner is demonstably not just plain folks. Just because she doesn’t get paid, it doesn’t mean she’s not a superstar. In fact, how, other than the fact that she doens’t get paid and apparently has no critical sensibility, does she differ from a very popular, influential newspaper critic?

In her terribly postmodern desperation for instant fame, she has hit on a labour-intensive strategy of speedreading and (presumably simultaneous) touch-typing that guarantees her celebrity. This is as much about the formation of Harriet Klausner’s subjective identity as it is about a decline in traditional sources of critical influence. The real driving force behind the proliferation of amateur online critics is not that, as Time put it “people don’t care to be lectured by professionals” anymore, it’s that they want to play at being professionals, too. It’s not the readers who get the most out of Klausner’s reviews, it’s her.

Dan O'Connor

Dan is responsible for translating social media research into the analytic and conceptual frameworks which underpin the team’s product and service development. He is particularly interested in how social media has changed the ways in which people exchange information within networks, and the impact that these changes have had on traditionally top-down information systems, such as those prevalent within the health, education and NGO sectors, where he leads RMM’s activities.

Dan’s focus upon health and education stems from his background in academia: He has a PhD in History and, as well as being Head of Research at RMM, he is a member of faculty at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. He has published and lectured widely on the ethics of social media use within healthcare systems, and is involved in the application of social media in medical education at Johns Hopkins hospital.

Dan likes cooking, martinis, and irony. Frequently at the same time.

One response to “On Harriet Klausner (or Everyone Hates Harold Bloom)”

  1. Barbara

    Recently I have been commenting on Harriet Klausner’s reviews on Amazon. I see my comments that point out her frequent errors,(wrong author name, wrong book even) as being in defense of authors and books. But the defenders of HK’s style invariably attack me for what they erroneously see as an assault on the book under review. I have tried to be very careful to distinguish my comments on HK’s poorly written synopsis from the actual novel. Unfortunately the fans of Harriet’s are not able to discern the difference.

    I believe that Harriet Klausner is a classic case of a narcissistic personality. I think that her need to feel special coincided with Amazon’s need for advertising. They got over 13,500 glowing reviews, and HK received the dubious distinction of being the top reviewer. I wish Amazon would just own up to the fact that she is not a reviewer but that she is the house shill. She could be the equivalent of Aunt Jemima or Betty Crocker.

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