Monday, May 12, 2014

On Amazon

I admit that before I purchase a book from Amazon, I tend to look at the reviews; I’ll rarely purchase a book that has quite negative feedback. Radley Balko first commented on the disparity between the overwhelmingly negative response the Cohan book received from Amazon reviewers (51 of the 75 Amazon reviews are 1-star) and the puff-piece comments from reviews in most of the mainstream media.

The negative reviews clearly captured Cohan’s attention; he has complained about them in a couple of press appearances. On C-SPAN, he offered the following remark: “All one has to do is go on to Amazon and see already that I’ve amassed, you know, 25 one star reviews even the book hasn’t been out a week and it’s a 600 page book, so I’m pretty much guessing that not many of those one star review writers have read this book.

This was an interesting statement in a couple of respects. First, many of these 1-star comments contain substantive disagreements with Cohan’s arguments (some of them, in fact, are longer than a standard published book review). Cohan didn’t tell C-SPAN, and hasn’t said since, how people could have written a substantive review of a book they hadn’t read. That said, this is a tactic he’s employed elsewhere, as when he insinuated that Joe Neff hadn’t read the book even as Neff’s coverage made clear that the N&O reporter had done so.

Second, it seems as if Cohan’s line of attack better applies to those who had reviewed the book positively on Amazon. As has often been the case with the book’s favorable published reviews, many of Cohan’s 5-star Amazon reviews avoid discussing anything that’s actually in the book.

Some examples, with each of the six below in their totality:

I'm not a sports fan but William Cohan tells a story so well that I read ‘The Price of Silence" like a novel. I even got excited by descriptions of Lacrosse games, though I doubt that I'd sit through one in real life.

“William D. Cohan has created a masterpiece of both investigative reporting & history. Of the 7 book [??] thus far published about the case, it is the best one yet. As such it is heartily recommended.

“Do not let the negative reviews dissuade you from this book. William Cohan has done a masterful job of pulling together the disparate facts concerning what occurred at Duke and setting forth the definitive account. The book is superb and is a compelling read.

“I am surprised by all of the negative. No Duke alum wants to rehash this experience but isn't it at least good to have the facts as opposed to just fleeting bits here and there? I don't think this is condemnation or judgment as much as it is about historical account and I for one thing this is incredibly important.

“A book that strikes at the heart of universities today despite the aggressive criticism of Duke alum. Sometimes the truth can be painful.

“I was familiar with the case and have followed Duke for years and wondered how it turned out, Cohan filled in the blanks.”

How someone “familiar with the case” didn’t know how the case turned out the reviewer elected not to reveal.

One 5-star reviewer hailed Cohan’s “sympathetic” portrayals of the lacrosse players(!), while another even labeled the “crucified” Nifong a “serial offender”—suggesting that whatever book these two reviewers read, it wasn’t Cohan’s.

Of the reviews, only two—one by an anonymous New Yorker, and the second by a Jerome Buttrick—appeared to embrace the book’s twin “something happened”/Nifong’s-a-victim argument. Buttrick wrote, “Not only does this read like a John Grisham legal thriller, it also addresses some of the most important and difficult issues facing our nation today: social and racial injustice, ‘bad boy’ behavior on college campuses, and the ability of the rich and powerful to bend the system to their liking.” Neither Buttrick nor the anonymous New Yorker have reviewed any other book at Amazon.

Two 5-star reviews particularly caught my eye.

First was this item, from a “D. Retah,” who wrote, “For anyone who wants to know what goes on at colleges today,this [sic] is required reading, and an unforgettable narrative about a snarled legal sysyem [sic], privilege, and elitism. I found it unputtdownable [sic] and feel it is a must read.

The only other book the grammatically-challenged “D.” reviewed was UPI—which “D.” reviewed not when it appeared but instead a few days ago. (Thanks for reading, “D.”!) In her review, “D.” suggested that Stuart and I lacked the credentials we claimed to possess. I’m sure my superiors at Brooklyn College would be fascinated by the bizarre claim.

But the classic 5-star Cohan review was this one, from a reviewer named JKR:

It came promptly, but I haven't had time to read it.

Tough to rebut that line of argument. Perhaps the New York Times could schedule a third gushing review, with JKR taking the pen?


Jim In San Diego said...

The response to anyone who claims that there is something suspicious about the huge preponderance of negative reviews is: please read the reviews.

Several of the (one-star) reviews are, individually, longer than most of the (five-star) reviews, combined.

A number of the (one-star) reviews itemize, in the aggregate, several dozen specific weaknesses of "Price" as an historical account of the Rape Hoax.

Many of the one star reviewers signed with their real names.

Professor Hershel Parker, Pulitzer-Prize finalist non-fiction author, even lists a couple of dozen examples of Cohan's bias, citing specific page numbers in "Price". Professor Parker's conclusion: "This is a book which should not have been published."

The Comments to the various wretched five-star reviews are also telling; often listing, in detail, specific weaknesses of both "Price" and the reviewer's review of "Price".

I have reviewed many items on Amazon for years, including non-fiction books. I have never seen so many excellent reviews written about anything.

Unfortunately for William Cohan, all the excellent reviews are one-star.

Jim Peterson

Anonymous said...

D. Retah
Hater d.
Hater of what ?

Anonymous said...

Of Durham ?

Anonymous said...

D Retah is Deb Futter, who works in publishing.

Anonymous said...

un-putt-down-able? ooooo, brillant. un-butt-leave-able.

A Duke Dad said...

@ 2:06
D Retah is Deb Futter, who works in publishing.

The website begins with a photo of a familiar looking gentleman and a woman. It is identified as

Chris Halkides said...

I am not entirely surprised that there are favorable reviews in the press from people not familiar with the case. But I am surprised when I read things like "even-handed." Cohan can't seem to resist the temptation to work in digs against the players. I can't see why the reviewers did not pick up on that, at least.

Anonymous said...

This was added to review of Price of Silence

Anonymous said...

1. I think it should be mandatory that reviewers of Cohan's book read "Until Proven Innocent" before reviewing and commenting on "The Price of Silence". That's obviously not going to happen. This is America, and you have the right to show your biases,ignorance, etc. However, I believe intellectually (and in my perfect world) one cannot claim any kind of merit for one's book (that's Cohan's book) without addressing and refuting at least some of points made in "Until Proven Innocent", the 60 Minutes show with Ed Bradley, the voluminous data contained on Durham in Wonderland, Liestoppers, and other blogs, etc.

2. Where I and most people come from, you cannot overcome another person's argument(s) by totally ignoring them.

Anonymous said...

Is William Cohan a Communist?

One Spook said...

To the 9:34:

Based on the reviews I've read on The Price of Silence, I would be happy if it was mandatory that reviewers simply read that book (POS) prior to commenting on it.

One Spook

MTM said...

I must say that the Cohan book is the most amusing thing that has happened for me this year. Commentary by KC and all of you all just makes me grin and smile. But I must claim the academic property rights; I am pretty sure I was the first person to remark on the Amazon disparity in reviews, noting that the five-star people (who did not appear to be shills) were people who had never followed the case. And, of course, the implication is that the book only sells to the uninformed unless Nifong is the victim.
M.T. Maloney, Clemson