Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Amazon Book Reviews

As someone who in grad school once wrote a book review on Amazon.com under a pseudonym and another anonymously (I was "the reader"), I have to tred somewhat lightly here. Still, the Amazon book reviews are a fascinating little sidelight on the politics of book reviewing.

[As an aside, some of the best advice I got on book reviewing was to make sure your positive review had "bumper stickers"--phrases that could be cut and used for future editions of the book! One of mine ended up on the paperback version of Brooks Holifield's Theology in America--a truly fine book. Really. Anyways, I digress...]

My example is Guy Waters' new book, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology. Leaving aside the relative merits and demerits of that particular book, what is striking are the book reviews. Look at them--no subtlety here:
  • On the "pro-" side: "Waters does an excellent job proving that though the concerns of this group may be valid at points, their answers are inadequate at best and dangerous at worst. He is to be commanded for undertaking this task with such an irenic spirit and yet with an equally powerful commitment to the truth of the gospel, which is in danger of being blurred in the hands of the Federal Vision."
  • Also on the "pro-" side: "For those frustrated by the doltish petulance and delinquent arrogance of so-called Federal Vision people just see it like this: they are exposing themselves as those within the camp who were never with us to begin with. They are with the kingdom of Satan, and so be it. It's good when heretics and non-believers finally come out of the their closets."
  • On the "con-" side: "I wish I could recommend this book, but I cannot because it is so full of mischaracterizations and exaggerated claims about the men and positions being reviewed. Apparently the author did not read his opponents charitably and with an open mind. Consequently, I believe he failed to follow the first commandment of scholarly debate, which is to try to understand and appreciate what one's intellectual opponents are trying to say before attacking them from a position outside of their own circle of presuppositions and theological commitments."
  • Also on the "con-" side: "His analyses are based upon exegetical assertion (of the Scriptures and the Westminister Standards), employ quite a bit of question begging, create false dilemmas, and don't account adequately for the qualifications and nuances given by the men in question (though he records many of those qualifications and nuances). Waters may win many people pre-disposed to being against these men, but by just a little closer scrutiny the reader will find that he employs poor argumentation."
Hmm. It is hard to imagine a better argument for reader response theory than these reviews. Either Waters is a genius or he is a dope. Either his book is incisive or is libelious. No nuance or suggestion that there are strengths and weaknesses in the presentation. Now, either the reviewers are just unable to analyze properly (which I do not believe) or there is something more here than meets the eye. And I think that something would be the politics of book reviewing--the attempt to influence people's perceptions of a book's credibility and usefulness based on one's review of it.

After all, the Amazon.com book reviews are supposedly written by lay people who are interested in books, people "like you and me," who want to share their off-the-cuff reactions to a book. I think this is the intent because the "professional" reviews (NY Times Book Review, for example) are generally bracketed off and supplied by Amazon themselves. And what better way to attempt to influence than to present yourself as an interested reader or (in this case) an interested pastor who reacted to the book, either pro or con.

What is also interesting is how little recorded "influence" is occuring. This can be gauged by the "was this review helpful" numbers. The positive reviews only were "helpful" to between 4% and 16% of the responsdents while the negative reviews were "helpful" to 86% of respondents (that number was consistent across the board). That suggests to me that the majority of people visiting that page (and perhaps purchasing the book) are already disposed to view the book negatively. In addition, it suggests that they are agitated enough to "vote" whether various reviews were "helpful."

In the end, those responding also desire to participate in influencing the way people perceive this particular book. By agreeing overwhelmingly with the negative reviews, these people are trying to send the message that this is a REALLY, REALLY BAD book. And this, of course, is equally unnunaced and inaccurate. Even more importantly, it indicates how polarizing this issue and this book is, how badly people desire to influence the way people think about the issues involved (which should itself raise questions for critical thought). Above all, I think it demonstrates how Amazon book reviews can be used in a political way, even to influence debates in denominations, such as my own.


pduggie said...

Sicne this all started with Morecraft saying that the AA theology was another gospel, it stands to reason that those that promote it would be greatly desirous of influencing how people think about the attacks on them.

The AA critique was born in extreme rhetoric. I believe you were a participant ("Leithart should go join the RCs or a liberal church")

pduggie said...

Sorry, my tone was a bit too personal and negative.

Joel said...

I gave up putting much stock in Amazon reviews after finding dozens of highly positive reviews attached to a book I knew was really quite a poor book which, as an obscure "print on demand" volume didn't even likely have as many readers there were reviewers.

But reading through the reviews with a bit of text critical analysis, it became clear after a while that the reviews were almost all from the same pen and that, mostly likely (given commonalities between the reviews and the book itself) were the product of the author himself writing under a variety of pseudonyms in an attempt to hype his own book.

That experience, more than anything, led me to read Amazon reviews with suspicion.

A suspicious and conspiratorial mind, by the way, would probably read this blog entry of yours as itself a sly attempt to get your readers to go and vote over at Amazon. :-)

Adam said...

Sean, I think your observations are true and unfortunately way too common in our circles.

I think this also highlights one of the problems in dealing with the FV/NPP in a climate where some of the loudest calls for charity come from those who it seems to me, demonstrate a profound lack of charity themselves when dealing with people who oppose their ideas.

Jeff Meyers said...

There's nothing uncharitable about reviewing a book and honestly recording one's conviction that it is a bad book. Since I'm one of the ones who wrote a negative review on Amazon I'll stand by my review. I do think it's a awful book.

As for the accusation that putting comments on Amazon has a political purpose, well, of course they do. All public communication, especially in a controversy has "political" dimensions.

I'll be upfront with my political purposes. Yes, I would very much like people not to buy and read this book. Honestly. That's why I wrote the review. Making public evaluations like that are intended to influence people is what debating issues and positions is all about.

Sean, your own post on this is highly political. You want people to read the book. You don't like the criticisms. You've attempted to deconstruct the reviews. Fine. I have no problem with that. But let's not accuse me and others of being political, when in the very nature of the case a debate about something like this will always have a political dimension.

I believe my criticisms are grounded in objective fact. Go here and take the time to read the responses from the FV men to Waters's book (the section called "Responses to Guy Waters's Book. . .):


After reading these, perhaps one would understand why I say that the book does not even fairly represent the positions of the men being criticized. Now, I don't know WHY Waters fails. I don't want to impute impure motives to him. His heart and motives are not for me to know or judge. I only know that he does in fact misrepresent the positions. So I cannot recommend people read the book. That's why I wrote the review. No other reason. What's the problem?

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Jeff:

Couple of things: I don't really care whether people read this book or not; my name is nowhere to be found on it and so I have no stake in whether it is read. Nor was I criticizing you personally nor your position (as far as I can tell, both the pro and con positions were articulated by pastors). If you think the book is a bad book, that is fine with me.

If you actually go back and calmly read what I wrote, you will find that I was critical of both the "pro" and "con" and suggested that the book was probably neither as brilliant and horrible as suggested (for the record, I got stuck after chapter 2 and have yet actually to finish the book).

What happened was this: I went to my own book's page at amazon and noticed that others were buying the Waters book as well. So, I clicked on the link. When I read how opposite the reviews were, and noticed how overwhelming the responses were, I literally laughed out loud. I thought it might make a good post.

As far as "political" purposes, my only purposes are simply to remind others of the spirit (if not the wording) of the Presbyterians Together document--which I took to be: moderate your language, watch your tempers, try to be understanding of each other.

Hope that helps, sml

David said...


Perhaps one of the reasons that Guy Waters' book has produced such polarized reviews is because it is an intrisically polarizing book. Please note that the book ends by borrowing a phrase from Samuel Miller in desiring that "believers be spared ... from the 'poisonous exotic' that the FV offers to the Reformed church (p. 300)."

This is an extremely strong statement to make about the teaching of men who are Ministers in good standing in a variety of Reformed denominations.

Personally, I am very much on the TR side of the Reformed community. If I had the money I would love to endow a B.B. Warfield chair of theology somewhere. I was Lig Duncan's first teaching assistant at RTS and consider him to be both a mentor and a friend.

But the bottom line is that Guy Waters' book does not demonstrate that the men associated with the FV are teaching a "poisonous exotic". It is therefore a very bad book - there really cannot be another option. Dr. Waters established this standard when he polemically branded those he is critiqueing as purveyors of a "poisonous exotic".

It will not do to point out that Dr. Waters has read a vast amount of material or that he makes a variety of good points in his book. If (as I believe) Dr. Waters fails to establish the call that he concludes his book with - is it not a Biblical requirement that we ask our brother to repent?

Your suggestion that there is a "politics in book reviewing" is certainly valid. Nevertheless, in the case of Guy Waters book I believe it is the politics/content of his book that is driving the polarization of the responses.

BTW - Your comments also point out why book reviews on blogs are more valuable than book reviews on Amazon: There is both context and feedback.


David said...


I should add one thing: I posted a review of your very good book "Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life" on Amazon.

Although I made two suggestions on how (I thought) the book could be even better - this didn't prevent me from praising and strongly recommending your work. I think this is a fairly common approach to reviewing books - even with built in politics of book-reviewing.

Best wishes,


Jeff Meyers said...

Hey Sean! Yeah, I guess that comments post of mine came across a bit too harshly. Forgive me. This controversy gets my blood boiling sometimes and I have to step back and take a few breaths.

I overreached a bit, too. I don't think the Waters book should be banned or anything. I just want people who do read it to be careful to consider both sides of the debate.

And it looks like I read a bit too much into your own comments.

This whole controversy began with overweening accusations all out of proportion to what the original AAPC speakers actually said. It's gone downhill from there. I just wish everyone could step back and calmly debate the real issues. That's all.

You know, the only reason you guys at Covenant won the softball championship the past few years is because Providence wasn't in the league. Watch out next year, buddy. ;-)

pelicanus neoaureliensis said...

Apparently, people are waging Wiki Wars in a similar fashion to the political book reviewing on Amazon.