Friday, November 16, 2012

Harriet's Defenders, Part Two

In the first post in this series, we looked at publicity hounds, clueless readers, and "failed Socratic elenchi" who have, whether knowingly or inadvertently, aligned themselves with Harriet Klausner.  Perhaps they're authors who have linked to one of her reviews on their blogs, or people who have stated the (glaringly) obvious (e.g., that Hattie receives advance review copies).

A few years ago, Hattie got some attention in the mainstream media.  None of the pieces involved much in the way of investigation or in-depth analysis; rather, they were "puff pieces" or "human interest" stories.  The phenomenon of online reviewing was somewhat new at the time, and I suppose people were curious about who the most prolific reviewers were.  I thought it would be interesting to take a further look at the authors of these pieces.

Note: there are permanent links to these articles in the right sidebar of this page.

Lev Grossman is a fantasy author and a book reviewer for Time magazine.  By his own admission, he doesn't write negative reviews, and he admits to having written sock puppet reviews on Amazon for his own books.  His praise can be, well, effuse, although it IS much more literate than Hattie's.  Check out some of his reviews here and here.  In the end, though, I just can't trust his opinion.  Not every book deserves a thumbs up, or 4 or 5 stars.  A person who gives everything a high rating comes off as a shill, at worst, or as not being very discriminating, at best.  (Oh wait, was I talking about Hattie or Lev Grossman with that last sentence?)

Other random links discussing/connecting Hattie and Mr. Grossman:
  • Blurbs from both of them are quoted on the Amazon page for this book
  • Here, Hattie reviews Mr. Grossman's book, The Magicians
  • A blog post that analyzes some of the contradictions in Mr. Grossman's profile of HK
  • It's also been discussed that Mr. Grossman didn't ever meet Hattie, he just talked to someone on the phone who claimed to be Hattie; apparently he took a lot of flak for this, but it's been difficult to locate any original sources because the Time profile is several years old
Kendra Mayfield in Wired:  She seems not to be working there anymore.  A search of the site revealed a lot of articles 2000-2002, with another few from 2003 and 2004.  (And one from 1999 about the transition of the GRE to a computer-based test.  Which was old news seven years ago, in 2005, when I took the GRE.)  Then nothing.  It's actually kind of funny scrolling through the titles of her pieces, which are WOEFULLY out of date today, although they might've been cutting-edge a decade ago.  This puts her HK piece in some kind of perspective.

Joanne Kaufman in the Wall Street Journal.  She's got a couple of recent articles there, so presumably there's still an association, although she seems to be interviewing actors these days.  Unfortunately, web searches aren't terribly useful because Kaufman has a fairly common name.  If you're in the know about Hattie, some of her quotes in this piece are incredibly funny.  Like the one about keeping all the books she gets out in a shed.  (I guess it's impolitic to admit to selling them on

Next puff piece: Claire Armitstead from The Guardian.  She is now apparently literary editor there.  This piece is less celebratory than most, actually.  Ms. Armitstead seems a bit na├»ve in not doubting HK's integrity, but she comes to as reasonable a conclusion is possible, considering the whole "two books a day" thing:

"Hmmmm. Klausner might tell it like it is, but what exactly is "it": how does she choose which two books a day to review? Who sends them to her? Her recommendations embrace such a huge, shifting ocean of novels that I'm beginning to feel seasick.


I don't doubt Klausner's integrity, and I can even see how such whole-body immersion could create a sharp sense of relative quality within certain generic categories.

But it's not going to help me choose my girlfriend's birthday present. A trip to my local bookshop, to consult someone who only reads one or two books a week, is beginning to look like time well spent."
That being said, Armitstead seems to have done an about-face, as evidenced by the following essay: The future for criticism will be on websites.  No more trips to the bookstore to talk with actual readers, I guess...

What conclusions can we draw from this list?

Well, first of all, I can't get the following image out of my head (it's from Wikipedia and hence in the public domain):

Second, I get the feeling that not a lot of effort was put into any of these pieces.  Maybe a phone call, maybe a little poking around on Amazon.  A little time in front of the computer.  But nothing more.  No investigation, no number crunching, no real exercise of mental acuity.

Third, while there is a place for human interest stories (for example, this one in the New York Times about a dog delivering supplies to hurricane Sandy victims), in the case of Harriet Klausner, I think these sorts of articles actually do a disservice -- they give Hattie legitimacy.  If Time, the Wall Street Journal, and other mainstream publications treat Hattie lightly, and don't mention the other side of the story, it's ultimately the consumers who get duped.

Thankfully, things are beginning to turn around.  Recent coverage of Hattie has been much more critical.  (See examples here and here.)

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