Uncle Grumpy’s Guide for the Perplexed:Volume I. Starting University. The first in a new series … in which Uncle Grumpy—me: the historian, critic, publisher, and retired attorney Markham Shaw Pyle—explains the purpose of a university; its pitfalls; how not to let it turn into a mere trade school for you; what tools to pick up […]Newly released…. — Markham Shaw Pyle, author & historian
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The Epinions days
Ho ho ho…it’s time for your early Christmas present. The article is just the wrapping paper.
My writing start came at a product review site called epinions.com. The concept was for actual consumers to provide consumer-helpfully written product reviews. Books, games, movies, lawn mowers, breast pumps, computers, cell phones–if you could buy it, you could probably get it added to the Eps database. When Eps first began, people could make real money there. By the time I got there, the gravy train was stuck at a siding. I believe the site began in 1999; I showed up in 2001 and was fairly active through 2003, tapering off thereafter. I’ve made about $433 from it over the years.
At first, I took the site seriously and attempted to write relatively serious reviews. It didn’t take long for me to realize that some of the most creative and witty minds I’d ever seen were also at Eps, and they were mostly not taking it seriously. In my halting way, I began to follow their various leads. I got some writing feedback, some positive and some negative. In hindsight, my work was mountainously egotistical, pretentious, sometimes facile, and often relied on cheap gimmicks rather than intellect, but I think it improved. I certainly got to see a lot of examples showing how to do it better.
Over time, the would-be comics of Epinions and their sympathizers coalesced into a rolling circus called the Fez Crew. Sordid-1, one of the funnier folks you’ll ever read, was the group’s founder and soul. My all-time favorite Epinions piece still remains his travel review of Arizona. He wrote a three-part review of his mercifully brief stint in the Maricopa County Jail. He did not recommend Arizona as a destination. For a couple of years there, we had a lot of fun. We did protests, writeoffs, even tribute pieces to members we learned were terminally ill. Some of us were one step from being ticketed or community blocked by the admins, and we were always afoul of the Eps cops. This group was heavily populated by stay-at-home moms (a fundamentally honorable profession practiced by more than one Fez Crew-woman) who took diaper pails, sippy cups, kiddy movies and such deadly seriously. They had private groups away from the site, which they reckoned were secret, where they kept hit lists of consumerly-unhelpful people and ganged up to try and rate their reviews negatively. We parodied them a lot, such as the time I reviewed Grand Theft Auto III as a homeschooling tool. But in the end–and only partly due to the Eps cops’ gang-rating–Eps ceased to be fun for most of us, and we went on to other things.
For a lot of Eps alumni (either Fez or simply friendly forces, admired for genuine writing talent), that meant careers writing for real money. Cornelia Read was one. David Abrams was another. Many of us eventually found one another on Facebook, though after we had all reconnected with the people we liked, we didn’t have that much to say to each other, so the Fez Crew on FB became moribund as a semi-informal grouping. Few of us still write at Eps, though most of us still write. Brett Nicholson will one day get a screenplay published. It wouldn’t be fair to call Markham Shaw Pyle an Eps alum–I understand that he was published before Eps began–but he wrote some of the more thoughtful reviews and commentary there. It turned out to be a pretty good literary practice field and weight room.
Something got me thinking of those days, this evening, contributed by frequent commentator OrionSlaveGirl. It seems that the spirit of Fez lives, as you can see in the Amazon reviews of this banana slicer. What you see here, good reader, is exactly the fun-loving Fez spirit we once had at Epinions. Enjoy. And happy holidays to you all, in whatever form and shape, and thank you for your many visits here this year.