Tag Archives: reviewing

I want to call this author out, but I can’t quite

Last few days, I’ve been rereading a moderately successful SF series. I hadn’t revisited it for twenty years, since back before anyone paid me anything to write or edit. I won’t go so far as to say that I had no critical perspective back then, but years of doing this stuff professionally do alter that perspective. I am more perplexed now than before by the popular acceptance of bad writing.

Not that I ever sniff “well, clearly she should fire her editor.” We’ve been over that. In the first place, I do not know whether she had one. In the second, I do not know whether she heeded him or her. In the third, there are many different types of editing. The most I could ever say would be something like: “The book does not reflect competent copy editing.” That may be the the publisher’s fault, as in one spectacular screwup where the house printed and distributed an early draft by mistake. I am not joking. They really can be that stupid and haphazard.

No, the problem is greater: I have to live with these people, and with my words about them. That wake-up call came at an SF con. I have no idea what the panel’s subject was, but one of its participant authors rang a bell. I sat there trying to remember why. Something vaguely familiar here. And then it came to me–I’d read one of her books, and panned it on Amazon. Odds she would remember me, even if she happened to look at my name tag? Very low. Odds of me meeting her socially at all? Not so low. Odds of me feeling awkward? Bank on that. Yes, I would have stood by my words, but the issue is that I’m in the business too. In theory, at least, she was a potential client.

Now let’s consider the leap from a harsh Amazon review to this  blog. One might write many reviews on Amazon, or elsewhere, and have them lost in an ocean of snippy “obviously she didn’t have a good editor” junkfests. To dissect this author by name, in this space, would take it to the next level. That would single her out as an example of what not to do. She would probably learn of it, from a devoted fan or message board if not through her own searching. People being people, she would wonder who the hell I was, and what she had ever done to make such an enemy of me. She would remember my name, whether or not she were fool enough to reply here, and the memory would be unfriendly. It would not be that I said anything unfair, or that I didn’t mean. Her best rejoinder would be: there are tons of books out there with similar flaws, or more grievous ones. Why single me out? And while we’re at it, this is my work twenty years ago. You of all people ought to know that we evolve. Why pummel me today as if my older work represented my current standard? How would you like to be judged and strung up for writing you did during the first Clinton administration, hm?

She’d have a point or two, and such a reasoned reply would be the best case scenario. Authors can be sensitive. It could get awkward. Could she harm me professionally? Not really, but she could make sure I didn’t soon hear the end of it. What if I’m on a panel with her someday? Even if she did not notice, or did not bring it up, I know I’d be pretty uncomfortable. The issue would not be that I had been critical. It would be that I had made a vindictive-seeming, special, personal effort to hurt her. If I were here, I wouldn’t like that either.

So we’re not going to talk about how authors come up with motifs they evidently consider very clever, then hammer them so hard that each mention might as well come with “thissss…issss…significant” background music (props to my bro John for that joke, moderately edited and recycled). We’re not going into how “She felt…” are two of the worst words in narrative fiction. And we’re not going to say who is so guilty of contrivance that the story becomes predictable. And no, before some of you who know me personally begin to suspect, she is no one I have ever met in person. But I might.

And that’s why we won’t be citing examples. It’s also why I write rather few reviews on Amazon (along with not much wishing to donate free labor to the behemoth). If I don’t feel comfortable being objective and candid there, silence is best.


The death of Epinions

Word has come of the final demise of Epinions.com, one of my early writing sandboxes. I can’t say that I’m sad, but like an old apartment where one lived for a time, one may look back at it and say: there is a piece of my life’s days.

To explain why it matters, I must tell what it was and why it became popular. Epinions was born as what we might call the people’s product review platform. Anyone could create an account and write reviews of books, diaper pails, cars, wines, cell phones, travel destinations, games, what have you. And therein lay its greatest flaw: you could only review what was in the Epinions database, which meant a significant delay between purchase and waiting for the item to be added. By the time it were added, it might be discontinued, though people tried hard to keep the database as current as possible. That wasn’t a factor at Amazon, where if you could buy it, you already had an account and could review it. It’s not hard to see why Epinions reviews failed to become a go-to product research resource, in spite of significant talent and effort.

Epinions also meant exposing one’s work to public critique, because anyone could comment on and rate a review. Enough negative reviews, and your review wouldn’t show up as readily. If people didn’t like something about your review, they’d say so–although one learned to be careful taking on the site’s evident intellectual heavyweights. It developed its own culture: product detail fanatics, wiseacres who wrote reviews not meant to be taken too seriously (hi, there; my name is jkkelley), lazy two-line reviewers, moms trying to out-mom all other moms, honest hard workers, prats, and idiots.

Oh, and one got paid. At first, quite a lot, enough that unscrupulous people created click circles to scam the site out of wads of venture capital. As I arrived, pay became a trickle. I probably made $500 for over a hundred reviews spread over the course of ten years, heavily concentrated in the first three. I’d guess that I made less than $1/hour. When I started to get paid real money to write, I became less interested in donating my creativity to a site that avowedly shopped my writing to other sites with no extra compensation for me. While that wasn’t the only reason I stopped writing, I’d be false if I presented it in idealistic terms. When I learned that my work was worth more than Epinions would ever pay me, the incentive was gone–unless I had an ax to grind, as I sometimes did.

I came to know a good number of great people at Epinions. A couple are now acclaimed authors. I met perhaps a dozen or more in person. I stay in touch with quite a few. It had a few freaks, most easily avoided. Some I became close to in real-world terms that I knew would long survive the site. Some I have seen through major life changes, been drunk with, mourned. Some I’m pretty sure would take me in if I were homeless, and a few would more likely give me the coup de grace.

Epinions was a good place to learn how to write, thanks to the open-ended platform and potential for critique. Not all of it was constructive, but even the mean-spirited and bitchy critiques taught me things. I wouldn’t call it a finishing school for writing, but it was a useful boot camp. If people were heckling one’s reviews, well, there might have been a reason for that. One learned to organize one’s work (or not). One learned to be sure of one’s facts (or not). One learned how to handle critique with grace (or not). For many, Epinions was the first place where they turned to face the blast furnace of public reaction to writing.

My own specialty at Epinions was the art of the parody review. It was designed so that it could not deserve bad ratings, because it still contained helpful consumer information. It was experiential without taking the concept seriously. I reviewed Hustler as a women’s magazine. I reviewed a sippy cup for utility in drinking alcohol while operating power tools or behind the wheel. I reviewed Grand Theft Auto III as a homeschooling tool. I reviewed a CD called The Power of Pussy by Bongwater. I reviewed a game called Team Barbie Detective, playing it with my own inclinations and seeing how it went. Amused yet annoyed by a freakout review by a religious fanatic of a children’s animated DVD, which alleged that it was demonic, I bought the same DVD and evaluated it as a practical guide to demon summoning. (Hey, kids need to know this stuff.) Epinions had some review topics that just pleaded for mockery, such as ‘How To Use Action Figures And Sets.’

At times, I got serious. I reviewed Everclear, telling the story of the time it came near to ending my life in its second decade. When I decided to hammer a stake through the heart of the University of Phoenix, I was all malice and business. It wasn’t all comedy.

The defining moment, I suppose, was the breast pump review. They told me it was the funniest, craziest thing I’d ever done at Epinions. I’m not sure I’d agree, but I enjoyed the reception it got, especially from quite a few women who had actually deployed a breast pump in anger at some point. There’s a story behind it. Mark Arnold, of St. Louis, was one of the funnier writers at the site. Those of us who felt there was room for mirth commingled with the consumer helpfulness were something of a fraternity at Epinions, and Mark was in good standing. He was also dying, rather swiftly, of kidney cancer. We could do precious little for him, but we could bring our A-games to make him laugh while he was suffering, and thus convey to him our affection. I am reliably informed that we made a real difference for Mark, and I’m proud of my own small donation to the cause.

And that it may be preserved for those who enjoyed it, and survive the fall of Epinions’ flaming timbers, I present it here in modestly edited form. We remember you, Mark. You were a good guy and a funny writer.

Venturing among the forlorn, giving a whole new meaning to “self-expression”

Evenflo Breast Pump Kit Press and Pump Battery/Electric, reviewed by jkkelley on 2001-09-05

Pros: can be returned to Wal-Mart, sex toy potential

Cons: didn’t make me lactate, painful, noisy, sold at Wal-Mart

Summary: not recommended for milking your breast, though you might get someone aroused with it

After posting my fiftieth review at Epinions, I hit upon an idea for #100 that I nursed, so to speak, for four months. At Epinions we hear a lot about stay-at-home moms this, the Mommy Brigade that, and so on. It’s mostly silliness, but there’s an element of truth in it.  My own mom was a stay-at-home mom, and she worked hard.

So, in regard for moms everywhere, I want to write for Kids & Family. Who says you have to have kids to write in this area, anyway? Bah. A fresh perspective is needed: one from someone who has no children, has not even been to Chuck E Cheese’s, and therefore has no biases. For, as we all know, it is true that just once in a great while, the occasional Kids & Family junkie gets just a little militant.

Did you realize that men too can lactate? It’s not a simple matter; our normal acquaintance, at least in the case of straight men, involves a radically different approach to the breast. Milking our own is usually not on the agenda. But we can; just ask any doctor. And we should. Who says that only women can nurse babies? I call upon males of all persuasions to break these chains of oppression and show that we, too, can be nurturing and life-giving.

With that, I resolved to milk myself, if I could, and in so doing, review a breast pump. I figured that a new viewpoint would add a lot of consumer value, result in Informed Buying Decisions, and help me gain valuable Kids & Family-related insight so that I could better relate to the plight of nursing women.

Now, granted, unless I attempted to do the dairy routine in the shopping mall food court–and since I wasn’t going to have to clean up any baby barf–I admit that I knew in advance I wasn’t getting the Total Lactatory Experience. That part I couldn’t help. But I tried valiantly anyway, good reader, and if you’d like to hear the story, read on.

It was a typical Tri-Cities August afternoon (about 95° F) one fine Tuesday when I did something which normally for me would be anathema. Something so bizarre I had to really psych myself up to get through it. I would venture to a circle of Hell to walk unto the tormented and the damned, with faith in nonconformity as my fortress.

I went to Wal-Mart.

First priority:  avoid being ‘greeted’.  I chose my entry timing with care.  Evading the underemployed senior in blue, I moved with a purpose toward the pharmaceutical section. I was in the Wal-world, as they say, but not of it. I stepped over dropped pork rinds (that is not a joke). I disdained a cart. I dodged corpulent, aimless cartpushers lacking in depth perception. I met the vacant stares of staff and patrons alike without flinching; just as in a burn ward, it is important to people not to deny their humanity even when in a state of degradation.  Exile from humanity is far worse torture.

How unfortunate for me, then, that I couldn’t find the damned breast pump section with both hands and an annotated map. I wandered around for a good twenty minutes (the place was about the size of a big league ballpark) before at last bungling across the breast pumps. Naturally, some Queen Bee had her cart parked right in front of them. Naturally, it took several minutes for it to occur to Her Majesty that I might want one, and that I might greatly appreciate it if she would kindly back her rig up. This is normal in the Tri-Cities. They mean no harm; it just doesn’t occur to anyone that they could ever possibly be obstructing anyone, so they just stand there doing nothing, letting the mental solenoids work.

My main decision was whether to get the manual or the electric one. Since I knew I would be returning it anyway (no other reason to set foot in Walton Memorial Arena), I splurged on the electric one.  Perhaps I could milk myself while reading, or preparing possum stew, or playing solitaire Pictionary.

The waiting is the hardest part, and never more so than when being in line to check out takes you out of the Brownian motion of shopping and forces you to register what you see.  Two of the three customers ahead of me had some problem or issue (probably a twenty-cent discount that they failed to receive).  It took about fifteen minutes before I finally got to plunk down the card. During that time, the Mother of the Year behind me threatened to cut her son’s finger off if he touched a pack of gum. (I shot the boy a look of solidarity. If I’d had a sow like that for a mom, I would have wanted a few looks of solidarity.)

The checker, a thirtyfiveish woman with a sad expression and a fading shiner that spoke volumes, couldn’t determine whether the credit card slip she printed was for a credit or debit card.  This is normally a fairly elementary question, I believe, but the elementary is complicated at Wal-Mart. After seeing the black eye, I gave her incompetence a pass.  My façade fading, I just signed the slip and bugged out of there.

To my great joy, I also evaded being ‘greeted’ on the way out. Exultation of the kind I felt when I was leaving Hell High School for college. Ha, you gravy-suckers. You got to borrow my money for a week, but you didn’t get my soul. You didn’t even provoke in me any reaction but pity. I get to leave, and you will remain here, slaving away for the world’s worst employer outside of a few shoe factories in Shenzhen. I had a sense of triumph and achievement as I headed for the White Lightning, my truck, which I’d deliberately parked in the lot’s farthest corner. At the 27th and US 395 Wal-Mart in Kennewick, Washington, that effectively meant parking it in Idaho.

After my appointment that afternoon (I wonder how the nice elderly lady having trouble getting her Verizon dial-up going would have reacted if she knew; I felt slutty), I headed for the barn, pump safely stowed atop my briefcase full of computer and business paraphernalia.

I showed my beautiful bride my purchase.

“NO! You aren’t really going to milk yourself, are you?”
“Why, certainly, dear. Why should women get all the glory?”
“You are such a freak.”
“By the way, dear, I need you to help me.”
(groaning) “Oh, god. With what?”
“The before and after pictures, obviously!”

She looked at me in shocked disdain. She is so culturally conservative sometimes.

That evening I tried to assemble it. Deb’s efforts to help made the task more challenging; I had to shoo her off, on the grounds that I couldn’t evaluate the assembly directions fairly if she did it for me.

Instructions: lousy. In English, Spanish and French, interspersed together, but in a way that’s difficult to follow. The drawings are not to scale, so the parts they’re showing as being big are actually small and vice versa. I’m reasonably mechanically inclined, but I found them badly formatted and confusing–the fact that I understand Spanish and French notwithstanding. I can only imagine how much fun this might be during postpartum depression.  Hell, even during partum depression.

In the back, also in three languages, are some questions and answers about breastfeeding. Engorgement (full hooter syndrome, basically), storage, refrigeration, scheduling, milking oneself and massage techniques are all covered. None of them helped me personally, though some of them look promising as foreplay.

Assembly: poorly thought out. For example: to get the bottle in place like the manual says, you have to shove with all your might, bending the plastic. I was sincerely scared that I would break it, which would give me postpartum depression (because then I couldn’t take it back to Wallyworld). I tried every direction and method. If you follow the instructions, you will ultimately damage the pumper. My recommendation is to lightly grease these parts with Vaseline or something so you don’t have to honk on it so hard.

What it looks like: imagine a white one-demitasse coffee maker, if such a thing exists. Then imagine a milk bottle about the size of a champagne split, topped by a clear plastic trumpet bell coming out at an angle. You position the little valve on top of the bottle on the drip part of the coffee maker, at an angle, then cram and force the bottle vertical.

Attachments: it also comes with a little blue bag, so that you can cart it around in public without horny guys forming a pack behind you waiting for you to uncover an inch of breast flesh.  There are also some nursing pads (probably to mop up in case you’re doing the Old Faithful thing), a little ‘silicone nipple adapter’ (a euphemistic term for ‘miniature mammary adapter’), and a rubber hose called the ‘flushing tube’ (for if you get truly infuriated with the thing and find yourself about to flush it down the can). In some ways it was sort of like a little Kirby vacuum cleaner.

Getting going: one problem most women don’t have to face is chest hair. Like Esau, I am ‘an hairy man,’ so I shaved off a circle of chest hair centered on my nipple. The trumpet bell thing, which we should just call the sucker, is about the diameter of a baseball; I shaved an area about like a saucer. Having not shaven anything in four years, I actually had to go digging for a shaving razor. Finally found one in an old travel kit. It was that or steal from the wife.

Firing that sucker up: the instructions said to stimulate my “let-down reflex” by relaxing, thinking about my baby, and massaging my breasts. Since I don’t have a baby, or much in the way of breasts, I substituted thinking about experiences I’ve had in the past that sucked, such as Micron’s warranty service, talking to Dell Computer on the phone, and dining at Casa Chapala. Day by day I recorded my experiences:

Day 1: had some difficulty getting a firm seal (some of these aquatic mammals really need to take up Tae Bo), and when I did, yeouch! I immediately turned down the suction.  It felt like I was nursing a remora. No middle ground; either there wasn’t enough suction and it fell off, or there was enough to hurt like all hell. Five minutes of this left my whole nipple area swollen, and if I’d kept it on full, I’m sure I’d have blown a blood vessel.

Day 2: the problem with this thing is that the suction level doesn’t stay put, meaning it keeps sliding up until it could suck-start a Harley. Nipple very swollen and tender. This isn’t for wimps, let me tell you. Feels like a baby, all right:  a baby badger.

Day 3: hurts even worse, though I’m getting the hang of keeping my thumb in the right place so it can’t do the Electrolux thing to me. Feels like a needle in my nipple. It is absolutely impossible to do anything else during this–can’t chat online, can’t write, can’t even read a magazine.

Day 4: I’m building up my endurance a little here, though the thing is still painful. I’m beginning to despair that I’ll actually get any milk this week. (It was at this point that I actually, for the first time, asked myself what in the world I would do with it if I did in fact begin to do the dairy thing. Sell it on eBay, I think.)

Day 5: left the suction up higher this time and sucked it up, so to speak, when it came to the pain. I paid the price–I think a blood vessel is about to go. Tomorrow I’m going to have to shave again. In the mirror, with my shirt off, I look pretty odd.  I would have a lot of explaining to do at the beach.

Day 6: weird effect; my areola (the skin around the nipple) is getting all wrinkly, like women’s do when their nipples get erect. We may be getting somewhere here, even though with the pump attached it still feels like my nipple is in a pair of vise-grips. This has real potential as a S&M sex toy. It would give a manageable amount of mildly erotic pain.

Day 7: oh, great, I’ve finally developed a tolerance for the ‘high’ setting now that the experiment is over. It hurt acutely at first (and my nipple is always tender) but after about five minutes it didn’t bother me. The hell with it; I’m taking this back. I’m also saying the hell with the before and after pictures, on the grounds that I have to admit that it didn’t do me any visible damage.

Results: very poor. This device failed to express even a drop of colostrum from my nipple. I therefore cannot recommend this pump; I must join the ranks of the many dissatisfied customers. I see now why it has the unflattering nickname: “The Nipple Ripper.”

I don’t know of any women I’d wish it on. Couple guys, maybe.