I suppose the move was inevitable, but Amazon has started hosting author blogs. The highest profile name on the list is Meg Wolitzer, whose posts can be found here. But I can’t buy into the ethics of a retailer pushing a blog while simultaneously encouarging people to buy things. Whatever the merits of Wolitzer’s posts, however much she feels that “Anything that can get fiction on people’s radar is good,” I get the unsettling aura of Shirley Maclaine talking with the dead during an infomercial.
Even the language of Wolitzer’s posts sounds as if it’s been lifted from a sleep-inducing MBA seminar. One reads, “I feel that writers need to remind readers why they ought to read novels. Fiction writers need to put the truth about the world into their books. Actually, in some sense, they need to put the world into their books.”
If we switch “readers” with “consumers,” “writers” with “corporations” and books with “Coca-Cola,” we get the following entry: “I feel that corporations need to remind consumers why they ought to drink Coca-Cola. Corporations need to put the truth about the world into their products. Actualy, in some sense they need to put the world into their Coca-Cola.” We’re clearly leagues away from Paris Review-style insight.
Granted, it’s easy to argue that 90% of blogs are vapid. But even a lousy LiveJournal is written with a voice of integrity and authenticity, likely because the shady influence of advertising is far from the impetus.
I understand the need to market books, particularly given the oversaturated fiction market. But author websites seem to me a better way to do this. Not only do they serve as a reference point which is compatible with both buying the book (if desired) and finding out about an author, but in the case of such authors as Michelle Richmond, John Scalzi, Tayari Jones and Jennifer Weiner, they become blossoming entities which emerge from their initial purpose, leading to impassioned discussions about plagiarism, race and the stigma against chick lit. But I doubt very highly that these conversations could have developed had these respective sites been hosted by Amazon (let alone any monolithic sponsor) because the concerns of offending the boys upstairs or attracting a broad readership tainted the posts.
And here’s a question someone should ask: does Amazon “place” blogs the same way that Barnes & Noble cuts deals with publishers for placement? Is there some clickthrough rate tied into whether or not Meg Wolitzer, for example, will get placement on the main page? When the overwhelming reason to blog is to move product, surely the motivation behind the posts will be moulded to ensure presence and survival.
In the end, I think the Amazon blog is going to hurt Wolitzer more than it’s going to help her. What could have been a way for readers to elicit honest feedback from Wolitzer has turned instead into one of those Gap Kids commercials. Initially, you’re dazzled by the performance. But as the initial allure wears off, you begin cluing into the fact that it’s a commercial (in this case, the realization that Wolitzer isn’t going to rock the boat, much less provide anything even slightly subversive). My guess is that Wolitzer will be communicating with the dead, blogwise at least. Sooner than she thinks.
[UPDATE: Galleycat's Ron Hogan challenges my assumption, suggesting, for example, that a Uzodinma Iweala essay (by comparison, a one-shot deal rather than a continuous commitment) appearing at Powell's might be reified as "too corporate." I should point out that, although Iweala's essay appears on a major retailer's site, at least Powell's has made more of an effort to distinguish its content from its marketing, confining all marketing links in rounded yellow boxes. In other words, we have a clear separation between marketing and editorial rather than Amazon's "anything goes" principle, with its links just under "Meg Wolitzer's Amazon Blog" going directly to "buy this book" links. Ron is misconstruing my argument. Again, as I pointed out above, I raise no objection to the need to sell books (in fact, while I'm not a fan of advertising, I nevertheless applaud Media Bistro for placing its advertisements in clearly delineated squares so as not to mislead readers). My concern here is over the blurring of marketing and editorial and the impact this is likely to have on worthwhile content (meaning that Wolitzer's blog is not so much about Wolitzer the author but Wolitzer the book merchant, for her books, without the pivotal distinction, are now contextualized as laundry detergent rather than as works of art). It is no less invalid an argument than the concerns raised earlier in the year over the Target-sponsored New Yorker or what's referred to in the MeFi world as Pepsi Blue. (See also this OJR article about ethical standards in the blogosphere.)]