EdWard | Wednesday March 13th, 2013
The other night, I had dinner at some friends’, and one of the other guests was a woman named Ping Fu, about whom I knew next to nothing except she’s from China (duh), and has written a book called Bend, Not Break: A Life In Two Worlds, which has had a generous ad budget and a nice push from Penguin, its publisher, and shown up on the New York Times‘ best-seller list. I met her last year at SXSWi, courtesy of my friend Kathleen, who was unable to attend, and Ping invited me to a talk she was giving which I didn’t make it to. Typical. But she and Kathleen were at the dinner.
Now, if you want to find out more about her, you can go to Penguin’s web-site and read the bio they have up. It’s okay. Or you could go to her Wikipedia entry, which is the usual hodge-podge containing actual facts. The best summary of her life and work, however, is on her Amazon author’s page, which also has a photo. The photo is important, not only because she actually looks like that, but because she’s wearing a kind of coral-colored necklace which she was wearing the other night, and it was made by one of those 3-D printers we’re hearing more and more about, created using software that her company makes.
She was evangelizing about this stuff last year at SXSWi in the talk I missed.
None of this, however, is relevant.
When Bend, Not Break came out, Amazon, naturally, stocked it. They stock everything, even when it’s not made by a friend of Jeff Bezos’, which Ping Fu happens to be. The book, hotly anticipated in many circles, started selling. It sold well enough that, as I said, the Times had it on their list. Then something happened. Some bloggers in China got word of the book, and some of the charges it lays against the Chinese government, charges of infanticide. This isn’t exactly news, because it’s been reported before. But a campaign against Ping started to mount, and one of the tools used was the reviews on Amazon. Thousands of reviews, all with one star, appeared calling her a liar and far, far worse. There were claims that parts of the book were inaccurate, claims that were substantiated. “It’s a memoir,” she said at the dinner table. “It’s what one person remembers. Sometimes that’s not accurate. It’s just one person.” A lot of these things are, or sound to be, fairly minor. Then the attacks took a different tack: they started posting five-star reviews which had the same virulent charges in them so Amazon’s software wouldn’t detect the spamming. It just looked like everyone who’d read the book — and you can bet none of these commenters had — hated it. Meanwhile, attacks on her web pages, e-mail accounts, and those of her relatives began happening.
Now, just for the sake of argument, I’m willing to believe that Ping Fu is an agent of Satan, that I was horribly deceived over salmon rolls and couscous and a damn good Sangiovese by someone who seemed like a perfectly nice person. For the sake of argument, I don’t really care about her feelings or her veracity. There’s still something very wrong happening here.
Recently thee was a scandal at Amazon because authors were getting mobs of their friends to positively review their books in sufficient quantity to game the system. Amazon went in and killed a bunch of these reviews. This, I’d say, is a service to their customers. But they’ve done nothing about the attacks on Bend, Not Break and its author, even though the wrong that’s occurring is far more serious than selling more copies of a cookbook than its contents warrant. “It was going up the Times bestseller list,” Ping said the other night, “and then sales went flat.” Well, on the one hand, it’s nice to see that reviews influence sales, speaking as a former books columnist myself. On the other hand, Amazon’s fabled algorhythms have been hacked in a serious way, and since it’s just possible that this will not be the last book attacking the Chinese government that Amazon will be handling, perhaps they should do something, like maybe doing to this comment spam what they did to the others.
Of course, an even deeper problem here is our culture’s growing laziness with evaluating everything. If we depend more on what some anonymous commenter on Amazon thinks of Bend, Not Break than on what actual qualified reviewers think, what does that say about us? How many people do you know who go on Yelp.com to decide whether or not to eat at a restaurant when they probably have friends, real 3-D human beings, they can ask for opinions? Or they can go in, eat dinner, and make up their own minds? This “reputation economy” thing seems to have some leaks in it, especially when, assuming you don’t have the entire People’s Republic at your throat, the results tend to settle around mediocrity every time. The average Joe likes average things. This is a surprise? So why should I rely on people I don’t know when I’m looking for excellence?
For the record, I don’t believe Ping Fu is an agent of Satan, but I also have to admit that I haven’t bought a copy of Bend, Not Break yet. I will, though, because I’m going to want her to buy a copy of my as-yet unsold book when it comes out. I’m as greedy as the next writer, after all. And I do hope Amazon fixes that review algorhythm before mine comes out, even though I have no intention of pissing off the Chinese or anyone else.
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Speaking of agents of Satan, the WordPress software ate last week’s Ward Report, something I intend to mention to the WordPress folks at SXSWi, sitting there at the trade show. As a favor to you readers, I’m busily running around this year’s confab, although it’s so oversold you can’t get into anything at all unless you’re willing to stand in line for a couple of hours, and will file a report on what I’ve found so far a little later this week.