Choosing books for a library like mine in New York is a fulltime job. The head of acquisitions at the Society Library, Steven McGuirl, reads Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The London Times, and The New York Times to decide which fiction should be ordered. Fiction accounts for fully a quarter of the forty-eight hundred books the library acquires each year. There are standing orders for certain novelists—Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, for example. Some popular writers merit standing orders for more than one copy.
But first novels and collections of stories present a problem. McGuirl and his two assistants try to guess what the members of the library will want to read. Of course, they respond to members’ requests. If a book is requested by three people, the staff orders it. There’s also a committee of members that meets monthly to recommend books for purchase. The committee checks on the librarians’ lists and suggests titles they’ve missed. The whole enterprise balances enthusiasm and skepticism.
Boosted by reviews, prizes, large sales, word of mouth, or personal recommendations, a novel may make its way onto the library shelf, but even then it is not guaranteed a chance of being read by future generations. Libraries are constantly getting rid of books they have acquired. They have to, or they would run out of space. The polite word for this is “deaccession,” the usual word, “weeding.” I asked a friend who works for a small public library how they choose books to get rid of. Is there a formula? Who makes the decision, a person or a committee? She told me that there was a formula based on the recommendations of the industry-standard CREW manual.
CREW stands for Continuous Review Evaluation and Weeding, and the manual uses “crew” as a transitive verb, so one can talk about a library’s “crewing” its collection. It means weeding but doesn’t sound so harsh. At the heart of the CREW method is a formula consisting of three factors—the number of years since the last copyright, the number of years since the book was last checked out, and a collection of six negative factors given the acronym MUSTIE, to help decide if a book has outlived its usefulness. M. Is it Misleading or inaccurate? Is its information, as so quickly happens with medical and legal texts or travel books, for example, outdated? U. Is it Ugly? Worn beyond repair? S. Has it been Superseded by a new edition or a better account of the subject? T. Is it Trivial, of no discernible literary or scientific merit? I. Is it Irrelevant to the needs and interests of the community the library serves? E. Can it be found Elsewhere, through interlibrary loan or on the Web?
Obviously, not all the MUSTIE factors are relevant in evaluating fiction, notably Misleading and Superseded. Nor is the copyright date important. For nonfiction, the CREW formula might be 8/3/MUSTIE, which would mean “Consider a book for elimination if it is eight years since the copyright date and three years since it has been checked out and if one or more of the MUSTIE factors obtains.” But for fiction the formula is often X/2/MUSTIE, meaning the copyright date doesn’t matter, but consider a book for elimination if it hasn’t been checked out in two years and if it is TUIE—Trivial, Ugly, Irrelevant, or Elsewhere.
People who feel strongly about retaining books in libraries have a simple way to combat the removal of treasured volumes. Since every system of elimination is based, no matter what they say, on circulation counts, the number of years that have elapsed since a book was last checked out, or the number of times it has been checked out overall, if you feel strongly about a book, you should go to every library you have access to and check out the volume you care about. Take it home awhile. Read it or don’t. Keep it beside you as you read the same book on a Kindle, Nook, or iPad. Let it breathe the air of your home, and then take it back to the library, knowing you have fought the guerrilla war for physical books.
So many factors affect a novel’s chances of surviving, to say nothing of its becoming one of the immortal works we call a classic: how a book is initially reviewed, whether it sells, whether people continue to read it, whether it is taught in schools, whether it is included in college curricula, what literary critics say about it later, how it responds to various political currents as time moves on.
De Rerum Natura, lost for fifteen hundred years, was found and its merit recognized. But how many other works of antiquity were not found? How many works from past centuries never got published or, published, were never read?
If you want to see how slippery a judgment is “literary merit” and how unlikely quality is to be recognized at first glance, nothing is more fun—or more comforting to writers—than to read rejection letters or terrible reviews of books that have gone on to prove indispensable to the culture. This, for example, is how the New York Times reviewer greeted Lolita: “Lolita . . . is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”
Negative reviews are fun to write and fun to read, but the world doesn’t need them, since the average work of literary fiction is, in Laura Miller’s words, “invisible to the average reader.” It appears and vanishes from the scene largely unnoticed and unremarked.
Whether reviews are positive or negative, the attention they bring to a book is rarely sufficient, and it is becoming harder and harder for a novel to lift itself from obscurity. In the succinct and elegant words of James Gleick, “The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.” These days, besides writing, novelists must help draw attention to what they write, tweeting, friending, blogging, and generating meta tags—unacknowledged legislators to Shelley, but now more like unpaid publicists.
On the Web, everyone can be a reviewer, and a consensus about a book can be established covering a range of readers potentially as different as Laura Miller’s cousins and the members of the French Academy. In this changed environment, professional reviewers may become obsolete, replaced by crowd wisdom. More than two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson invented the idea of crowd wisdom as applied to literature, calling it “the common reader.” “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” Virginia Woolf agreed and titled her wonderful collection of essays on literature The Common Reader.
The Common Reader, however, is not one person. It is a statistical average, the mean between this reader’s one star for One God Clapping and twenty other readers’ enthusiasm for this book, the autobiography of a “Zen rabbi,” producing a four-star rating. What the rating says to me is that if I were the kind of person who wanted to read the autobiography of a Zen rabbi, I’d be very likely to enjoy it. That Amazon reviewers are a self-selected group needs underlining. If you are like Laura Miller’s cousins who have never heard of Jonathan Franzen, you will be unlikely to read Freedom, and even less likely to review it. If you read everything that John Grisham has ever written, you will probably read his latest novel and might even report on it. If you read Lolita, it’s either because you’ve heard it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century or because you’ve heard it’s a dirty book. Whatever brings you to it, you are likely to enjoy it. Four and a half stars.
The idea of the wisdom of crowds, popularized by James Surowiecki, dates to 1906, when the English statistician Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) focused on a contest at a county fair for guessing the weight of an ox. For sixpence, a person could buy a ticket, fill in his name, and guess the weight of the animal after butchering. The person whose guess was closest to the actual weight of the ox won a prize. Galton, having the kind of mind he did, played around with the numbers he gathered from this contest and discovered that the average of all the guesses was only one pound off from the actual weight of the ox, 1,198 pounds. If you’re looking for the Common Reader’s response to a novel, you can’t take any one review as truth but merely as a passionate assertion of one point of view, one person’s guess at the weight of the ox.
“I really enjoy reading this novel it makes you think about a sex offender’s mind. I’m also happy that I purchased this novel on Amazon because I was able to find it easily with a suitable price for me.”
“Vladimir has a way with words. The prose in this book is simply remarkable.”
“Overrated and pretentious. Overly flowery language encapsulating an uninteresting and overdone plot. Older man and pre-adolescent hypersexual woman—please let’s not exaggerate the originality of that concept, it has existed for millennia now. In fact, you’ll find similar stories in every chapter of the Bible.”
“Like many other folk I read Lolita when it first came out. I was a normally-sexed man and I found it excitingly erotic. Now, nearing 80, I still felt the erotic thrill but was more open to the beauty of Nabokov’s prose.”
“Presenting the story from Humbert’s self-serving viewpoint was Nabokov’s peculiarly brilliant means by which a straight, non-perverted reader is taken to secret places she/he might otherwise dare not go.”
“A man who was ‘hip’ while maintaining a bemused detachment from trendiness, what would he have made of shopping malls? Political correctness? Cable television? Alternative music? The Internet? . . . Or some of this decade’s greatest scandals, near-Nabokovian events in themselves, like Joey Buttafuoco, Lorena Bobbitt, O. J. Simpson, Bill and Monica? Wherever he is (Heaven, Hell, Nirvana, Anti-Terra), I would like to thank Nabokov for providing us with a compelling and unique model of how to read, write, and perceive life.”
What would the hip, bemused author of Lolita have made of Amazon ratings? I like to think that he would have reveled in them as evidence of the cheerful self- assurance, the lunatic democracy of his adopted culture.
“Once a populist gimmick, the reviews are vital to make sure a new product is not lost in the digital wilderness,” the Times reports.
Amazon’s own gatekeepers have removed thousands of reviews from its site in an attempt to curb what has become widespread manipulation of its ratings. They eliminated some reviews by family members and people considered too biased to be entitled to an opinion, competing writers, for example. They did not, however, eliminate reviews by people who admit they have not read the book. “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review,” said an Amazon spokesman.