Giving It a Wide Berth

That's what I'm going to do when it comes to reviewing books with political content on Amazon. I noticed a few weeks ago that I had a large number of negative votes coming from a small number of reviews.

I've been known to give a review an unhelpful vote when the review a) doesn't talk about the product itself or b) the reviewer unnecessarily attacks the beliefs of the author or other reviewer or c) it's just lame. I mean lame as in "I LOVED THIS SO MUCH!!!!" (that's the whole review) Ok, I rarely bother to ding the lame ones. Of course, I rarely bother to give an unhelpful vote anyway because I pay more attention to "helpful" votes when reading a review to help me make a purchase choice.

That's why nearly 50 "unhelpful" votes for one, admittedly short, review struck me as odd. It may not have been a great review but it wasn't terrible. It certainly wasn't bad enough to warrant 50 people stopping by and saying "My God, what a waste of time and space." I've seen truly wretched reviews that don't get 50 unhelpfuls. So what gives?

I think it's because the book in question is Decent Interval by Frank Snepp. It's about the "Fall of Saigon" (the "Rise of Ho Chi Minh City"?) by a former CIA agent who was there. I first read this book in college when I wanted to read a complete account of just what the Fall was. I was a child at the time and I remember some powerful images but I was too young to make much sense of it. There weren't many thoughtful books on the topic, which I found then and still find today to be quite surprising. For an event so widely covered at the time by 1985 few had attempted to make sense of it. Snepp's book was one of the few and it was highly controversial because Snepp was CIA and that usually involves a promise to keep secrets. Snepp was also quite critical of the US Ambassador and others on staff at the Embassy in his book.

He had his point of view but he also provided an insider's view of what it was like to be in a city about to fall to the enemy. That fascinated me. Whether I agree with his assessment, the politics involved or whatever else doesn't matter. What does matter is does Snepp tell me things I didn't know? Does he give me a better sense of what when on? Does he tell me things I didn't know? And, most importantly, does he make me want to learn more? The answer to all of the above is yes. Snepp doesn't come off as the world's best guy or even the sharpest guy in Vietnam, but so what? I can't remember whether he was pro-War or not. That didn't matter - I'll make up my own mind about Vietnam and any other event, thank you very much.

The content may be polarizing, I'll allow that. But the reviews of the content? Can it really be that any review that gives the book 4 or more stars is unhelpful to 50 or more people? Isn't that a little unlikely?

I see the same thing when reviewing fiction but it's not as pronounced - criticize someone's favorite or touch a sacred cow and watch the unhelpfuls pile up. It's just less extreme in fiction. It's mildly annoying to see a good review (and here I mean by someone other than me) have a ton of unhelpfuls just because of the opinion expressed. I can't be the only person who can appreciate a review that expresses an opinion contrary to mine.

But that's at the heart of it, isn't it? These votes aren't about helpfulness, they're about agreement and someone daring to voice a contrary point of view. That's probably why the voters in question wouldn't bother to read a book that offered a differing opinion. It's their loss, imho.

Don't even get me started about the negative votes on Amazon Vine products - that shit is out of control.

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