The Critical Masses

The Conversation Amazon.com Won't Let You Hear

"My name is Rachel Brown and I am one of the characters in the book," begins the review posted by annoyed_rachel@hotmail.com. "I felt that this book definately [sic] portrayed cheerleading in a true style. However, there were statements in the book that have hurt many people and have caused a lot of controversy. For instance, our dance team was portrayed as sluts who can't dance. THIS IS NOT TRUE!" (4 out of 5 stars)

Within two weeks, the Amazon.com "Customer Comment" section, where Brown posted, was swamped with responses. Waves of fellow cheerleaders, students, and friends joined her in defending their school and their hometown from James McElroy's We've Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Cheerleading Team. Released in February, the book exhaustively tracks a year in the life of the girls and coaches at Greenup County High School in Kentucky as the squad makes its way toward the 1998 National Cheerleading championship. "The book has put our entire town into an uproar," wrote one anonymous, "very angry" ex-cheerleader, "and caused many friendships to fail." (2 stars) Rachel Wills, another of the five squad members profiled in the book, lashed out: "James McElroy, thanks for making me sound like I am a hideous person to look at!!!" (3 stars)

But several days later, all these responses— along with dozens of other posts (some of which even praised the book)— were deleted from the site. "One day I looked and there were 63 and the next day there were 17," says Lori Lovell, an ex­ GCHS cheerleader whose review was eliminated. "At the time I didn't think about it— they had so many that they had to get rid of some. Some were kind of tasteless and very personal. But I couldn't figure out how they picked what posts to delete." The raucous public conversation about the book, from detailed analyses to shout-outs to the "Shawnda Squad of '97," simply vanished.

"The purpose of the 'Reader Reviews' is to help people find the right book," says Bill Curry, spokesperson for Amazon.com. "If our policies are not being followed, we will take the posts down." Amazon.com's guidelines, which appear whenever someone tries to create a reader review, prohibit "profanity, obscenities, or spiteful remarks" and "comments focusing solely on the author." Curry says that of the site's 2.4 million customer reviews, "99 out of 100 times they're fine and one time it's 'God' reviewing the Bible." The company employs people to audit and respond to complaints, says Curry. But he won't reveal how exactly Amazon.com screens out posts. "It's like the old saying that the more you talk airport security, the less secure it is," he says. "We don't want to provide a road map for getting around that."

But people are constantly getting around it— and the evidence is all over Amazon.com. For weeks now, the reviews of books by Family Circus cartoonist Bill Keane have been absurd and over-the-top, and despite its best efforts, Amazon.com can't seem to stem the tide. "While I agree that Daddy's Cap Is on Backwards has its moments of drug-inspired poetry, frankly I was disappointed that Keane appears to have abandoned the thematic thread that ran through earlier classics including . . . the quintessential Don't Bother Mommy When She's Drinking," one reader writes. The distinction between posts by "rectal-viet-cong@ fuck-the- skull-of- jesus.mit.edu" on Keane's book and legit readers (assuming there are some) is obvious. But the difficulty for Amazon is much more subtle. Reviews for Monica's Story never mention the book and just drift into discursive Clinton commentary, which presumably violates Amazon's code. A review for Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy lauds the book, "At least it gave me something to focus on during sex." At what point does a review become irresponsible?

The deleted, PG-rated posts for We've Got Spirit, on the other hand, were nothing if not earnest, concerned with the book's alleged factual inaccuracies— ostensibly what any potential purchaser would be curious to know. Amazon does not, as a policy, edit reviews to remove ad hominem attacks. "It's easier to take them down— they're either on or they're off," says Curry.

Author McElroy says that, as a result of the filtering, his book's star rating "went way up." Amazon.com "clearly kept the more positive reviews," he says. "It could be that the negative ones were more slanderous and they had to remove them. It also might be that they want to sell more books."

Curry rejects that claim, but the selling has been hard to avoid on Amazon. Back in February, The New York Times broke the story of Amazon's "cooperative advertising allowances," which let big publishers buy their way into the "New and Notable" and "Destined for Greatness" sections with no acknowledgment made on the site. The next day, Amazon announced they would begin disclosing which placements were paid for and which were not. The company, which employs editors and freelance writers, publishes its own reviews, and Curry testifies that some are in fact negative (he cites Michael Lind's The Alamo). "The purpose of the reviews is not to be snobbish about what constitutes a good book or a bad book because every book has merit to someone," he says. Which often implies kinder criticism. "My editor told me that getting reviewed by Amazon is a good thing," says McElroy. "They don't review everything."

To its credit, Amazon.com also includes reviews from Kirkus and excerpts from other outlets. "There are a lot of books that get bad reviews and still sell, like The Tenth Justice [by Brad Meltzer]," Curry says. "If you read the reviews, you'll wonder why anyone has bought the book." An Amazon review is noticeably absent.

Since the publication of We've Got Spirit, Greenup residents have been fuming. One parent called for an emergency school board meeting to discuss the dismissal of the cheerleading coaches who approved McElroy's project. McElroy was threatened with a lawsuit. Greenup County High School principal Michael Thoroughman won't read the book and refuses to purchase a copy for the school library. "There is a lot about the book that is unfair," he says. "We were under the impression that it was going to be a book about how hard our girls work. We were rather disappointed."

Strangely, the book is about how hard the girls work. McElroy describes them chanting the Lord's Prayer before performances, obsessively practicing their cartwheels on cement, and bawling when they miss their standing back tucks. But many say McElroy saw too much. The book describes one cheerleader's experience with her abusive father. It also recounts the moment when another girl anxiously examines her pregnancy test with her mother. (It comes up positive.) The most incendiary section explores the rumors that Rachel Brown had been trying to steal the boyfriends of other cheerleaders. According to one current GCHS senior, many of the posts attacking Brown were made by angry students during their Computer Applications class.

But not everyone from Greenup County opposes the book, a fact reflected only in the now deleted comments from Amazon.com. One of the most thoughtful posts came from one self-identified "former teacher" in the Greenup system. "McElroy paints a very accurate picture of a small community without much to be proud of in their schools," the response reads. "Social life revolves around the high school and sports teams. . . . Residents should not flinch from his picture but use the truth as a jumping off point to correct the wrongs around them, not just in the schools in the county, but in the economic and social issues that cripple the young people here."

As it turned out, Amazon became the unlikely meeting place for Greenup County residents to talk with one another. Unfortunately, actual conversation is anathema to commerce. "You can't call up every person in Greenup and [get their comments], but I'm six hours away and I could get on and post and participate," says ex-cheerleader Lovell. "Anybody who had something to say could get on the Net and say it." Only to have it promptly erased.

abunn@villagevoice.com

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