“Less Enjoyable Than A Warm Bowl of Mayonnaise”: “Naïve” Criticism of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in Amazon.com On-line Customer Reviews

Mikhail Gronas, Dartmouth College

Traditionally, interest in literary taste could lead a scholar to one of the two approaches: one could concentrate on social dimensions of taste, e.g. on how the social position of a class or a group determines its taste patterns; alternatively, one could focus on individual aesthetic reactions and psychological context of how we perceive and evaluate aesthetic objects. These approaches are associated with two distinct disciplines, and, correspondingly with different decisions regarding methodology and choice of material.

The first approach leads the scholar to a sub-domain of sociology, namely, the sociology of culture. This discipline normally employs quantitative analysis; its prototypical data-source is a survey.

The second approach gravitates towards the domain of literary criticism, more specifically to such critical paradigms as “reader-response criticism” or Rezeptionskritik. In this case the disciplinary conventions suggest qualitative mode of analysis and reliance on introspection; the material of such studies is constituted by individual experience of reading and evaluating.

It may seem that we are dealing here with an unbridgeable gap between the disciplines: the sociology of culture interested in taste as objective, statistical, deterministic, and quantitative versus humanities focusing on taste as subjective, individual, unpredictable, and qualitative.

The main theoretical claim of my presentation is that we may bridge this gap by turning attention to customer on-line reviews – a relatively new genre of cyber culture that Amazon.com introduced in 1997. I suggest that on-line reviews offer material for both qualitative and quantitative analysis: I will explore on–line reviews on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as micro-narratives that document reading and evaluative strategies of reviewers and, with a help of a computer program, compile statistical information from the ratings.

Unlike sociological surveys of tastes that impose questions on respondents, the on-line reviews are unsolicited. In this sense, they present less artificial snap-shots of taste processes– what one can term “naïve” literary criticism.

Unlike reader - response critics, who tend to rely on introspection, a student of on-line reviews deals with objectified taste reactions of wide non-professional audience, encompassing high –, middle –, and low-brow zones of the taste spectrum.
In my research, I will address these questions: What rhetorical / psychological strategies are used in the reviews on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky? What principles underlie “naïve” criticism of Russian classical novels? What statistical regularities and anomalies can be identified? Is it possible to measure such factors as “controversiality,” “canonicity,” “fandom”?