Via Dennis Jerz via Boing Boing, word of hundreds of fake reviews for a real product on Amazon, a gallon of Tuscan whole milk.
Jerz imagines quite rightly that the novelty of ordering milk from an online bookstore is the impetus for these entertaining reviews, which range in style from poetic to surreal. Many of the reviews are laugh-out-loud funny. The astonishing thing is that not only are the reviews extremely clever, but that they are extraordinarily well-written. Most of them choose an approach to the review (say, a reworking of a William Carlos Williams poem, a snooty review for wine, or the persona of an RPG gamer) and stay true to that approach throughout the review. They do not tip their hand or let on that it is a fake review. In this way, the reviews are superbly confident.
This confidence, this sense of purpose is the opposite of what I find in most undergraduate writing. I wonder, then, is there some sort of writing exercise lurking here?
Instinct tells me that writing a fake review is low stakes and the reviewers probably feel less inhibited than they do when writing a real review. The writers allow themselves to be bolder, more daring, and more creative. And I imagine some of the fake reviews were written by people who would never have written a real review.
So, what if I have my students write fake reviews? Professors are so intent on having students write “formal” and “serious” papers because we believe that is how serious literary interpretation comes about. This format obviously stifles creativity, but I’m now realizing that it also hampers a student’s confidence. So, instead of a formal essay with a tidy thesis and satisfying conclusion and five to ten paragraphs in between (which, by the way, never happens), assign students a series of parody reviews, each one to be written in a different “voice” or persona.
For example, one review on Amazon treats the Tuscan whole milk as if it were a translation of an early Italian literary masterpiece. Why not reverse the equation, and have our students write about a book as if it were something else, maybe an iPod or a decoration? Here another review imagines that the milk is a piece of furniture:
Shipping was fine, and the product was not damaged in any way, but my husband and I (both of us have college degrees, mind you, his in Engineering) could not figure out how to assemble this. No instructions, no diagrams, not even a lousy cheap allen wrench. So basically, weeks after purchase, we’re using it as a one gallon paper weight. I haven’t gotten any response from Tuscan. It earns two stars simply because it is heavy and does do a fair job of holding down the stack of newspapers awaiting recycling.
Many of the reviewers demonstrate an acute awareness of how reviews typically work, and they incorporate these formal features into their reviews. Here is one that makes excellent use of the “Spoiler alert” warning often given in book and movie reviews:
Overall, the quality and freshness of this milk was outstanding. The only thing that I found unpleasant was the seemingly acidic nature of it when it came out of my nose.
This milk tends to spoil when left open in a warm place for too long.
As I say, in these and dozens of others of fake reviews, the writers are confident, attune to their context, and in a perverse way, showing a kind of mastery over the subject of their review. You couldn’t ask for more from a piece of writing.