Alongside being clean shaven, untattooed, and not owning a car the size and weight of a militarised state, it’s also unfashionable to be elitist. As a rule, it’s not something that characterises my interactions with the world. I like many lowbrow things and I don’t necessarily find the distinctions between high and low culture to be that useful. There are many highbrow things that are risible. Conversely, many apparently lowbrow things are intelligent, articulate, and, for want of a better word, artful. For example, I’ve recently been watching as much of Dave Gorman‘s work as I could find. His ‘Googlewhack Adventure’ is unbelievably good: being thought provoking, serious, and uplifting at the same time as it’s simply very funny. Yet I’ve also been trying to find an angle to understand the work of David Shrigley which has left me feeling plain confused about my own notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
So, even if I don’t really like the thought of my being ‘elitist’, sometimes I just can’t help it. It also means I recognise that the following might make you mutter to yourself, ‘oh, everybody has a right to an opinion’ or ‘opinions are like arseholes in that everybody has one’. I also know that there is a form of Kryptonite to my argument in that over-used phrase that hits me in a sensitive place because I don’t have a well-reasoned response. That phrase is: ‘well, who is to say what’s right?’ I utterly despise that phrase. You often hear it used by people about to lose an argument and instead throw this form of relativism into the mix simply in order to muddy the intellectual waters as they make their swift exit. It’s like the phrase, ‘we’ll have to agree to disagree’ to which I instinctively want to scream, ‘no, I don’t bloody well agree’.
So, yes, ‘who is to say what’s right’ might be the answer to what follows but that’s not going to stop me declaring in a totally unabashed way, prodding myself proudly in the chest as I go: ‘Bugger that! This time, I’m more right than them!’
Let me start off by saying that the website Goodreads is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the modern world. If it represents the wisdom of the crowd, then it proves that that the crowd simply has no wisdom about it. The crowd is a mob of generally inarticulate morons who talk such banal verbal effluent that nobody with any sense would listen to what they have to say. Yet this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett, explains the phenomenon well in his book, Intuition Pumps (3.85 rating on Goodreads).
Ninety percent of everything is crap. Ninety percent of experiments in molecular biology, 90 percent of poetry, 90 percent of philosophy books, 90 percent of peer-reviewed articles in mathematics — and so forth — is crap.
I think 90 is a good working number. The real figure might be more, it might be less, but it’s not by a significant margin wrong. It means that 90% of opinions are crap (including, with a 90% probability, my own) and, I contend, that 90% of reviews and scores on the website Goodreads are crap.
Let me demonstrate why I know this…
Without sounding too precious about such things, I consider Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness, to be a sublime work of literature. Conrad, despite English being his third language, was probably the greatest writer of English narrative prose the world has ever seen, with, notably another non-native speaker, Vladimir Nabokov, possibly the second best (see Pale File, 4.19 or Lolita, rated 3.85). Even if I’m wrong and somebody could offer me the names of two finer prose writers (Fitzgerald, perhaps, or Hemmingway — The Old Man and The Sea, rated 3.63 on Goodreads, part of why he won the Nobel Prize but about which ‘Matt’ writes “Worst book ever. Just throw the fucking fish back in. Fuck”), Conrad must surely be in the upper fringes of greatness. George Orwell ranked him “as one of the best writers of this century” and his influence is almost singular in its range and scope. Why is that? I suppose it’s because his work has moral depth but even if you’re not alive to the themes of his books, his style is unmistakable. He used words in a way that it’s simply hard to describe. Here, for example, is the second paragraph from the first chapter of Heart of Darkness.
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
I still feel a shiver when I read these lines. They’re so measured, with a level tone that switches from a geographic languor into a verbal ease. It sets a quiet, subdued scene that will slowly give way the spiritual violence of the book that peers into the darkest places of the human soul. The book is also a wonderful expression of what it means to be human. Its message is one step away from pure nihilism — the rational notion that we are mere flesh and that there is no morality — yet, it ultimately pulls away from that abyss and expresses something spiritual. Civilisation is a lie we tell ourselves but Conrad believes in the significance of that lie. The irrational lie is what defines us. The ability to hold the paradox of a lie also being the truth is possibly the greatest power we possess.
I could talk about Heart of Darkness for hours but I hope that’s enough to make my point that I believe it to be one of the great artistic achievements of the 20th century. I also believe it’s one of the greatest achievements of world literature and a pinnacle of our world history. If wars mark our species as flawed, corrupt, perhaps even evil, then I would offer into evidence that short book called Heart of Darkness as proof that we’re better than that, that we recognise our evil and can choose a better path.
This, of course, is the same Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad which on Goodreads scores 3.38 out of 5 and, at the time of my writing this, has 203,743 votes cast.
Let me put that into context.
‘Heart of Darkness’ by Felicity Heaton (a Goodreads author) has a score of 4.21. It is a better book and she a better writer by a mathematical value of 0.83, or, I suggest, the entire literary output of Russell Brand. I’ve not read ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Felicity Heaton but the synopsis goes like this:
A vampire prince on a four hundred year old mission to avenge his murdered sister… Aleksandr Nemov won’t stop until the last of the vampire hunter’s progeny is wiped from the Earth. Each kill has stolen a piece of his humanity, pushing him towards the black abyss all vampires hold within their hearts. Now he is teetering on the edge, close to devolving into a beast, and time is running out as he tracks the last hunter to Prague. There he finds a beautiful woman who could be his one chance for salvation, but is it already too late for him?
Perhaps you don’t fancy this masterpiece so why not try ‘Heart of Darkness (Lords of the Underworld #4.5)’ by Gena Showalter (Goodreads Author), Maggie Shayne (Goodreads Author), Susan Krinard? This ‘Heart of Darkness’ has a score of 4.15 with 7,204 ratings, a whole 0.77 better than Conrad’s now obviously risible attempt at writing a book. The synopsis begins:
From the masters of paranormal romance, three brand-new tales of seduction…
The Darkest Angel by Gena Showalter
A Lords of the Underworld tale
An iron-willed demon assassin, the angel Lysander has never known lust—until he meets Bianka. Spawned from the bloodline of Lucifer, the beautiful but deadly Harpy is determined to lead the pure-hearted Lysander into temptation….
If neither demons nor vampires are your thing, there’s also ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Ferida Durakovi?, which sounds a good deal more serious. It only has 6 reviews but it scores 4.00.
Ferida Durakovic refused to leave Sarajevo when the bombs began to fall. Having seen her home and library bombed, she invokes in her poems the icons and myths of a troubled people caught between the two dominant religions of Europe. The first English-language collection by one of Bosnia’s most promising young poets shows us how when the world is narrowed by guns, one’s field of reference widens so much that “everything hurts.”
Thankfully, it turns out that not everything written and called ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a better book than Joseph Conrad’s story of Marlow and Kurtz battling for our souls. I feel almost thankful for ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Jaide Fox. It has 2.0 of 5 stars, which doesn’t seem quite fair given the synopsis…
He took her in the night…the Night Rider, Wolfe Sinclair. Powerful, wealthy, devastating, and cursed by darkness, nothing would stop him from possessing Isabeau Hart. For untold years he’d sought her, the other half of his soul, and he would allow nothing to stand in his way. Only with her willing surrender could he hope to be brought back into the light.
It’s also a good deal longer than Conrad’s meditation on human evil but does require a warning that it contains ‘graphic adult language and sexual situations with mild violence. Includes oral sex and anal play. Paranormal Romance set in Regency period with elements of fantasy and magick.’ Forget Kurtz’s words, ‘the horror! the horror!’ or ‘exterminate the brutes!’. Nothing shocks and disgusts me more than those paranormal romances set in the Regency period.
If I expand my remit a little, we also find titles like ‘In The Heart Of Darkness (In Darkness #01)’ by C.M. Torrens (Goodreads Author). It’s highly rated with 4.27 of 5 stars.
Devonn has lived his entire life in Darkness and chained to the will of another for centuries. When the chance to become free arrives in the form of an ancient soul, Devonn grabs it and runs. But taking the soul and keeping it are two different things. Hunted by demons and a stubborn soul that tests his sanity, Devonn seeks sanctuary with a group of survivors, but he doesn’t expect to find himself drawn to the surly ironsmith thwarting his charms.
There’s also ‘A Light in the Heart of Darkness: The Guardian Heart Crystal Series (Guardian Heart Crystal #4)’ by Amy Blankenship (Goodreads Author), scoring the highest of all these books with 4.7 out of 5 stars.
To Kyoko, mythical creatures are something you rent and watch on a Saturday night with your friends. When a mysterious stalker turns the shadows around her into dark corners with sharp deadly edges, will she be able to hide from the past? Darkness has fallen upon the world again and the guardians have been awaiting the resurrection. Though they are thought to be creatures of myth, in this reality they are far more real than people think. Only when the moon is high will these creatures, these guardians, battle the evil that seeks to overtake the world and the girl who holds ultimate power. the light in the heart of darkness.
I could carry on but I don’t want to labour my point…
But what is my point?
My point, I suppose, is about ‘wisdom of the crowd’, an ancient concept yet one that might be said to define our age. Everywhere we look, we’re asked to rate our experiences of books, music, films, restaurants, hotels, shops, products, teachers, doctors, and even prostitutes. You might laugh and point out that criticising this is meaningless. This is the age old problem of highbrow meeting lowbrow. Yet, I’m not so sure it really is the same. This goes beyond mere opinion in the same way we are increasingly influenced by other people’s scores on Amazon, for example.
You can try this on nearly any product you like, so long as it has a good sample of reviews. For my purposes, I’m looking at the reviews for the ‘M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 Ultra-Portable Keyboard Controller for PC/Mac/iPad’ simply because I was looking at them earlier in a moment of idle dreaming. At the time of writing, it has 75 reviews that give it 5 stars, 23 give it 4 stars, 8 give it 3 stars, 2 give it 2 stars, and 9 give it the lowest rating possible, one star. The one star reviews are always the most fun to read. The review that I want to highlight is by ‘Stutheowl’ who begins:
Just to set the record straight before we get started. The product was fine and did exactly what it said on the tin
Which immediately makes you wonder why Stutheowl has given it one star which also ‘does what it says on the tin’ and informs us that Stutheowl thinks the ‘M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 Ultra-Portable Keyboard Controller for PC/Mac/iPad’ is crap.
but unfortunatley [sic] it was too small, so we had to send it back.
Of course, you then begin to wonder if perhaps the keyboard was perfectly fine but Stutheowl’s hands were too big. One star for Stutheowl’s fingers, perhaps?
That is when the fun started. The company selling the product is called Juno and i had to contact them for a return number. I made 3 phone calls and sent four emails and eventually had to threaten to inform Amazon and put in a customer complaint before i had any contact from the company. Eventually we got a returns slip on the 19th January and posted the product the following day. We are now on the 11th February and the money has still not been refunded back into my account. My intentions were to buy the bigger version from Juno, when they had refunded my money, however i have chosen to shop elsewhere, and have spent three times the amount on a keyboard, which is their loss. So to close this review i would just like to say, “JUNO, WHERE’S MY MONEY”!!!!
This begins to show why, even on a very fundamental level, the wisdom of crowds is problematic. Stutheowl down rates an otherwise excellent product for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the product in question. It’s not uncommon. Most popular products suffer bad ratings because of sellers, packaging, and non-delivery.
However, I began to wonder: might the same true of Heart of Darkness? Unfortunately not. I began to read some of the 17975 reviews that give is a single star and this is a random selection from the first couple of pages.
” I’m not even kidding when I say I was assigned this godforsaken piece of shit THREE TIMES in my school career. Everysinglefuckingtime I rage quit, just skimmed the cliff-notes version, and took my C+ with grace and thankfulness, thinking, HOPING, this time would be the last.”
terri (not written as presented because I can’t embed flowers into her name) says:
“If I could give this book no stars, I would. Basically, this book is racist and also badly written.”
“Oh my god this book sucks. it’s 100 pages, but it feels more like 1000. How Conrad manages to do that, I have no clue. Nothing even happens. This book is a fine example of how you should not write a book.”
Rusalka says “It felt like reading an Old Spice ad.”
Hannah says ” Finishing it was the best bit.”
Erick says (so politely, I almost feel bad quoting him):
“Sorry, Mr. Conrad – I find your work to be a miserable wreck. Not to offend anyone who liked it, but this is a sprawling mess – pretentious at best; racist dreck at worst. Stylistically it made me want to punch puppies. I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul.”
‘Rachel’ glowingly compares it to Avatar but somehow that’s meant to be an insult. “What the ACTUAL FUCK was this? 1890’s answer to Avatar?” she writes before going on to present a simply wonderful synopsis of the book that reveals ABSOLUTELY NO CRITICAL ACUMEN WHATSOEVER:
FOR ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD REASON I COULD SEE, this is narrated by a dude named Marlow. About three pages are wasted describing his boat on the Thames, which has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY. NOTHING. He starts telling his fellow sailors about the time he joined a French company in KILLING ELEPHANTS – that is, exporting ivory from Africa. There were multiple teeth-gritting descriptions the like of which you would never actually SAY to anyone, which furthered my annoyance with the mode of narrative chosen.
ANYWAY, he travels to the ‘heart of darkness’ on a steamboat. His role is never fully explained, but he ends up going to the inner station to pick up a sick guy by the name of Kurtz, who is by way of being the best extractor of DEAD ELEPHANT around. He is also involved with the local tribes who seem to worship him as a god? Idk? He dies on the way back and entrusts his papers to Marlow, even though Marlow hates him, but also worships him – it changes from page to page. These papers suggest a way of taming the savages by benevolence or something. It’s not the main focus of the story. I don’t know WHAT the main focus of the story is. Aside from STUPID.
The library copy is a Norton Critical Edition, which I understand is for university students, but they sure make some dumb university students in Brown if they have to have ‘gingery’ explained to them. (Also, if you didn’t know what a mine was, how would the explanation ‘subterranean explosive charge’ help?) There are loads of textual appendages for a book 75 pages long, but I am too annoyed to read them, so if anyone wants to explain WTAF this book is, please feel free.
Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.
Amazingly, I thought this book was ANTI-racist. Boy, was I wrong.
I thought about leaving this here but that would be a measly thing to do. Instead, I realised I had to attempt to explain the book, or at least, comment on Rachel’s comment:
FOR ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD REASON I COULD SEE,
>> Well, it’s obvious that if you can’t see a reason, there mustn’t be one, and since you’ve capitalised your objection, it must even more valid.
this is narrated by a dude named Marlow.
>> Dude? Well, whatever…
About three pages are wasted describing his boat on the Thames, which has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY. NOTHING.
>> Again, if you think there’s no reason why Conrad devotes these pages to the description of the Nellie and the Thames, then it must have nothing to do with the story. Alternatively, we might make a point about the opening highlighting calm, civilisation and, in essence, the person of the Director of Companies: ” On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.”
>> It leads us to the most important line in the entire book and the essence of Conrad’s theme:
>> “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
He starts telling his fellow sailors about the time he joined a French company in KILLING ELEPHANTS – that is, exporting ivory from Africa. There were multiple teeth-gritting descriptions the like of which you would never actually SAY to anyone, which furthered my annoyance with the mode of narrative chosen.
>> Neither Brad Pitt nor George Clooney were alive in 1899 so people didn’t then know that the killing of elephants was wrong. Of course, people did many bad things in 1899 which we wouldn’t dream of doing now but we do many bad things that the people of 1899 wouldn’t think of doing. And this is also the theme of the novel: morality isn’t absolute.
ANYWAY, he travels to the ‘heart of darkness’ on a steamboat. His role is never fully explained, but he ends up going to the inner station to pick up a sick guy by the name of Kurtz, who is by way of being the best extractor of DEAD ELEPHANT around.
>> Pretty accurate. Marlow is the captain of the steamboat which the company’s manager was to take to travel into the interior to meet Kurtz who was rumoured to be ill.
He is also involved with the local tribes who seem to worship him as a god? Idk? He dies on the way back and entrusts his papers to Marlow, even though Marlow hates him, but also worships him – it changes from page to page.
>> Marlow hates the ‘truth’ that Kurtz expresses. It’s almost a Freudian battle between the id and superego, or rather between Nietzschean philosophy versus the Christian teachings upon which most of European civilisation was founded and, you could possibly even argue, was instrumental in the intellectual climate that led to World War 2. Kurtz is pure reason, expressing things which are stripped of compassion but he also expresses a profoundly bleak outlook. Marlow faces a choice which he ultimately makes at the end of the book when he lies to Kurtz’s ‘intended’, saying that Kurtz died speaking her name. His chooses to live life based on a lie than the truth which would have spiraled into madness.
These papers suggest a way of taming the savages by benevolence or something. It’s not the main focus of the story. I don’t know WHAT the main focus of the story is. Aside from STUPID.
>> No, the papers suggest the they should ‘exterminate the brutes’ but this isn’t meant to simply refer to the tribes of Africa but all humanity. Conrad actually is sympathetic to the indigenous people, in the words of the manager who repeated states throughout the book that ‘they are simple people’
The library copy is a Norton Critical Edition, which I understand is for university students, but they sure make some dumb university students in Brown if they have to have ‘gingery’ explained to them.
>> The word ‘gingery’ is used once in the book: “He positively danced, the bloodthirsty little gingery beggar.” Perhaps it needs explaining. Not everybody has your way with words, especially those dumb university students at Brown…
(Also, if you didn’t know what a mine was, how would the explanation ‘subterranean explosive charge’ help?) There are loads of textual appendages for a book 75 pages long, but I am too annoyed to read them, so if anyone wants to explain WTAF this book is, please feel free.
>> I don’t know what WTAF means [Update: I'll save you the trouble of looking. It means 'what the actual fuck']. I could do with some textural appendages. Regarding ‘mine’, the meaning is now more commonly used to mean an explosive triggered by standing on it. I assume the note was to indicate an older meaning.
Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.
Amazingly, I thought this book was ANTI-racist. Boy, was I wrong.
>> There have been countless accusations of racism leveled towards Conrad and possibly as many defences written. Historical context is important and the moral high ground that people now take is simply afforded to them by the fact that the book was written over 100 years ago, when society was very different and words such as ‘racism’ didn’t exist. In fact, the OED cites the first use of the word as occurring in 1902, coined by a man called Richard Henry Pratt. You could argue: accusing Conrad of racism is as foolish as accusing you of crimes towards capital letters should we discover in 100 years that capital letters have a soul which is tortured when they’re used in close proximity to one another. To accuse Conrad of racism is to overlook that Conrad was also addressing the immoral actions of Western companies (specifically the Belgians) in the Congo, brutalities that he himself had witnessed and eventually led to a mental breakdown on his return to London. Many hold the justifiable view that his book is a critique of imperialist attitudes towards the indigenous people. Moreover, the argument can be made that Conrad isn’t specifically talking about race or colour but the nature of our species. The fact that he talks a great deal about black and white simply (and unfortunately) ties in with a modern (and extremely simplistic) preoccupation with race that is more telling about our own insecurities than Conrad’s supposed racism. In a broader sense, western culture has for centuries used black and white to describe morality, a morality which is inverted in the book since whiteness is often associated with crimes. The book is more than simply anti-racist. It is the ultimate expression of a humanitarian doctrine that places the dignity and happiness of individuals over the needs (and wants) of companies, societies, nations, or, indeed philosophies.
But now I’ve written too much and, at the very least, I’ve come across as lecturing and, at worst, elitist. Yet that’s always going to be a problem of addressing this kind of rubbish. When Daniel C. Dennett warned us that 90% of things are crap, he also warned that if you’re going to criticize them, “make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find”. However, he also adds: “unless you are a comedian whose main purpose is to make people laugh at ludicrous buffoonery, spare us the caricature’.Well, I guess that gives me a window of opportunity.
Even if I didn’t try to make the ludicrous buffoonery as funny as I might have wanted, I felt an urge to highlight the absurdity simply because there’s a sense that we have to accept this nonsense because it’s written in a sense of generous sharing of experiences and that ‘every voice is equal’. What worries me is that if enough people say enough dumb things loudly enough, those dumb things begin to look like the truth. That, in essence, seems to be a good description of the internet: dumb things said enough times by dumb people so it has a simulacrum of truth.
Next year, I expect Heart of Darkness to have a lower rating on Goodreads and lower again the year after that. There’s nothing I can do to stop it except write this, post it, and move on. We live in a global hyper-connected community and there are now very few places that aren’t also one of the dark places of the earth. All I can hope is that after reading this, perhaps you’ll also whisper after me: the horror! the horror!