November 5, 2013
Biography of Jeff Bezos is biased, claims entirely unbiased wife of Jeff Bezos
by Dustin Kurtz
I will say this about MacKenzie Bezos: she used her name.
If you haven’t been following the furor around Brad Stone’s new biography of everyone’s least-favorite braying billionaire, well, perhaps you are less obsessive than us here at Mobylives. The book—The Everythimg Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon—has been earning the veteran business journalist excited reviews and massive coverage. Even Michiko Kakutani liked it.
One person who didn’t like it, as evidenced by her review of the book on its Amazon page this Monday: MacKenzie Bezos.
(A note here: if you are discussing this story, as many newspapers already have, please do not call her “Mrs. Jeff Bezos” unless you are a time traveller from 1890, in which case, hey, sorry about the extra 5.5 billion people since then. Things have been sexy.)
MacKenzie Bezos, novelist, billionaire, wife of Jeff, dislikes what she calls the book’s “inaccuracies”, writing:
“Everywhere I can fact check from personal knowledge, I find way too many inaccuracies, and unfortunately that casts doubt over every episode in the book. … I have firsthand knowledge of many of the events.
One of the biggest challenges in non-fiction writing is the risk that a truthfully balanced narration of the facts will be boring, and this presents an author with some difficult choices. It may be that another telling of the Amazon story—for example, that people at Amazon have no secret agenda they’ve been able to keep hidden for 19 years, really do believe in the mission they keep repeating, and are working hard and of their own free will to realize it —would strike readers as less exciting than the version offered here. I sympathize with this challenge. But when an author plans to market a book as non-fiction, he is obliged to find a suspenseful story arc that doesn’t rely on mischaracterizing or avoiding important parts of the truth.”
We are not what you might call ‘fans’ of Amazon over here. You might say that we don’t ‘respect’ the company or that we ‘think they are an agent of selfishness, poverty and the death of literature’ and that we ‘hope somebody gave Jeff Bezos cat poop hidden in a Tootsie Roll wrapper for Halloween.’ The point being, if Stone’s book had been a fiery takedown of Bezos and his cruel empire, nobody would be happier than us. It is not. Instead, it is a remarkably even-handed look at a divisive figure. Stone clearly admires Bezos and what he’s accomplished, but is willing to recognize the greed, cruelty and, elitism that drives company and man.
The immediate temptation upon reading Bezos’ review is to point out the limits of its critique. Bezos reminds us that her husband wasn’t interviewed for the book, though Stone has interviewed the man many times in the past. Bezos reminds us that she was present, and Stone was not, but the moments she cites are, even in her brief mention, crusted over with the self conscious corporate myth that we witness being built up throughout Stone’s book.
Most importantly, Bezos would like us to understand that when Stone cites former employees of Amazon and their demeaning encounters with her megalomaniacal husband, that we are being shown a biased portrait. She holds up some of the many thousand glowing thank you notes they have received as an example.
To address that latter point, perhaps we should begin by asking what sort of defensive egotist keeps a clipping file of praise from their subordinates? A better question: does Bezos think she has an accurate sense of the feelings of Amazon’s many employees? A better question than that: does a thank you note from one employee absolve a company of absurd abuses against others? If we are to understand a company, how are the voices of those employees it has injured and impoverished not germane?
The second reaction Bezos’ review elicits is a strange sort of delight. While Creepy Uncle Jeff was off in one corner of Amazon headquarters wondering why his Tootsie Roll had so much hair in it, his wife was alight with rage after her exposure to Stone’s book, a rare portrait of her husband that dares to wonder whether he might be kind of a dick. (Hint: yes, yes he might.) Of course she did what any self-respecting multi-billionaire author would do: she took to Amazon to display her pretensions and misunderstanding about how non-fiction can and does work. In so doing, of course, she also drove another dose of publicity to the book. But at least she didn’t use a sock puppet.
Bezos has entangled herself in exactly the sort of low level personal-affront-veiled-as-book-review flame war that constitutes so much of the discourse on Amazon. It’s remarkable. It is at one and the same time a brilliant example of the value of many reviews on Amazon—that is, without value—and an affirmation of our need for a better and more critical tech journalism, when even Stone’s respectful portrait comes as a shock to the sheltered (billions of dollars buys a lot of shelter) individuals on the inside.
And though I hope we can expet Stone to respond with an unkind review of one of Bezos’ novels, his comments when reached by New York magazine will have to do: “I am less biased than Jeff’s own wife.”
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.