I. The Bargain
The mattress came in the mail, vacuum-packed and stuffed into a box the size of a mini-fridge. It weighed about 100 pounds and took two people to lug it up the single flight to the apartment, as if it were a piano. It was marvelous to unpack, a dense little sausage of foam. We punctured its plastic casing and it let out a whine, puffed out its corners as if showing off, and reformed itself into an actual queen-sized mattress there on the hardwood floor. Its selection was, of course, the result of meticulous research. There are certain things you do not buy without careful consideration, and a mattress is one of them.
My buying a mattress from Amazon.com was met with a combination of horror and begrudging admiration by my friends. Some seemed pleased that I’d gotten a bargain, but most were adamant that a mattress should never be purchased sight unseen. How could I argue? Everyone knows that buying a mattress is a treacherous affair, not unlike purchasing a kidney on the black market, replete with sleazy salespeople, shifty pricing schemes, and product of unknown provenance moved under veil of night to land in showrooms with names like “Sleepy’s” and its sketchier Brooklyn cousin, “Dreamy’s.” A girl on her lunch break in midtown had a very good chance of contracting a social disease while splayed on a medium-plush-latex-foam combo trying to decide if she were more of a side-back or side-only sleeper.
Depending on whom you ask, a good mattress that will last you anywhere from 10 years to the rest of your life (a terrifying prospect: this is the bed I will die in) is going to take you out a minimum of 1,000 clams. The most common argument for draining your 401(k) to buy a mattress is that if you aren’t sleeping well everything in your life will go to hell. Your health will fail, you will sleepwalk through your days, snap at your kids, stop having sex, and lose your will to live. Given the stakes here, isn’t $4,000 a relatively small sum? How much is your life worth to you, anyway?
By the time I bought the Sleep Innovations Queen-Size Mattress for $499 from Amazon.com I was desperate as I had, in what must have been a body-as-alarm clock protest, thrown out my back. Previously, I had not been a person who “throws out her back,” which is to say I was not old. I’d recently written a hopeful, ambitious, well-reviewed book that was a rallying cry for women in their 20s and was this close to selling another book. I was still a young person with plans. Watch out!
This is how a back goes out: One moment you are sitting in the kitchen tapping a soft-boiled egg with a spoon and the next you are flat on the floor, calling every number in your phone for Percocet. I could say that I bought a suspiciously cheap mattress off the Internet sight unseen because I was delirious with pain, but in truth I had been doing my research for months and had reached the “I Bet I Can Get This Online for a Fraction of the Price” phase of the project.
For a girl knocked off her platform boots and into a premature prescription for orthopedic clogs, Amazon mattress reviews offered a lifeline. I needed a new mattress, and I needed it fast. The Top-Rated Mattress on Amazon had upwards of 350 five-star reviews, each of them as unique and captivating as a snowflake but with a comforting narrative consistency. Each reviewer suffered mightily on his former mattress before the Sleep Innovations 12-inch Queen literally saved his life. It provided the best sleep on earth and frequently saved marriages—the reviews were long on corny innuendo about how the mattress “enhanced my non-sleeping activities!!” and was “easy on the knees if you get my meaning.”
If 400 people on Amazon were so over-the-moon that they would take the time to lay their lives bare in praise of a mattress, what did I have to lose? Could I be one of the converted, waking one morning cured of all back pain and no longer sentenced to life as a crippled little ET of a woman? Consensus is a club, a very attractive club, and I was going to get some sleep. I one-click ordered the mattress.
The Sleep Innovations 12-inch Queen Size mattress is a total piece of crap. I slept on it for much longer than I should have because I wanted to be part of the club of lovers, that coterie of discerning sleepers. It is possible to fake-love, say, a movie because everyone else does, but it is a taller order to fake-love a mattress. It’s not just your opinion that you are hedging with but your entire muscular-skeletal system. I wanted to have made just the right purchase, I wanted to join the brotherhood of frugal shoppers, and more than anything, I wanted to sleep.
Sleeping on this mattress was what I can imagine sleeping on a marble slab is like only much hotter, so think less “morgue table” and more “pizza stone in wood-burning oven.” Climbing into bed provided no relief from the rigors of the day; instead, the bed slowly warmed until I’d shed not only the thin sheet I’d snuggled down with but also my clothes, and I’d wake from my fitful dozing naked in a hot puddle of my own sweat.
Maybe buying a cheap mattress was an optimistic bet that I wouldn’t be sleeping in it long.
It is possible that my hesitance to pay top dollar for a mattress with a 50-year warranty had something to do with a deeper ambivalence about being a 36-year-old woman buying a bed alone. I don’t mean to be depressing—I get a little pang just writing the words “buying a bed alone,” a phrase that conjures up spinster with comforter and pillow shams in matching floral-print. It bespeaks an interminable lust-less life in a very reliable Serta. Lots of sleep, not much else. Maybe buying a cheap mattress was an optimistic bet that I wouldn’t be sleeping in it long—soon I’d be appropriately coupled and on the market for a California King that would accommodate my fiancé’s thoroughbred legs (my beloved would be a runner, and tall, so gloriously tall).
It occurred to me about three sleepless months into trying to love my mattress that I had been in some way deceived by Amazon, and I became suspicious of the overwhelming number of rave reviews. Sure, there’d been some critical evaluations, but they formed only a thimble-sized chorus. “Don’t buy this MATTRESS unless you don’t like SLEEPING!!!!!” screamed one of the rare naysayers. But I’d ignored them, the way you do when you want to believe that the masses are right, that consensus is powerful, that cream rises to the top, and that the Electoral College represents the will of the people.
I wondered if some racket was afoot, some back-alley palm greasing whereby these allegedly honest reviews were fabricated by the criminal outfit known as “Sleep Innovations,” who only appear to be an indie-mattress David going up against the corporate-mattress Goliath. Was Sleep Innovations posing as an Honest Abe when really it was a shadowy consortium paying off a raft of unemployed MFAs to write positive reviews?
IV. The Other Bargain
I knew about the sub rosa activities of shady marketers, as I had, at the time of my mattress purchase, been working in digital advertising for two years. Our clients paid us to come up with a campaign that felt “authentic” and featured user reviews over ad copy because people didn’t believe in brands anymore and they wanted to hear from real people that the product was great. How much cheaper than hiring a fancy ad agency it would be to pay a few hundred people to write nuanced rave reviews on Amazon!
My advertising job was actually a problem in a larger way. I had taken it on a lark; the surprise offer of full-time employment came around the financial collapse of 2008. I was, if you asked me then, working on the follow-up to my fairly successful 2007 book, The Girl’s Guide to Absolutely Everything. I’d conceived the book when I was young and optimistic and brave and knew there was no book that addressed all the questions young women had about navigating their lives post-college. In 2002, when I’d started the book proposal, I had no idea how brave I was. I had no idea a decade would pass and I’d look back on the girl I was then in awe—she had the guts to take on a giant writing project! She had the conviction that she was a person who could advise a generation of women! She had no idea she’d finish the book and then spend years staring down a blank page trying to figure out what came next.
Advertising dimmed my wonder about the possibilities of the written word.
Copywriting is not—despite what I tried to tell myself at first—writing. Copywriting is a trade, a technical skill. There are dubious graduate degrees you can earn at the “Miami Ad School” in copywriting, but you do not become a copywriter because you are a writer. You become a copywriter because you want to make money working as “a creative”—that’s a noun in adspeak for people who make ads. If you want to make a salary plying a facsimile of creative writing, you become a copywriter, where most of your day will be spent not trying to craft a sly iteration of a famous slogan like “Just Do It,” but something more along the lines of “Click here for a free sample.”
Advertising dimmed my wonder about the possibilities of the written word. I spent long days feeling my ass spread into the threadbare cushion of a bargain-basement office chair (follow the breadcrumbs from here to the back problems) trying to strip my writing of “voice”—yes, that elusive quality you’re exhorted to find in creative writing classes. I was told frequently that my writing had “too much voice,” which is a terrible thing in a copywriter. In advertising, people say, “Could you make the copy shorter and add some science and pump up the fun but not too fun?” They say, “Let’s make this line work harder” and “Melissa, this needs a little wordsmithing.” It reminded me of learning long division in third grade: a laborious process that yielded a long, decimal-pointed answer that was always one digit off and wrong. It made me hate writing.
By day I squirmed in office chairs, and by night I lay still but unsleeping in my mail-order bed. Stock-still to be exact, as rolling over was an impossibility: the mattress lacked springs and therefore required its occupant to lift herself up on one arm and flip over, kind of like a flapjack.
© Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty
It was on one particularly dreary day at the office that I accidentally took the first step to getting my writing life back. A deadline loomed for a pitch to a high-end fashion brand that wanted to convince its consumers that “tennis chic” was not only in but ironic and was asking for a “Big Idea” to sell white cable knit vests to hipsters. I pause here to point out that I wrote a book that gave twentysomethings sound advice on how to avoid these very marketers who’d be preying on their every paycheck. I’d ventured over to the dark side and was trying to muster the conviction to persuade young people that what they needed were starched plaid miniskirts and $500 saddle shoes.
It was a particularly low moment in the ad world, when the blatant hucksterism of the pursuit was most evident. The gloss of creativity that made the job palatable had been abraded to reveal the coarse venality just beneath the surface. Pent-up and looking for an outlet, I hied to Amazon and banged out a 1,500-word highly detailed review of the mattress. I wanted to redress the balance. I wanted to contribute an honest and useful bit of consumer advocacy to compensate for my role in the terrible falsehood-fueled engine of capitalism. I wanted to tell the truth.
“I’m not a big Amazon reviewer,” I began, “but I spent so much time reading mattress reviews before I bought the Sleep Innovations 12″ Queen mattress that I felt I should contribute to the discussion as there seems to be a disproportionate number of wholly positive reviews on here.” There. I’d established my reason for writing. I’d made clear I wasn’t a shill from a competing mattress manufacturer endeavoring to smear a foe. “I am trying, hope against hope, to fall in love with this mattress,” I explained, “but it’s hard.”
I went on to describe precisely how hard the bed was, detailing my back pain and efforts to find a suitable mattress at Sleepy’s before turning to Amazon. I gave whatever pros I could think of: “You are not going to roll around a lot,” and far more numerous cons: “I am not menopausal, but I believe I have now experienced the discomfiting experience of hot flashes thanks to the blazing oven that is the Sleep Innovations mattress. How can we sleep while our beds are burning indeed.”
The mattress was the first thing in years that had inspired me to write something that wasn’t ad-related. I didn’t have to “make sure my voice didn’t obscure the brand voice” as I’d been advised in my recent performance review. I didn’t have to “shorten the copy to fit the design.” I dashed off the review in a half hour and felt pretty good afterwards, as buoyed as if I’d just written a particularly meaty email to a friend, confident that they’d get a chuckle out of what I’d penned and unburdened of my feelings of betrayal regarding the reviews that had steered me so wrong.
The responses to my Amazon review came in slowly at first, praising its candor (“Grading comfort is truly subjective, but you raised issues as well as possible solutions, and with a dash of spicy humor,” wrote SuperGnome from Madison, WI) and soon moved into appreciation of my style: “I was considering this bed for our guest room…until I read your laugh out loud FUNNY review. Thank you for your effort and the laughs,” wrote “happymommy,” who’d not been nearly as effusive about the Cuisinart 11-Bottle Stainless Steel Countertop Wine Cellar, which she’d pronounced a “cheap piece of junk.”) In a short time, I was getting responses on a daily basis.
Some of the comments read like the kinds of blurbs I’d once solicited slavishly from more experienced writers for the jacket of my book:
“Hysterically funny while being informative and honest.”
“Put me down with the others thanking you for such a great and humorous review! Looking past the humor, there are some serious points you made.”
I was not only funny but I was useful! This was what I’d always wanted, and to have my readers “laughing in tears by the end.” The reviews soon took on the hallmarks of traditional fan mail. “Dear Melissa,” they began. “I have to say you are an excellent writer.” Were these laurels any less legitimate for a hastily dashed off mattress review than for a years-in-the-toiling opus? Was I not a “darling,” as T. Gallegos of Tucson declared? Did I not have “a gift with words,” as Mike from CT said, just because my fans were basing their assessments of me on an Amazon product review?
They weren’t just commenting on my Amazon review, they were commenting on the choices I’d made in my life.
When my book came out, I vowed to respond to every piece of mail I received. I had vague dreams of being so inundated with fan mail that I’d have to set up an automated email response thanking fans for their response, but due to the huge volume of correspondence I was receiving, it might be some time before I got back to them. Needless to say, the volume of mail never got so massive I couldn’t handle it. So when the responses started coming for the review, I presided over the comments like the host of a dinner party. I responded to each one, offering condolences for their own bodily aches and pains, sending rallying cries of courage to my fellow mattress seekers. I was humble; I was gracious; I sympathized with my fellow Amazonians’ search for the perfect mattress. My review was soon voted useful by so many shoppers that it got marquee positioning on the mattress’ Amazon page under the rubric “Most Helpful Critical Review.”
It didn’t take long for my writerly ego to muscle up, its atrophied physique steroid-shot by the praise. I discounted the few respondents who said, “I think you’re overexaggerating, Melissa.” Frequently, my supporters would even speak up on the discussion board and silence those who tried to poke holes in my dramatic review. Once, I had editors who wrote “OTT” (Over The Top) next to my most dramatic flourishes and I’d duly trim my prose to be less theatrical. Now, I had legions of fans shushing the naysayers, defending my right to pursue purple flights of fancy. They were cheering me on, urging me over the top, insisting that what I was doing was worth something.
The comments were nurturing in a way that the letters I’d received for my book hadn’t been. The book was the biggest effort I’d undertaken, my blood was still on the pages, so it seemed natural that there would be people who were moved by it or had comments on it. I’d had no expectations of any response when writing the review. I certainly didn’t expect the feedback that would bolster me as a writer and make me feel connected to an audience.
Over time, the comments became more pointed, more personal. They weren’t just commenting on my Amazon review, they were actually commenting on the choices I’d made in my life; they were the voice in my head made real. “This is absolutely the best review that I have EVER read. I stopped midway and started over, to read it to my family. I might even email it to my friends. Listen, Melissa, quit your day job and start writing comedy.”
“Hah! Do you write for a living?” began another apparently psychic commenter, who went by the handle “Lilith” and listed her hometown as “the darkest corner of hell.” “If not, maybe you should think about a career change.” Comments like these seemed to always arrive right at the end of a day of writing instructions for matching your foundation to the skin on your neck. They were like notes from my true self, commanding me not to stray from the path, to remember who I truly was.
Receiving praise for my writing reanimated the current of creativity still running through me. When people at work found out that I wrote a book, they would—not unkindly—respond, “Wait, so why are you working here?” People work their lives in dull, stressful jobs so they can one day quit and go write a book, right? If I’d been a successful writer, why had I returned to the day-to-day grind all once and former English majors try to escape?
I wish I could say that the response to my mattress review so bolstered my sense of self as a writer that I quit my job to write full-time again. It’s a romantic vision and seems only just: a swell of music as I stand before an adoring audience and read from my new best-seller. But it’s still 2014. A full-time job with benefits is not a trifle to cast aside. Books remain as endangered by the ascendancy of digital media as ever. Maybe I can’t write my way into a fairytale ending, but I am writing again—every morning for two hours before work. And about once a week I get a new comment on my mattress review. Just this week, someone wrote, “I would like to meet Melissa and everyone else posting here. We can form a support group of mattress shoppers.” In reply, I suggested we unionize and try to get a good deal on health insurance for all our back problems.
After a year of the Sleep Innovations 12-Inch SureTemp Memory Foam Mattress, I threw in the towel, went to Sleepy’s, and got a standard spring number made by Stearns and Foster. I haggled the price down a little and made them throw in free delivery and a couple pillows. I tried to be a tough customer, but I really had only one requirement: Will you remove my old mattress and dispose of it properly? They took the mattress away, no questions asked.
This piece appears in longer form under the title “Most Helpful Critical Review” in Volume 99, Number 4, 2014, of the Southwest Review.