Socking it to the sock puppets
I’m not angry; I’m disappointed. We all remember this as the worst condemnation childhood had to offer, and it was my initial reaction on hearing that none other than RJ Ellory had dipped his hands into the filth of anonymous fake reviewing.
Lest you missed it in the myriad other places the story has broken on the web, Ellory was exposed writing gushing reviews of his own books, and – far worse in my opinion – writing one-star reviews denigrating those of his peers, including Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride. This was brought to light by fellow novelist Jeremy Duns, who when not penning spy thrillers, works tirelessly to expose unethical practices such as plagiarism and sock-puppetry.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for heroes. Guilty or not, Lance Armstrong’s refusal to go on fighting doping charges has disappointed millions, and Ellory’s behaviour is as baffling as it is saddening. You see, Ellory really is a phenomenally good writer. In fact, all the praise he heaped on himself in his ill-advised Amazon postings would have been well-deserved had it come from elsewhere. I’ve said it before, and I’ll willingly say it again – Ellory is a genius.
Make no mistake though, this isn’t a prelude to some mealy-mouthed, exculpatory nonsense about a genius wrestling with his demons. While we’re all human and prone to moral lapses (Ellory’s work, ironically, plays heavily upon this very theme) RJ Ellory is old and wise enough to know that “moronic” is about the most flattering way you could describe what he did. As an aspiring writer, I find it disquieting to think that even the very best can still take it upon themselves to knock their peers in a tawdry quest to make a few quid. Moreover, as an amateur reviewer, it’s depressing to contemplate that my own credibility might be damaged as a result of this. My own reviews of his work are as gushing as anything he wrote; can I now expect readers to see them without wondering if I’m a fake? Sadly I have neither the time nor the money to trek around the nation’s literary events, proving there’s a human being behind the Twitter handle and Goodreads account.
None of this is to say that his exposure isn’t a good thing. Duns is to be applauded for his hard work; he devotes endless hours to exposing fraud for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do. But why, exactly, has it fallen to one man (albeit ably assisted by a small core of other authors) to promote ethical standards in the industry? While Ellory’s actions are bizarre in light of his (now significantly damaged) stature, sock-puppetry has been seen by some more avaricious writers as a cornerstone of their business model. Surely we’ve reached a point where it shouldn’t be just one man’s bugbear that drives an ethical clean-up operation?
As an interested amateur, I have long been naïve enough to think that the arts world is populated by affable darlings who prize creative expression above all else. It seems I was desperately Quixotic in my outlook. While the product may be more noble than your average consumable, art is still business, and where there is serious business, there need to be serious standards. In comments sections across the web, some of the more pragmatic responses to this story have left me dumbfounded. Some argue we should take the prevalence of the practice for granted, and exercise caution when trusting content online. In what other sphere of life would we willingly accept a third of all communications to be lies? Would we tolerate every third TV advert making thoroughly bogus claims? Fat chance.
Others have argued that to dwell on the misdeeds of a few red-handed writers is to participate in an unedifying witch-hunt. I too am generally of the mind that righteous indignation is never far from hypocrisy, but I also think it’s important that writers, reviewers, bloggers and their ilk keep each other in check. Pointing out that willful deception is a bad thing doesn’t make anyone Joe McCarthy.
In terms of enforcement, I’m no technological expert. Talk of restricting reviews to verified buyers abounds, and I can grasp the pros and cons of such a move – assuming that lumbering bookselling behemoth Amazon was ever taken by the urge to clean up its profitable house. I’ll leave the suggestions as to how to legislate the principles of basic integrity to more educated minds than my own.
All I want from the world of publishing are a few simple things; to skim a review section without getting the feeling I’ve been cheated; to admire an author’s work without feeling like a dupe, and above all, to sign into Twitter and have the stories be the story.