The author and the sockpuppet

Should we be surprised at fake Amazon reviews?

Authors have always had an uneasy relationship with truth and untruth, leading many lightly joke that they ‘lie for a living’. Yet, humour aside, there is a fundamental distinction between fiction and lying. Fiction is the craft of creating surface fabrications which embody underlying, elucidating truths, whereas lying is the exact opposite, comprising of surface ‘truths’ that are in fact fabrications constructed with the intention of deceit. As Tennessee Williams wrote in his play The Glass Menagerie “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

Despite the clear cut-distinction, as it’s the very job of an author to flirt with untruth, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that occasionally one steps over the divide and becomes a simple liar. Such is the case with the phenomenon of authorial "sockpuppeting". Alas, this does not, as I first imagined, involve the likes of Amis or Rushdie ventriloquising book readings through socks with googly eyes, but is the term used when an individual uses a false online identity for the purposes of deception. In the past few weeks no less than three authors, R J Ellory, Stephen Leather and John Locke (not the philosopher), have been called out for either paying for Amazon reviews of their novels, or writing them themselves. Even worse, Ellory, has admitted attacking his rivals with low ratings. Yet perhaps most telling is the fact these men aren’t publishing underdogs but authors lauded with prize nominations and huge book sales. If you need any more evidence about the insecurity of writers, it’s right there.

The controversy has sparked outrage, with a number of authors taking to social media to publically criticise sockpuppeting, assert their own (often unchallenged) innocence and even accuse rivals of besmirching reviews. The condemnation reached a head on Monday when a group statement was published in the Telegraph signed by 49 authors, including Lee Child, Mark Billingham, Joanne Harris, and Tony Parsons. “More and more books are bought, sold, and recommended online,” the letter reads, “and the health of this exciting ecosystem depends on free and honest conversation among readers. But some writers are misusing these channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large. … We condemn this behaviour, and commit never to use such tactics.”

A nerve has evidently been touched. Of course, the controversy is an assault on the authenticity and authority of authors. A line has been crossed, of that there is no doubt, but the force of the reaction exposes an essential moral ambiguity that has lurked in the review system for a long time. For instance, it’s commonplace, even expected, for an author to recruit family members and friends to post glowing Amazon reviews. Though there are occasional murmurs of dissent at the practice, it has aroused no great public outcry.

Whilst sockpuppeting is in no way defensible and attacking rivals is reprehensible, my own reaction to the controversy was bemusement that anyone could honestly be shocked by the existence of fake Amazon reviews. Let’s be honest here, for all its aspirations to democracy and openness, the internet is country populated largely by trolls, cutesome felines and airbrushed women pouting for a click. Authors who sockpuppet Amazon reviews are morally corrupt, but consumers whoset too much store by them are foolish. In their group statement, the 49 authors call for “readers to take possession of the process.” “Honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving, can drown out the phoney voices, and underhand tactics will be marginalised to the point of irrelevance. No single author, however devious, can compete with the whole community.” Despite their naivety about the power of a couple of cunningly designed spambots, the suggestion is an important one. It’s the responsibility of the contemporary citizen to take charge of the internet. Yet it’s also their responsibility to learn how to navigate independently between the different types of information outlets.

In a perfect world there would be no liars, but it’s a waste of breath to cry oneself hoarse over the fact. The sockpuppet scandal is interesting not for what it tells us about the immorality of a handful of individuals, but as another insight into the insecurities of an industry - publishing - that is undergoing an epochal upheaval.

The Amazon sockpuppeting scandal shows an industry in crisis (Photograph: Getty Images)

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at www.emmageen.com

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser