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

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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