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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era