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

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times