Anne Rice. Photo: Getty
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Your book sucks: are authors being bullied with one-star Amazon reviews?

Anne Rice thinks there are communities of “parasites” intent on dragging down writers by slating their books online. Is she right – and why are we such slaves to the star rating, anyway?

I frequently fall down internet rabbit holes – I google medical symptoms late at night, I look up animals who have won awards (I have not won awards), I try to find out the exact length of intestinal worms pulled from dogs’ bellies on old episodes of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not that I vaguely remember watching in the ‘90s (results so far inconclusive). I also habitually read the one-star Amazon reviews of books I love. Why? I have no idea. Try it. It’s like sitting mutely at a dinner party with aliens.

Here's Lolita

The book arrived on time in and was in great condition but the actual literature itself was just terrible . . . its turgud, pretentious crap, which is badly written and really just utterly dull, I doubt a combination of the literary talents of Katie "Jordan" Price and Alan Shearer could come up with something more indescribably poor.”

Go find a book you love. Click the one-star reviews – there will always be some. Cancel your plans for this evening.

But one-star Amazon reviews are more than a space for performance art or green-ink rantings. Some authors believe that they amount to “bullying”. Anne Rice, writer of Interview with The Vampire has signed a petition snappily entitled Protect Amazon.com Users and Indie Publishing Authors from Bullying and Harassment by Removing Anonymity and Requiring Identity Verification for Reviewing and Forum Participation – a collective effort to eradicate trolling and abuse in one particular corner of the internet. The petition wasn’t her idea, nor was it one of the dozens of daily causes sent to our inboxes courtesy of 38 “pick your battles” Degrees as a way of enabling Rice’s long and personal war against The Unfavourable Reviewer. (ICYMI: Last year she took umbrage with a small potatoes blogger (who not only didn’t like her book but cut it up for some arts crafts project), posted a link to the offending review on her Facebook and invited comments. Essentially she just set her fanbase on someone who didn’t like her book, and opened the blogger up to a world of shit-slinging from the more slavish of the group (others called Rice out on it).  In terms of picking a postergirl against being a dick on the internet, you could do better than Rice.)

Anne Rice is not the only writer to have gone after a bad reviewer. In 2011, a self-published author in Milton Keynes launched libel proceedings against the guy who wrote a series of bad Amazon reviews of his book, The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know. Also summoned to the courtroom were Richard Dawkins and his foundation (for discussion threads relating to the review on the foundation’s website) and Amazon (for allowing this to happen in the first place). Earlier this year there was a story about another self-published author in America threatening to sue a reviewer because their single bad review allegedly lost the writer $23,000. Whether it’s back-of-the-envelope maths or real maths we’ve only got his word, but at this point it’s irrelevant. Stay with me.

While I’m up late googling intestinal worms I shouldn’t be, there’s a thing I always try not to do and invariably end up doing anyway on Twitter: argue. As a rule, it’s best not to engage. If you engage, you will not come out looking good. I have argued in favour of outlawing shorts. I once swore, in a sleepless blaze, that taramasalata is better than hummus (I GOT MY WORDS AROUND THE WRONG WAY). We all make mistakes. Nobody comes out looking good and screenshots last forever. This rule is also applicable to Amazon.

The author-who-thought-the-one-star-review-put-him-down-$23,000 broke this rule. He engaged. He commented on the bad Amazon review, the reviewer wrote back and by the end of it there was a 19-comment thread right there on the Amazon page where anyone thinking about maybe possibly buying the book would see it. I’m speaking for myself here obviously, but I’d consider that kind of a turn-off.

Had he left it alone that one-star review would have been an outlier compared to dozens of better ones (35 of them being five-stars) and probably regarded as the anomaly it was. But – like Jerry Seinfeld evening up his chest hair in that werewolf episode – he went too far. Could it be as simple as that thing where you don’t remember compliments, but you do remember the place, the time, and the tone in which you’re pretty sure someone implied you have a fat arse? Internet nemeses are easily gained and rarely forgotten. I should know – I have them as saved searches in my Tweetbot.

But of course there is a big difference between bad Amazon reviews and disagreeing on Twitter: here there is money involved. Bad reviews pull the book’s overall rating down – the rating that sits right under the name of the book in yellow stars. The temptation to “game” that kind of system is often irresistible – to fans, to haters, to the authors themselves.

Reputable sites make a point of not tampering with customer reviews, or at least being transparent about what's fair comment and what's not. Richard Longhurst, co-owner of Lovehoney, Britain’s biggest online retailer of sex toys, says that while his staff do go in and correct grammatical errors, Lovehoney will never outright remove a bad customer review from their website – the presence of the bad lends validity to the good.

What prompted Rice to sign the petition were her experiences in an Amazon forum this past January (although she’s been talking about the Amazon problem for some time). She was answering questions while “predatory career bullies” (screengrabbed here) spat venom and abuse, anonymously. She told the Guardian: “They've worked their way into the Amazon system as parasites, posting largely under pseudonyms, lecturing, bullying, seeking to discipline authors whom they see as their special prey . . .  They're all about power. They clearly organise, use multiple identities and brag about their ability to down vote an author's works if the author doesn't 'behave' as they dictate."

Rice is right about one thing: there are reviewers out there who pride themselves on only leaving bad reviews. Meet Chris Roberts.

Roberts has 50 followers on Twitter, where he describes himself as a “short story writer, Pushcart Prize nominee and Lord High Executioner of the Amazon One-Star review”. I first started following him in June 2013. I found him underneath a listing for a book I was thinking about buying and he was rubbishing, in verse. It was a one-star review, the absolute hammer-to-the-balls of the Amazon world. This month he reached a landmark 350 one-star reviews. Authors range from the relatively unknown, to Paul Auster, to Vladimir “nowhere near as good as Katie Price” Nabokov. Since he started in 2010, Roberts has read and loathed more books than I have stacked guiltily and unread by my bed. By review number five he was signing off as “Chris Roberts, God”.

He has reviewed a collected edition of Nora Ephron's work by writing a one-act play in the style of Tennessee Williams. Signing himself “Chris Roberts, lord God of the spooky edge”, he reviewed a Thomas Pynchon book in free verse averring that "YOURS is a cyclical pantomime". He reviewed a book about Bob Dylan by noting, “Insanity is knowing Bob Dylan can't hold a note.../ And calling him a great artist.../ Insanity is his response to the Holocaust...”

I wanted to know why he rubbished, on average, two novels per week consistently for the past four years. I asked him but was evidently too slow in answering my emails (I am shit at emails, I will give him that). It went: less than brilliantly. You can still find these daily updates on his Twitter if you ever need reminding:

Matthew Taub at OTBKB had better luck than me in interviewing Roberts: here he ponders whether he is an “obstinate troll or literary muckraker”?

Roberts has a very clear view on one-star reviews: he likes giving them, and Amazon won't stop him. He told Anne Rice as much: “even if Jesus Christ signed the petition, Amazon will do nothing”.

Chris Roberts is probably right. But would removing abuse make Amazon purer?

While an Amazon rating might matter little to you, it matters a lot to the author. Nobody checks an Amazon rating more frequently than the book’s author. It’s the sort of thing that keeps a person up at night. I should know, I have slept in the houses of the Amazon-ranked.

Here’s what writers do in their dressing gowns: writers write back to people who slate them. We know this because in 2004, for one stomach-flipping week, the anonymous reviewer names on Amazon Canada were replaced with real names. By the time the glitch was rectified we’d already found out that the anonymously named “a reader from New York” was actually Dave Eggers, rebutting bad reviews. Some writers wrote five-star reviews of their own books (and their friends’ books) in order to boost the rankings. Don’t judge those guys, you’d do it too. When ratings equal sales, it’s a means to survival. It’s the online equivalent of going into a bookstore and rearranging the display so that your own book is front and centre (also left, right, above and below if my time as a bookseller taught me anything), or putting in a fake order and then cancelling it so the store is forced to put it on their shelves (where it can be rearranged in a week’s time to front, centre, left, right, etc). In areas of creative work, games are always being played: for good and bad.

Remember that self-published author from Milton Keynes? The judge threw the case out, a) because such a small portion of the reviews would actually be considered libellous and pursuing it would be a waste of time and money, and b) the judge thought the author might have trouble convincing the jury that he had been wronged, considering his own online behaviour. He has been pseudonymously rebutting bad reviews and adding favourable ones. (He owes £100,000 in legal bills.)

Essentially this Amazon petition is just a part of the wider discussion about people being dicks on the Internet. Even if you take away their anonymity, people will still find a way to be dicks on the internet because it’s the internet. As for Amazon reviews, they have become bottom half of the internet at worst, strategic puff pieces at best, and therefore irrelevant unless you're buying a washing machine or being funny about Penetrating Wagner's Ring. In the same conversation you have with your mum about that man from Nigeria asking her for money, you need to explain how Amazon reviews need to be ignored.

Will the petition work? I doubt it. If Amazon’s customer reviews were a stain on your shirt, they’d be a go-home stain. No amount of scrubbing will get this out. 

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

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I can’t be the only one who has noticed that every dish in the Western world’s a cheese sandwich

Raclette, cheesy crackers, baguettes – even ice-cream is just cheese in waiting.

Scientists examining a chicken nugget have discovered DNA from over a hundred individuals mixed into a fowl mush. It makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, I always used to say to my kids when they ordered nuggets, “You realise that’s made of crushed-up chicken eyelids and testicles,” but I still imagined these were the parts of at most two or three bodies. And while no one with eyes (lidded or otherwise) could fail to see how disgusting the battery farming industry is, this new intelligence gives it a truly diabolic cast: what we’re participating in here is a sort of chicken holocaust.

I mean, I like Sadiq Khan well enough – I even voted for him to become London mayor; and I applaud his decision to attend a Holocaust memorial event on his first day in office. But c’mon, now, Sadiq, that holocaust took place some time ago, while you can walk past any takeaway, anywhere in Britain, and see a teenager put a hundred chickens in his mouth at once! How much better it is when they stick to their staple food – one that has sustained generations of European and American children, and that, one hopes, will do so for many more years to come. I refer, of course, to the cheese sandwich.

A few weeks ago I was having supper at a pizza joint with my friend Cressida, when she remarked, apropos of my ordering a Caesar salad: “Well, it makes a change from eating a cheese sandwich, which is basically what our kids have at every meal, and we ourselves do for a high proportion of them.” Then she began to itemise some of the meals that are “basically a cheese sandwich”. Lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese with Parmesan cheese, a tricolore salad with a piece of nice, crusty bread? All of these, basically, are cheese sandwiches reconfigured – as is almost all Italian cuisine, the pizza being only the most egrcheesgious example.

“But what about a lovely serving of cassata, or an ice-cream treat?” I hear you moan. To which my only reply is: add a wafer, and in all but name you have a cheese sandwich right there on the plate in front of you. After all, what’s ice cream? Only cheese-in-waiting. Cheesy crackers, cheese footballs, the Swiss raclette – the French onion soup served with a chunk of baguette – the humble ploughman’s lunch, or the businessman’s haughty oysters mornay; all, let’s face it, are basically cheese sandwiches. I’m not arguing that this food monoculture is a bad thing – on the contrary, with whole flocks of chickens being immured in nugget-hecatombs, it’s comforting to realise there are still some things in the world that are fairly undifferentiated. True, a cheese sandwich can be a baroque creation, with choice ingredients piled high on a seeded bun: a meat pattie, lettuce, tomato, a wedge of cheese and a dill pick— Oh! silly me, that’s a cheeseburger.

But alternatively a cheese sandwich can be beautifully simple. Consider the lonely Anatolian shepherd, a figure out of antiquity with his woollen cloak and untreated hypotension. See him withdraw a hard disc of unleavened bread from the folds of his cloak; see him withdraw a lump of hard cheese from some other folds of his cloak. See him combine them – and reflect that what you are witnessing is a way of making of a cheese sandwich which has remained unchanged for millennia, perhaps since the very first Anatolian grabbed a lactating ewe and rubbed its udder against some emmer wheat, so commencing the whole strange business we call civilisation.

About ten thousand years later, this phenomenon has bodied forth into the world we see about us: a society in which fortunes can be won or lost on the turn of a cheese toastie. One multimillionaire who owes his fortune in large part to an ability to dream up felicitous combinations of basic wheat and dairy products is Jamie Oliver. On his website, he discusses making a cheese sandwich with such oracular eloquence that, reading him, I felt I had a direct connection to some great prophet or otherwise holy man.

“A toasted cheese sandwich is a beautiful thing,” he writes, at once drawing our attention to the sheer wondrousness of God’s creation, “but I’m not messing about here – this is the ultimate one and it’s going to blow your mind.” Whoa! There it is – suddenly you’re in the presence of Ecclesiastes, half expecting Jamie to assert that, of the making of many cheese sandwiches, there is no end (which indeed is the case, especially if you’re taking young folk camping).

Instead, the man who has done more for Britain’s children than anyone since Lord Shaftesbury admonishes us in more exultant tones: “But there is a particular sequence of events that needs to happen in order to achieve the most ridiculously tasty, chomp-worthy sandwich.” In other words, the road of wisdom leads to the palace of excess, because: “Follow this recipe, and it will always make you feel good. It is also especially useful when you’re suffering from a light hangover. This is when the condiments – dolloped on to a side plate like a painter’s palette – really come into their own.”

Stirring stuff, which is why I’m getting up a subscription to replace Eros with a life-size nude statue of Jamie Oliver pointing a fondue fork towards the East End.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster