A struggling author, frustrated by the response to his self-published book, reviews it anonymously. Someone spots the fraud, and the writer is publicly shamed.
No, I'm not talking about R.J. Ellory, the bestselling British crime novelist spanked from here to Fleet Street for writing "sock puppet" raves of his own fiction on Amazon under assumed names. Walt Whitman, on the other hand, was a nobody when he wrote several glowing pieces about Leaves of Grass in 1855.
Whitman's cheeky, nameless praise of his poetry as "transcendent and new" eventually became the mainstream view. Ellory's claim that his 2007 novel A Quiet Belief in Angels was "a class read" and "a modern masterpiece" only echoed praise already received from mainstream critics – the Guardian's reviewer called it "thriller writing of the very highest order."
But the crime novelist is taking a much bigger beating than the self-declared "American bard" ever did. Major writers ganged up on Ellory in letters to the editor. People who had never heard of him (like me) found him through the notoriety of his "lapse of judgment." Ellory is a whipping boy because he proved not only that online reviewing can be a murky swamp, but that just about anyone can be tempted to muck it up further.
This was no self-published writer trying to get noticed. More than one-million copies of A Quiet Belief in Angels have been sold; it has won several prizes, and was featured on The Richard and Judy Book Club – the British equivalent of Oprah's Book Club.
Why do it? One answer came from a writer hauled into the same dock in 2004, when Amazon's Canadian arm accidentally posted the real names of thousands of reviewers writing anonymously or under aliases. Among them was John Rechy, author of the underground classic City of Night. Asked why he wrote a puff pseudonymous review of a later book, Rechy said: "That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd. How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them." Countering a review under an alias may be the sneaky web version of hitting back at a print review in a letter to the editor. An Ottawa restaurant owner played a variation on this theme by setting up a fake dating profile of a customer who panned her meal; last week, the restauranteur was convicted of criminal harrassment.
That Rechy could get so steamed by comments from unknown parties indicates the peculiar strength of online reviews. The theory, as put out by web enthusiasts in the mid-1990s, was that the reactions of ordinary readers were more genuine and democratic than those of professional critics. The fact is that Amazon's army of volunteer reviewers gave new life to the testimonial. And just as the housewife in a TV commercial is not a neutral player, reviewers for Amazon and other online sites may have hidden agendas.
Technically, Amazon forbids reviews written by anyone "with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product." In Ellory's case, that covers his thrillers, and those by writers he trolled under an alias. But you only see Amazon's review guidelines if you click on a teensy link in a bottom corner of the review page. Even veteran reviewers may never read the rules. It's easy to get the impression that ethical regulation among contributors is optional, unless someone makes a stink.
Maybe it's too much to ask a retailer like Amazon to police every word said about stuff pouring through its warehouses. The company suggests as much in online notes about its Advantage consignment service, available to self-published writers. "As an Advantage member, you control the content on each product detail page, including in-depth descriptions, artist/author information, product reviews, etc." That seems to say that if somebody posts a review of your book that you don't like, you can kill it.
Odds are, however, that you won't have to. A Cornell University study of high-frequency Amazon reviewers found that 88 per cent said their reviews were mostly or only positive. Another study found that many Amazon buyers focus on star ratings, not words, because they just want assurance they're not wasting money. Online reviewing is not necessarily criticism. It may be truer to say it's the new mass marketing, by and for everyone, including sock puppets.
Who writes this stuff? A 2011 survey of 166 of Amazon's most frequent reviewers led by Cornell University professor Trevor Pinch found that:
70 per cent were male
39 per cent were authors
88 per cent gave all or mostly positive reviews
35 per cent had seen their reviews plagiarized by others
80 per cent said "self-expression" and "enjoyment" were top motivations for reviewing
85 per cent received free books from publishers, agents or authors