Book Review Scandals, Romanticism, and An Eye Toward the Future

Recently, bestselling crime author RJ Ellory admitted to using fake names on Amazon to praise his own books and pillory the works of his competitors. He has been widely criticized by his fellow authors and by the press, though it remains to be seen whether it will impact his sales numbers. Ellory is not the only person to have admitted to 'sock puppeting', as the practice is known. Nor are authors that only ones that are guilty of this peculiarly internet-era ethical lapse. Readers will doubtless know that corporations use this practice frequently as well.

Both scenarios are bad, yes, but with respect to authors, the practice somehow feels worse. People expect this from 'evil' and underhanded corporations as part of their marketing efforts. Perhaps that doesn't make it any better on some level, but it is hard to argue with the pragmatic notion that expectations make a difference. To further this point, not only are ethical expectations low for corporations, but tend, rightly or wrongly, to be higher for authors.

Because of this expectation, one that Ellory and his ilk are no doubt aware of, there is an odd, almost inexplicable air of desperation related to Ellory's actions; he is a bestselling author and probably would be even without his indiscretions. He didn't really need to risk his reputation to do this, he didn't need to trample on the expectations of his readers to put food on his table.

Perhaps this situation gnaws at me because there are well-established outlets for authors to criticize each other, like book reviews, meaning that Ellory's actions were (unless he has some sort of mental condition which would lead him to do something like this, a notion I bring up only to point out that it isn't outside the realm of possibility) motivated purely by commercial interest. While authors under contract have some obligation to get books sold, this nonetheless should come second to their obligation to write books with integrity.

On second thought, we can scupper that line of reasoning. I suppose that even commercial interest isn't my main criticism. If Ellory had taken to Amazon using his own name to criticize his competition, even if he were motivated purely by the competitive flames licking at his heels, I would have far less of an issue. It would be like the book reviews noted above, just in new-age format. In fact, it is possible that this post would read a lot more like 'internet-savvy author savages his contemporaries on the web to the delight of readers' in that scenario. 'What an interesting chap!' I might write. Yes, it is clearly the lack of honesty, indeed the willful deception, which bothers me here.

Perhaps such criticism is based on a romanticized notion of what the modern author should be, shaped by my admiration for some of the greats of the past. I have similarly spent a lot of time expressing disappointment in the media based on what may well be an overly romanticized version of that profession's history. Maybe I am being naive in both cases, ignorantly blinding myself to the realities of the modern journalism and writing. Maybe my views of their pasts are too idyllic, and put too much emphasis on the illustrious beacons and not enough on the down and dirty realities.

However, even if I am being naive, even if I am holding out professions on a mythical pedestal which doesn't really exist, I am sure some of our readers feel the same. If that is true, than such viewpoints, while romantic, do mean something. Here's hoping that our views, romanticized or not, carry the day.


  1. Anonymous18/9/12 15:22

    I have to say that even anonymous attacks on his rivals do not bother me. What does bother me is the pseudonymous reviews of his own work.

    It's hard to say why. But we tolerate anonymous reviews of work of others all the time; I suppose any of those reviews could be rival authors. That seems fair game.

    But it seems unfair when you praise your own work anonymously or pseudonymously. Why? The positive review is no more a "lie" than the negative review of another author. Ellory may genuinely think, as I do, that James Patterson write absolute dreck; he may also think he, Ellory, is a genius whose writing is superb (I haven't read Ellory so I won't opine).

    I think the reason the positive review bothers me more is that I think it IS a lie. I think Ellory does not really believe his work was as good as his reviews; even those not given to humility rarely identify their own works with as many superlatives as Ellory described his own ("surpassing genius," et al). Not liking someone else's work seems genuine, anonymous or not. But praising your own work seems fake; I suspect it to be an outright lie.

    And even if true, it remains an implicit lie because any review implicitly promises that someone ELSE liked (or disliked) the book, other than the author her/himself. That's satisfied when you trash other people's books, but not when you praise your own.

    At bottom, it feels wrong to me to say that you lose the right to anonymously trash an author just because you've written a book yourself. But it doesn't feel wrong to me to say that when you write a book, you shouldn't praise it and pretend to be someone else. Ellory is being criticized for both, but only the latter is objectionable. Asking myself if he had done only the former, what would there be to condemn? That he wrote negative reviews of books he didn't like? But if he did only the latter, I would be as disgusted as I am now, because only the latter tactic is disgusting.

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by and providing a thoughtful and well-reasoned response.

    I will provide my (hopefully) thoughtful and well-reasoned reply to that over the next day or so - unfortunately bogged down at the moment...


  3. Dear Reader,

    Apologies for the delay in responding, it has been a busy few weeks. As I noted above, I appreciate your thoughtful response.

    In reading your reponse, it occurs to me that I may not have been entirely clear that I found both practices to be condemnable in nearly equal part. While I see your viewpoint on this, I think we will have to agree to disagree with respect to Ellory's anonymous reviews of the work of others.

    I think we can dispense without too much detail on the self-praise issue as we seem to agree 100% on that.

    However, I think you go too easy on Ellory for criticizing others anonymously. Perhaps writing shouldn't remove one's right to critique as you duly note, but surely the bigger picture comes into play here.

    In your own analysis, you note that his own praise comes across as a lie because of the superlative nature of the praise. This is a bit of an assumption based on a theory that Ellory isn't a megalomaniac. Isn't it equally as true that Ellory might not think the authors he criticized are as bad as he suggested? Doesn't his pattern of behavior in this respect need to be taken into account?

    While I am not 100% sure how he did the deeds, here is a likely hypothetical which could help shape your view. What if his critiques and praise were posted under the same psuedonym? Potential buyers would surely see both posts in many cases, if for no other reason than it is nearly impossible not to on Amazon. Maybe coupling the negative lie (which you accept) with the praise lie (which you don't accept) under the same name gets you a little closer to my view?

    Maybe it doesn't. In any case, while I definitely see your point, and might even change my own to be a more nuanced 'self promotion is slightly worse than anonymous bashing' I still think there is a problem with what Ellory did in both cases.

    And, in any case, I personally dock him points for cowardice. He could easily have used his own name in the negative reviews, and perhaps garnered even more attention for them. If he was truly interested in critiquing, he could have done so under his name.

    This isn't to say I am right. Fighting to the death in a matter of web-based moral equivalency just seems to beg for karmic retribution. And I already got swayed to the 'one might be worse than the other' position. Maybe more time would get me all the way to your position. Maybe a few more years of numbing at the hands of the faceless, nameless commentariat of the web will make me accept these actions for what they are without the romanticism. Maybe I am just plain wrong about this issue.

    However, for now, I see reason to criticize Ellory for both of his actions.

    Thanks again for reading-