In Praise of Moi?

Big muttering started on the Net after the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, six weeks or so ago. Stephen Leather, best selling thriller writer, sat on a panel discussing e-books and said, as reported by The Daily Telegraph, ‘that he uses pseudonymous accounts in online discussion forums to create a “buzz” about his work’. (They’re called sock puppets, apparently.) It didn’t go down well with his audience. Some of them dug around the Internet for evidence and found that the practice was nastier than simply lauding his own work — and, it now emerges,  more widespread than you would expect, too.

It has unsettled me horribly.  These are fellow authors, you understand. This is my team. I didn’t think we did things like that.

I’m not well placed to make a judgement as to whether this is just the brutalist school of marketing or sufficiently misleading to be illegal – and, if the latter, who would be guilty of the criminal offence: the disguised author for perpetrating?  Amazon for publishing?  Could there be a class action by deceived readers? As someone who takes no notice of stars and hardly ever reads Amazon reviews (even of my own books, though that’s probably cowardice) I can’t really claim to have been materially misled pre-purchase.

So why does it nag away at me?  After a great deal of restless arguing with myself, I think there are four reasons:

1    Partly it’s the recoil from turning over a sun-warmed stone and finding maggots underneath. Now, some of my best friends are authors. I know that even the nicest of us have a touch of darkness. We can be savage when we’re writing and it isn’t going well.  And completely indifferent to the world, the flesh and the devil — not to mention our nearest and dearest — when the writing is on a roll.  But setting up a bunch of masks and playing different parts, sometimes even talking to another of our own masks – that’s just creepy.  Especially when you think of the sheer time it must take.

2    Sympathetic embarrassment. OK, I have a low embarrassment threshold, but for me this is just anguish. I feel for these guys standing naked and shivering in the spotlight of the Internet and I wish with all my heart that they hadn’t done it and they weren’t.

3   Much more important, though, trashing other writers makes me wince and want to run away and hide. But it also bewilders me. I mean why?  Surely not out of rivalry? As Katie Fforde always says, people read more than one book. Because they read hers doesn’t mean they aren’t going to read mine too, if they like my sort of thing.  Out of spite? That’s more than creepy, that’s sinister, up there with stalking and writing poison pen letters. You imagine strange loners without much in the way of a social or inner life getting their jollies out of it, not people with imagination. Especially not successful people with imagination.

4    Alien alert. Short of Miss Piggy, which author can honestly stand up and say their book is the bees’ knees, knocks everyone else into a cocked hat and is an absolute Must Read for the World? I can tell you which of my books I’m fondest of and possibly why – but I know a  load of faults in each and every one and probably there are a whole raft more than I haven’t thought of yet. Getting the damned thing published has never turned off my inner editor, nor should it. These writers have Gone To The Bad. It has to be all the fault of the Internet, temptingly anonymous with the reach of an Asian Flu Virus. Hasn’t it?

But then I remembered The Guru. Specifically, The Clicking of Cuthbert. PGW had seen this madness and set it down in its finest flower. I have set out the relevant bits below. The Vainglorious Author (a rising modern novelist from Russia) is attending a literary soiree rather than a full blown Harrogate festival but otherwise the parallel holds, I feel.

Vladimir Brusiloff’s mouth opened, as he prepared to speak. He was not a man who prattled readily, especially in a foreign tongue. He gave the impression that each word was excavated from his interior by some up-to-date process of mining. He glared bleakly at Mr. Devine, and allowed three words to drop out of him.

“Sovietski no good!”

He paused for a moment, set the machinery working again, and delivered five more at the pithead.

“I spit me of Sovietski!”

Raymond Parsloe Devine was plainly shaken, but he made an adroit attempt to recover his lost prestige.

“When I say I have been influenced by Sovietski, I mean, of course, that I was once under his spell. A young writer commits many follies. I have long since passed through that phase. The false glamour of Sovietski has ceased to dazzle me. I now belong whole-heartedly to the school of Nastikoff.”

“Nastikoff no good,” said Vladimir Brusiloff, coldly. He paused, listening to the machinery.

“Nastikoff worse than Sovietski.”

He paused again.

“I spit me of Nastikoff!” he said.

Vladimir Brusiloff proceeded to sum up.

“No novelists any good except me. Sovietski–yah! Nastikoff–bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me.”


Well, it cheered me up a bit. But at least Vladimir Brusiloff didn’t pretend to be Lamb Chop while he did it.

5 Responses to “In Praise of Moi?”

  • I was going to write a blog about this, Jenny. So glad I didn’t get around to it, because yours, as always – despite the dark subject – made me laugh.

  • Thanks for the chuckle, too. I’ve been rereading Wodehouse myself lately. Loved the “Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. ”

    I know of several novelists who put reviews on the web in not-their-own-names, but not to diss the writers, (who are their friends) but talk them up. It’s a strategy to promote sales, I suppose and some publishers are even encouraging authors to get “teams” together to roam the internet talking up the book, which takes it one step away from doing it yourself. I still hate it. I think it’s dishonest to masquerade as Ordinary Reader, or even readers, but as you say, the internet makes it so easy for people to praise or trash books anonymously, it’s only going to increase.

  • I’m going to be terribly naive, here, and admit I don’t know how to post a comment under an alias, even If I set up a new e-address, because both my computers tell everyone it’s me, regardless.

    The first I heard of the row was from the crime writing community the day it happened. Someone asked me if my son had bought any reviews for his book. Eh? BOUGHT??? And then it got worse.

    I feel exactly the same, Jenny. This is my world. Most of my friends are novelists. We are nice people. Indeed, the people I now call some of my best friends are the nicest and most generous people anywhere in the world.

    And thank God for Plum.

  • Marybeth Miller:

    This is getting off topic, Jenny, but I’d love to know which books of yours are your favorites and why (as you mentioned above in the post). I’ve read them all, with the exception of the Sophie Page one, which I only discovered today, along with this blog, which is why you’re getting a comment that is nearly a year past the posting date.

    • Thank you for visiting and thank you for your interesting question, Marybeth. I need time to think about this one (because of course all my books are my babies really) but I will give you a decent reasoned answer. The question deserves it.

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