Friday, September 7, 2012

That Sock Puppet Won't Hunt

Times are hard, especially for a man who aspires to make his living by words.

You begin at the bottom of the editorial heap — fair enough, most people do in this trade. But it rarely gets better. To make ends meet, sometimes you teach school, sometimes you write and edit. Your professional successes are rare — and those you have rarely last long.

Yet you are determined to leave your mark on the world, as a writer of any kind, but primarily as a poet. You have things to say — things that the world must hear.

At the age of thirty-one you begin writing your masterwork, and five long years later you have it finished. Publishing is in disarray  part free-for-all, part insider’s game. You decide to self-publish your book of poems.

Once you’ve done so, you receive a few nice letters — and some spiteful ones — but sales remain modest. The world notices your book, but only barely, and though you’ve written other things, you know in your heart that this is the work of a lifetime, an American original. It is your gift to posterity but you can’t afford to give such gifts away for free. You want the acclaim but you need the money.

There’s a thin reed of hope, however. From all that editorial work, you retain a few connections. So you write a couple of reviews anonymously, getting some extra publicity for the masterwork. Of course, for the most part, you praise it. You know you’ve crossed some kind of ethical line with this sock puppetry, but a man can’t eat ethics, can he?

And the reviews — well, they’re true, at least so far as any opinion goes — and isn't your opinion as valid as another's? So the reviews go out, posted on your own behalf. They don’t have an immediate effect, but eventually you do become famous.

The work you wrote is Leaves of Grass. Your name is Walt Whitman.

Until a few weeks ago, Walt Whitman having written anonymous reviews of his own work was an amusing footnote to the career of a great American author.

In the past few weeks, however, a small scandal has erupted over more contemporary figures. I won’t rehash the scandal here. If you have writer friends, you’re probably aware that certain individuals admitted to buying reviews of their books on Amazon, and others were found to have written positive reviews of their own work and negative reviews of others using so-called “sock puppet” identities — which is to say, by concealing their own real names and interests.

Writing anonymous reviews that tear down the work of others solely to settle a score (as has been alleged) is certainly reprehensible, not to mention childish, behavior. It is literally beneath contempt — which is to say, not worth taking much trouble to condemn.

On first blush it seems equally clear-cut to judge fake self-reviewing as wrong — possibly even illegal, to the extent it intends to deceive consumers. But I suspect that it’s intent is not exactly to deceive — certainly not in the way that a con man does it, tempting someone into a transaction where the consumer is bound to lose. In fact, I’d lay odds that those who write sock-puppet reviews of their own work believe deeply in its excellence and intend only to call attention to that “fact.” As Walt Whitman did.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me state now that
  1. I once gave my book Primacy five stars on Goodreads and wrote a brief review saying it was good, but I did it under my own name and mentioned that I was the author in the first sentence. I subsequently removed the whole review and rating, not because it was unethical but because it made me look pathetic.
  2. I have “liked” my own books on Amazon, just to get the ball rolling.
  3. I have solicited blurbs from fellow authors. No payment was exchanged.
  4. I have suggested to a few friends that it would be nice if they reviewed my book on Amazon, but there was never a quid pro quo of any kind.
  5. I have never written a sock-puppet review of my work or anyone else’s and I don’t intend ever to do so.
  6. In fact, I use social networks to promote my work only under my own name.
  7. I have never paid for a review and never will, though as per industry standards I have provided free copies to reviewers.
So, on balance, I think I’ve behaved pretty ethically in this regard, though perhaps not quite so ethically as to avoid the judgment of sticklers.

And yet I find it difficult to screw myself up into high moral dudgeon over the review-buying sock-puppetry issue, as certain authors have, signing petitions that name names and insisting on codes of ethics.

I’m not a libertarian, but in this case why not let the marketplace sort it out? If someone gets suckered by a positive sock-puppet review and buys the book, they’re likely out a few bucks. Nobody died or had his life ruined. Ultimately, proof of the work’s worth will be in the reading of it. If a customer likes the book, she may buy more from that author. If not, she’ll move on. This scenario may not be ideal, but sometimes I think novelists forget that real life is not as clean as the worlds they create with words.

The other day, I bought a bag of crackers. I thought, based on the packaging, that they’d be the best ever, but they weren’t. I’m out six bucks and now I know to try something else. I can be a grown up and learn my lesson or I guess I can start a petition against the cracker manufacturer, protesting its too-clever packaging. If I put that petition in front of you, what would you do? You’d laugh in my face and tell me to get a life, wouldn’t you? And you’d be right. When nobody buys the crackers a second time, that’s when the cracker manufacturer gets its comeuppance. It’s what makes marketplaces an efficient way of dealing with matters of taste.

So why are so many authors so upset over the transgressions of others? I think it’s because they’re scared for their own future, and when people get scared they find scapegoats in the form of “the others” and take up pitchforks and try to drive them out of town. There’s a lot of competition in the book marketplace right now and it builds resentments. Sometimes it’s easier to blame the competition than to raise your own game.

I’m not saying sock-puppetry is an act of which its perpetrators ought to be proud. In fact, I think it’s pretty cowardly. But cowards are for the most part to be pitied, not pilloried. They’re pathetic, not threatening.

Walt Whitman, when he wrote those anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass, was an outsider. He was poor, not a particularly successful journalist, not a successful school teacher, not a successful novelist. He was probably homosexual at a time when mainstream society ostracized homosexuals.

We praise him not for his subterfuge but for his poetry. Yet it’s worth noting that the subterfuge didn’t make him less of a poet.

Are the people who have taken to sock puppetry worthy of being spoken about in the same essay alongside Walt Whitman? As odds would have it, probably not. But who knows. The marketplace will vote. Posterity will decide.

The best I can do as an author is to promise my readers — not through some petition or code of ethics that someone else wrote, but one to one — the following:
  1. I will write the best books I can write, given the constraints of time and talent.
  2. I will see that those books are properly edited and designed, no matter how they come to market.
  3. I will never promote my books to you other than as myself, in real life or in the netherworld of social networks.
  4. I will never pay for a review.
  5. Finally, I will respect that my readers are the final arbiter of the worth of my novels.
Enough of novelistic scandals. I’m off to re-read Leaves of Grass.