HOW many writers, many of whom are the authors of whodunits, does it take to detect a rat in their own ranks?
The answer is 49. At least that's how many of them put their names to a letter in a national newspaper in which they accused three of their fellows of posting flattering reviews of their own work online while condemning that of others.
The outraged writers, such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina, cite R J Ellory as one of the prime culprits of the crime known as "sock puppetry". Apparently, Ellory, the author of 10 novels, including A Quiet Belief in Angels, which has been given the thumbs-up by Richard and Judy, the Leavises de nos jour, complimented himself on his "magnificent genius" and gave himself a generous five stars. In contrast, he stuffed Stuart MacBride, whom he awarded a single star for his novel Dark Blood, which he dismissed as "another in the seemingly endless parade of same-old-same-old police procedurals that seem to abound in the UK". Having not read Dark Blood I cannot comment specifically on Ellory's prognosis. Nor, I am afraid to say, have I read A Quiet Belief in Angels, because I doubt whether Richard and Judy and I share similar tastes in literature. It strikes me, though, that Ellory would make a hopeless ne'er-do-well, since he used pseudonyms, such as Nicodemus Jones and Jelly Bean, as cover. As with so many serial offenders, it would appear he was not so much hiding behind these daft names but begging to be unmasked.
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Having played their Poirot-like part, the aggrieved writers want the internet to be cleansed of such skulduggery. What they propose is that readers "take possession of the process". What this may entail, however, is not entirely clear. Given that they argue that the "internet belongs to us all", the writers want readers to post only "honest and heartfelt" reviews, "good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving." If readers agree – and it's a humungous "if" – then "the phoney voices...and underhand tactics will be marginalised to the point of irrelevance."
Coming from the writers of books which rely for their appeal on people's innate malevolence and untrustworthiness, this seems extraordinarily optimistic. The internet – which I'm not sure does belong to us all – has proved to be a boon for those who previously had no outlet for their incontinent ravings other than the letters pages of newspapers where they were quickly identified as bonkers because of their use of green ink.
With little in the way of mediation, the information superhighway is as unregulated as the Wild West. As we have seen with the likes of TripAdvisor, it is open to abuse. While some reviews of hotels and restaurants are fair and unbiased, many others are partial, ignorant and, ultimately, may have a disastrous effect on the businesses concerned. When everyone feels they have a legitimate right to criticise, it is difficult to differentiate between those who are well-meaning and well-informed and those whose only purpose is to cause trouble.
The same, it seems, is now true of the literary world. With publishers feeling the pinch, there is a greater imperative than ever before for authors to sell their own books. Indeed, some authors are better at marketing themselves than they are at writing. Previously, this might involve a writer shiftily putting his or her books in a prominent position in a bookshop. Today, when bookshops are disappearing from high streets like butcher's and baker's, the internet is where self-promotion is at its most shameless.
So we should not be too hard on Ellory and others of his ilk. Given the egos of artists, it is natural that they will want to push themselves forward at the expense of their rivals. Nor are their actions without precedent. Walter Scott and Hugh MacDiarmid had no compunction in writing reviews of their own work. Neither did Anthony Burgess, who in the Yorkshire Post said of a novel he'd written under a pseudonym: "This is, in many ways, a dirty book...It may well make some people sick..." And it did, though not as sick as Burgess himself who, much to his chagrin, was summarily fired.