Beware the Smiling Sock Puppet
Today, my provocation for you has to do with one aspect of author community.
The incident I’m going to tell you about didn’t occur in the Writer Unboxed community. This commentary isn’t about the Writer Unboxed community, per se, nor about my bro Vaughn Roycroft and the other great people who shepherd that group so faithfully, nor about the terrific writers who draw strength and aid from it. You’re all golden. And I’d like you to give me your input on this issue.
We’re going to talk about false consumer-review ratings of the happy kind. I’ll tell you about the incident that prompts this.
Last week, a friend of mine who’s an author–a very good one–needed help in putting the cover image of her forthcoming book into a listing on a big Web site we all know well.
She went to a major writing community of which she’s a respected member, and she put out the call for help.
Happily, my friend got the assistance she needed from a kindly fellow author, who helped her get the image into place.
And then my friend got a five-star rating for the book from that kindly author.
The kindly author hasn’t read the book. Because it’s not out. She hasn’t been given an advanced reading copy, either. She gave a five-star rating to a book she’s never seen, surely as what she felt was a generous gesture.
My author friend who was helped with the image was just as shocked as I was. She’d asked for no rating or review-ish support whatever.
So this is a case of a good-Samaritan writer, our “kindly author,” responding to the supportive-community concept with some technical assistance…and a bogus rating. Our kindly author evidently thinks it’s okay for her to give a five-star endorsement to a book she’s never seen. On the site in question, a five-star rating is the best possible.
As my provocation today, I propose that we examine this event for several important issues.
Is our kindly author a representative of the goodness that can come from author community? Or is she making a wrong-headed interpretation of the one-for-all dynamic?
‘Truthful Hyperbole’ and ‘Sweet Subterfuge’
It’s easy for us to guess what our kindly author thinks she’s doing when she endorses a book she’s never read: she wants to give my author friend some friendly help with the new, unlaunched book.
Negatives? I propose these:
- The kindly author has lied to readers, our authors’ customers.
- She has lied to her fellow authors, too.
- She has compromised the star-rating system.
- And her rating reflects an errant Musketeer on the loose: she’s operating on the premise that the honorable context of “mutual support” among authors somehow excuses unethical behavior.
I seriously doubt that the rank-and-file reader expects this to be happening. When that user sees such a rating, does he ask himself it it’s possible that the rating was falsely conferred on the book by a kindly author who’d never turned a single page of that book but wanted to give my friend a leg up? No. Why would he suspect such a thing? If he acts on that rating and buys the book, he’s been duped.
And this falls along the same lines as an opinion I’ve heard some authors express, that if you can’t give a positive review to another author’s book, just don’t give a review. I say that this, too, is a bad-faith argument. It’s perfectly possible to say in a review that you appreciate and like this fellow author and that you’ve encountered what you feel are certain shortcomings in the work and that you hope readers will give the book a try, see for themselves what they think. This is what the best professional critics do.
But let’s not miss a step here: Why does telling the truth to reader-consumers matter?
Because it’s simply right, for starters, especially if you’re willing to take readers’ money for your own work. Your readers are the people you serve as a writer. They’re your patrons. It’s not okay to lie to them.
And in the wider context, it matters because we’ve entered an age of culture-wide untruth. Tony Schwartz, the president’s co-writer in The Art of the Deal , created the phrase “truthful hyperbole” for Trump’s way of exaggerating and lying about issues. Jane Mayer covered this in July 2016 for The New Yorker , in case you’re unfamiliar with the phrase in the Trump lexicon. Today, the effects of this idea of rationalized falsehood are impacting our public life daily.
And the phrase “truthful hyperbole,” of course, as Schwartz has said in interviews, is an oxymoron.
- Hyperbole is not truthful.
- Truth is not hyperbole.
Let’s call our kindly author’s version “sweet subterfuge.”
- Subterfuge is not sweet.
- Sweetness is not subterfuge.
If an author writes negative reviews to damage another author’s sales, we call it sock puppetry and we furiously (and rightly) condemn it.
But what if the sock puppet wears a smile? What if the sock puppet is whispering sweet nothings into consumers’ ears? Does that make the falsehood okay?
Look, we all get it. The book market is saturated. Any break an author can get may be welcome. And the rise of author community for mutual support and promotion is a noble element of the contemporary expansion of the author base, no question about it.
But where does collegial support cross the line into unethical behavior?
Have you been the beneficiary of good reviews and/or ratings from authors who didn’t read your work? Should the community of authors condone “sweet subterfuge” in the signals authors throw to readers about each others’ work?
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