One of my clients, thriller writer Eric Seder, came in to the HSG office today to say hi. Conversation, as it does, wandered to baseball.
Eric wanted to know if any of the players on the minor league teams I ran in Staten Island were obviously going to make it to the majors, even when they were newbies in single-A. I replied that there had been a couple on our teams—Chien-Ming Wang and Brett Gardner, for two who just seemed to have “it.”
“How about Melky Cabrera?” Eric asked, speaking of the former Yankee outfielder who was the MVP of the all star game this year, then a month later was suspended for the rest of the regular season when he tested positive for HGH.
I said that while he was the best player by far on a pretty much unwatchable Staten Island Yankees squad in 2003, we were all pretty surprised that he’d made it to the majors in a very quick two and a half years.
“Did you know he was juicing? Were you surprised?”
Those are actually very different questions, I said. I didn’t know he was taking HGH, that’s for sure. Yet, when he first made the Show as quickly as he did, then became a star (and seemingly quite a bit bigger, physically), it didn’t completely shock me that he had taken a shortcut.
The past couple of weeks has seen the uncovering of what seems to be an epidemic of literary “sock puppetting” and pay-per-review scandals, where authors are found to have created false identities on (mostly) Amazon in order to write glowing reviews of their own books to improve their rankings; or paid writers for hire to write raves for them (often without having read the book). John Locke, who’s sold more than a million books independently, was found to have paid for hundreds of reviews. While there was a certain amount of tsking and general outrage, it was nothing compared to this weekend. Then it came out that RJ Ellory, best-selling traditionally-published crime fiction writer and winner of best-book of the year in 2010 in the UK, not only created sock puppet IDs on Amazon to pump himself up, but also to slam and one-star books by many authors competing with him.
There was an avalanche of rebuke, and Ellory apologized for his “poor judgment.”It seems clear, however, that he’s just among the first to get caught, but certainly won’t be the last. It places into doubt the validity of reader reviews on Amazon etc, however, and it certainly feels like their records ought to have an asterisk next to them—kind of like Barry Bonds’s home run mark or Melky Cabrera’s all star game MVP award.
I think that much of the review-manipulation story relates pretty nicely to the Melky Cabrera juicing scandal—talented participants in a highly competitive field use dishonest methods to get ahead of their counterparts. But where the comparison breaks down, and where a lot of the outrage over Ellory in particular comes in, is in the fact that he used his false identities not just to build himself up, but very specifically to break his opponents down. So often when people talk about steroid users they say “well, he was dishonest, and what he did was dangerous—but only to himself. He’s not harming anyone else in the process.” (I know, that’s not really true, but the argument deals with future direct medical consequences of injecting yourself with hormones or rubbing on the Cream and the Clear.)
Ellroy, on the other hand, both raised himself up and brought down, say, Mark Billingham, and that goes over the line. I’m not saying he would have been excused. But the community would not have been so thoroughly angry with him for it had he “only” self-promoted. The author Keith Raffel posted the following on Facebook today, and I think it speaks for so many of us:
“I’m reluctant to pile on, but have you been following the scandal of authors anonymously praising their own books in reviews on Amazon, while savaging books by their colleagues? I can at least understand the impulse behind the former, but the latter seems particularly reprehensible. Sigh.”
Post script to the coda: I was just reading this to my wife, who said “Why are you being so even-handed? I just got back from my first day of school and all we heard about in the faculty meeting was how rigorous ethics must be. Why are you being so understanding of the people who do this, even when they are “merely” self-promoting. It messes it up for everyone and makes people who are working their butts off to make it think that the only way they can succeed is by cheating. It was true in baseball and it’s true here, and it’s true in high school. It’s just not OK.”