The Advance of the Sock Puppet Army

In the wake of the book-reviewers-for-hire furore, Stephanie Honor Convery examines the scandal’s context: a proliferation of ‘consumer review spaces’ and a shift from the fading institutional foundations of literary criticism.

What’s a good review on Amazon worth? A few dollars? A handful of sales? The warm and fuzzy feeling you get from knowing someone liked your work? What about ten good reviews? Fifty? A hundred? What if they made the difference between authorial fame and financial success, and bitter failure?

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times exposed the widespread popularity of the pay-per-review industry: the writers who will pay good money for positive online book reviews, and the entrepreneurs who will provide them for a tidy sum. The logic? Good reviews generate sales and publicity. The more of them the better, and to hell with legitimacy.

Needless to say, the literary community has been in an uproar ever since. Anxious to preserve their integrity and reputation with their audiences, ‘sock puppet’ reviewers have been roundly condemned by a large number of authors including Lee Child, Jo Nesbo and Ian Rankin. Locally, the discussion has been more closely focused on Australian literature’s ‘self-invested and uncritical attitudes’ contributing to a self-congratulatory ‘consensus culture’, the cost of which is both vigorous critical debate and literary diversity itself.

General skepticism of the nature of internet commentary notwithstanding, the anger directed towards the sock puppets and those who use them is certainly understandable. Any writer with some concept of artistic integrity wants to believe that their work is being honestly appraised – or, let’s be frank, honestly praised – by people who have actually read the work, considered it carefully, and who are responding fairly. They want to believe that the playing field is even, and that success will be the just reward for hard work. It’s a rude shock to discover that things are in fact otherwise, and it’s certainly easy to bluster about and condemn it. But as far as these revelations relate to our critical culture, they ought to be put into perspective.

Newspapers, which were for a long time one of the primary sources of book reviews for the general public, are in dramatic decline. In the US a few years ago, widespread bankruptcies and the closure of whole newspaper chains spread panic throughout the industry. Those papers that survived were forced to re-evaluate their content and restructure in order to survive. Review pages, arts criticism and books sections were consolidated, reshuffled, resized and reduced, if they weren’t scrapped altogether. We’ve seen similar things happen in Australia. As the latest gutting of Fairfax demonstrates, criticism, reviews and the arts are the last interests and first casualties of the newspaper business in crisis.

The culture of literary criticism in the newspaper industry was never perfect, and it would be a mistake to idealise it, but for better or for worse at least there were rules. Codes of conduct against conflict of interest and material benefit were openly stated. The weight of those institutions not just as businesses but as cultural players also meant there was a buffer between the critic and the author of a work. Publishers obviously had an interest in sending review copies to newspapers, but the structure of the institutions created a cushioning effect which provided space for a much more robust critical culture to develop. The role of the critic wasn’t to provide unofficial marketing fodder but to consider the work as an aesthetic object, to engage with it as a cultural artefact and evaluate it accordingly. It may have been a cliquey community and susceptible to its own problems, and of course corruption existed, but there was at least a set of standards against which one could measure the integrity of cultural criticism and respond to conflicts accordingly.

In one way, the collapse of old media entails a kind of democratisation of reviewing culture, but it’s a democratisation of form and not content. Literary review in 2012 is less about literature as an art and cultural form than it is about consumer choice: those books you should buy and those you shouldn’t waste your money on. It’s worth remembering that Amazon is a retail monolith, providing consumer review space for everything from clothing to tech products, and it is not the only store that includes book reviews as par for the course. It’s not at all uncommon these days for local booksellers to include book reviews on their websites, commissioning them from writers, readers and staff alike, sticking them onto the shelves in the store proper, directing customers to certain stock. But in light of that old model of criticism, there’s an obvious conflict of interest here. A bookseller is hardly likely to commission a negative book review, and if they receive one, it is hardly in their interests to either post it or make it prominent.

If the dominant model of book reviewing these days is advertorial, it’s because the dominant logic underpinning our cultural exchange is that of the market. By that market logic, it makes perfect sense for writers to commission positive reviews, in the same way it makes sense for a company to pay a marketing team to promote its products. The objective, after all, is not to make a meaningful contribution to culture – but to shift units. And as books themselves become more costly and less popular and the average full time writer can’t even be guaranteed a liveable income, the cost of criticism seems very high indeed.

Despite the very vocal outrage, the solutions proposed to the sock puppet industry thus far step in time with this logic, as they are based on the idea that if only the market were able to operate freely and naturally without artificial interference, everything will run smoothly. Those who write well and write with gusto and intelligence will be rewarded, and the stooges and hacks will receive their comeuppance.

But the market is not a meritocracy. We shouldn’t think that it will be any kinder to literature and literary criticism than it has been to any other art. If literature is to persist in the exciting, challenging and vibrant way that writers, artists and critics insist that it should, we need to find ways for it – and for our critical culture alongside it – to exist beyond the market.

Portrait of Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is a Melbourne-based writer and the deputy editor of Overland magazine. Her work has appeared in the GuardianMeanjinThe Lifted Brow, ABC’s The Drum, the Big Issue, and other local and international publications.