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October 6, 2012

I must confess that I totally missed the brouhaha in the media about RJ Ellory reviewing his own book. When I read about it in the October 1/8 double issue of Newsweek, I was stunned.

It appears that Ellory, a well-respected mystery writer, had been posting positive reviews of his own works on various sites while simultaneously writing negative reviews about other authors’ works. Jeremy Duns, a writer of spy fiction, alerted his followers on Twitter to this deception, which Ellory has now admitted and for which he has apologized.

But why, you might say, would Ellory do this?  The author of more than a dozen thrillers, awarded prizes by prestigious groups, what would make him write a review calling his own work a “modern masterpiece” while trashing the works of Stuart MacBride and Mark Billingham?

As news of Ellory’s trickery spread, dozens of well-known mystery writers decried the practice of “sock puppetry,” defined as writing reviews under pseudonyms. Linwood Barclay, Lee Child, and Laura Lippman (all reviewed on this blog) were among those who quickly condemned the practice; in fact, it would seem incredible for any reputable author to say or believe otherwise.

But “sock puppetry” does bring up another facet of deception, although a much less egregious one.  I’ve chosen many books in libraries and bookstores, as I’m sure you have too, based on the quotes on the front and back covers from writers I admire, only to be surprised and disappointed by the quality of the book in question.

There’s obviously room for disagreement among readers on whether a book is first-rate, second-rate, or even third-rate, but I wonder how much pressure is put on a well-known author to praise another writer’s novel, even if he/she thinks it’s not worthy.  Especially if the writer requesting the endorsement is a friend, what is the proper, ethical response?  The book has already been written, so no input will improve it.  It’s a conundrum similar to having a friend ask you if you like her new outfit/his new car/the movie that was produced by her brother.  What should you say?

However, that in no way excuses those authors who decide to praise their own books under false names while savaging other novels.  It’s a deplorable practice, and kudos to Jeremy Duns and others for revealing it.  Let’s hope to see the end of this sooner rather than later.


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