Terence Blacker: Why writers are mugging one another

Creative writing courses pay less attention to words on the page than to the pitch, the sell-in

Share
Related Topics

Today marks the end of a peculiar, but increasingly popular, annual event: national novel-writing month is almost over. Heads down, fingers pounding away at their keyboards, would-be writers here and in America will be racing for the finishing line, having almost completed a novel of some kind or other in 30 days. The words of one of the scheme's champions may be echoing in their bleary, sleep-deprived brain. At the start of the month, they were a plumber/estate agent/mum/resting actor; now they are a novelist.

It is a peculiarly unkind lie. Someone who has spilt 50,000 written words during the month of November is only a novelist in the sense that someone strolling the London Marathon in a Mr Blobby suit is an athlete. Writing a story – any story, however dull and clumsily written – is an achievement, like losing weight or ending an unhappy relationship, but means nothing beyond itself.

It is a testament to the self-promotional efforts of the burgeoning creative writing industry that the difference between writing and typing still has to be made. The novel-in-a-month contenders will have learnt one useful lesson of 21st-century publishing – that productivity tends to be rated more highly than quality – but soon many will be exposed to another. In the modern world of publishing, marketing is everything.

For a true picture of the way the books business works, they should turn not to the fawning books-of-the-year compilations, but to the revelation or, rather, confirmation, that the Amazon reviewing system is prey to personal back-biting and organised rigging.

The combination of Amazon's vast power in the market and the opportunity it offers for readers to play amateur critic could only lead to dodginess of one kind and another. It has been known for some time that authors plug their own work, and encourage their friends to help it along, too. Earlier in the year, the established historian Orlando Figes was discovered to have used a pseudonym to trash the work of his rivals.

Now two established authors, Polly Samson and Rosie Alison, have found themselves on what seems to be a concerted campaign of abuse on the Amazon website. Both have written critically well-received works of fiction, and both are married to high-profile husbands – enough to unleash the jealousy and bitterness which are the ever-present companions of the not-yet-published or the published-but-unsuccessful. An online mugging, in the form of nasty, negative reviews, has been taking place on Amazon.

Predictably, the books industry has become involved in the readers' review scam. Publishing has never been as morally scrupulous as it likes to pretend – a culture of casual dishonesty has been part of the industry for decades – and the temptation to manipulate online reviewing was never going to be resisted for long. There are now companies which specialise in "reputation management". Hired by publishers, they set up fake accounts and pepper the online bookshops with "readers' reports" which gush with manufactured enthusiasm. According to the founder of one, the starting price for managing reputations is £5,000, and many publishers are happily playing the game. Authors join in, too, advertising on the internet for hired "reviewers". The going rate, for those interested in making easy money, is £160 for 50 "reviews". Here is the ultimate triumph of the market.

Jeffrey Archer once advised young authors that it was selling their product which would require most of their energy and creativity. His cynical advice, mocked at the time, is now an article of publishing faith. Creative writing courses pay less attention to words on the page than to the pitch, the sell-in. The aim is not to write a great book but to get a great publishing deal.

As they finish their instant fictions, the November novelists should decide if they are writing for themselves, to convey a truth or feeling, tell a story, develop an idea. If that is the case, they should forget the speed-writing, and prepare for a tough creative life. If, on the other hand, they want to write for the market, they should simply hold their noses and jump.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The successful applicant w...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobThe successful ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Believe me, I said, there’s nothing rural about this urban borough’s attempt at a country fair

John Walsh
Tony and Cherie Blair on the day he was elected  

The intensity of the adulation for Blair ought to concern Labour’s ‘new’ man

Steve Richards
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor