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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager-Alcohol-OTE £90,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum + £50,000 OTE + Car, Mobile, Benefits: h2 Recruit Lt...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£23200 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Austen Lloyd: Company Secretary

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: EAST ANGLIA - SENIOR SOLICITOR LEVEL ROLE** -...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Hughes in Durban in 2009, celebrating the first of his two centuries in the second Test against South Africa  

Sport will always be risky – we must accept that, even in the wake of the tragic death of Phillip Hughes

Rosie Millard
Rents in five regions of England and Wales are higher than 12 months ago  

Today was a bad day for renters, landlords, and democracy

Hannah Williams
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game