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Shameless Self-Promotion

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A recent glitch in the Canadian version of Amazon.com revealed – prepare yourself – that writers review themselves:

John Rechy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel ‘City of Night’ and winner of the PEN-USA West lifetime achievement award, is one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon’s highest rating. Mr. Rechy, who laughed about it when approached, sees it as a means to survival when online stars mean sales.

‘That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd,’ said Mr. Rechy, who, having been caught, freely admitted to praising his new book, ‘The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens,’ on Amazon under the signature ‘a reader from Chicago.’ ‘How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them.’

….One well-known writer admitted privately — and gleefully — to anonymously criticizing a more prominent novelist who he felt had unfairly reaped critical praise for years. She regularly posts responses, or at least he thinks it is her, but the elegant rebuttals of his reviews are also written from behind a pseudonym.

…Jonathan Franzen, author of “The Corrections,” winner of the National Book Award, said that a first book by Tom Bissell last fall was “crudely and absurdly savaged” on Amazon in anonymous reviews he believed were posted by a group of writers whom Mr. Bissell had previously written about in the literary magazine The Believer.

“With the really flamingly negative reviews, I think it’s always worth asking yourself what kind of person has time to write them,” Mr. Franzen said. “I know that the times when I’ve been tempted to write a nasty review online, I have never had attractive motives.” Mr. Franzen declined to say whether he had ever given in to such temptation.

The suspicion that the same group of writers, known as the Underground Literary Alliance, had anonymously attacked his friend Heidi Julavits prompted the novelist Dave Eggers to write a review last August calling Ms. Julavits’s first novel “one of the best books of the year.”

Mr. Eggers, whose memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” made him a literary celebrity, chose to post his review as “a reader from St. Louis, MO.” But the review appeared under the name “David K Eggers” on Amazon’s Canadian site on Monday, and Mr. Eggers confirmed by e-mail that he had written it.

“I’ve done that one or two times before, when I like a book and the reviews on Amazon seem bizarre,” Mr. Eggers said. “In this case I just tried to bring back some balance.”

As a pseudonymous blogger, I have mixed feelings about this. Psuedonymity has its advantages and its hazards. I use a pseudonym to protect me, and my opinions, from being “Googled” by my patients. But for some readers, not being able to check up on my credentials probably undermines my credibility. The same sort of double-edged sword goes for writers and Amazon reviews. It’s just plain wrong for an author to review their own book. But, if David Eggers wants to review someone else’s book without using his name, that doesn’t really detract from his review. In fact, one could argue that using a pseudonym gives a famous person’s review more credibility. Otherwise, we’re likely to think of their reviews as one of those dust-jacket blurbs, written at the behest of the publisher. (Of course, a truly Machiavellian blurber would use anonymity to gain credibility. Oh, well.)

Then, too, writers are an extremely ego-sensitive bunch. I know. I’ve gotten some scathing emails from writers who “Googled” themselves and stumbled upon some of my blog’s reviews. Who can blame a writer for wanting to hide their identity from their fellows? Especially in the insular world of publishing?

And of course, one doesn’t need Amazon or the internet to reap the benefits of anonymity. Remember the book Primary Colors? It’s a rare find – a book that’s worse than its movie. But, it became a best-seller because people were trying to figure out who wrote it. Anonymity was a brilliant marketing ploy for Joe Klein.

But, pseudonymity and anonymity can certainly be abused, as they seem to have been at Amazon – to sabotage others works, to give their own work a leg-up in sales. Just remember that when you read the reviews. Like anything else – caveat emptor.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Very interesting look at the pros and cons of anonymity, which seems to be a rising topic once again. Thanks Dr. Syd, whoever you are.