Topic: Professions & Institutions

Self-Reviewing: Cheating for the Self-Righteous
(3/6/2004)

Cheating is bad enough, but almost everyone cheats at something at one time or another, and feels badly about it. Frequently, there is enough remorse that the cheating behavior doesn't recur. When people cheat and don't see anything wrong with it, however, the culture is in trouble.

Welcome to the world of best-selling authors. When Canada's Amazon.com site inadvertently included the names of those who had submitted reader book reviews, it was discovered that many of the anonymous reviews were written by authors of the books in question. The New York Times reported that, for example, according to Amy Harmon's account of the incident in The New York Times . "John Rechy, the author of the best-selling 1963 novel, "City of Night," and winner of the PEN-USA-WEST award for lifetime achievement, was one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon's highest rating," the Times report said. Far from being chagrined at his exposure, Rechy defended his deception 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 Rechy, who praised his new book, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens," on Amazon under the signature "a reader from Chicago" (at least he is from Chicago). "How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them."

Hmmm. Just why is it absurd for someone who reads a book to review it on line anonymously? Rechy doesn't say. Nor does he say why it is then acceptable for the author to put out a completely biased and conflicted review of his own work, pretending to be someone else. Nothing stops him from rebutting a review under his own name. But honesty wouldn't be nearly as persuasive.

The Times story quotes other authors who defend the practice (the practice is called misrepresentation and dishonesty) because their books are targets for organized smears, trashing by malicious souls who never read the book they are attacking, and rival authors with axes to grind. The Times quotes one well-known writer who admits "gleefully" to anonymously criticizing a famous novelist whom he felt been excessively celebrated for years. He thinks his target routinely posts rebuttals to his barbs, but always from behind a pseudonym.

It is not surprising, given a system of anonymous on-line reviews, that family member and friends add raves to the mix. But it is still wrong, gaming the system to distort the truth. The process spawns a predictable cycle. Eventually a promising device to help publicize quality just becomes a device to facilitate fraud. People buy books because of eloquent praise from the very people whose income depends on the books' sales. As it becomes known that the system has no integrity, the reviews lose their ability to persuade. Sales of books suffer, not only those by the fraudulent reviewers, but those whose authors played by the rules.

Rechy and his like, with their convenient rationalizations, damage far more than on-line book commentaries. They damage trust, and make the world a less open and enjoyable place. For Ethicsscoreboard's part, we think we'll pass on, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens." The book may be good, but the author is reprehensible.

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