Earlier this week, I was one of several people involved in drafting the open letter in the previous post, to which I also added my signature. Since then, the letter has been posted online (here), where others are welcome to add their signatures as well.
At the time of writing this, nearly 400 people have done so. Naturally, there has also been a degree of discussion and criticism of the letter from others, including (but not limited to) Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. This post is not addressed to either of those critics in particular, but I wanted to mention a few points of criticism and clarify where I stand. It should go without saying that the opinions below are mine, and do not represent any of the other signatories to the letter.
1. It’s a witch-hunt, specifically of the three writers named.
Well, not in my eyes, it’s not. As you can imagine, one of the lengthiest discussions had while drafting the letter was whether to mention the three writers by name. Arguments were made on both sides.
My view was that the focus of the letter should be on the behaviour itself rather than the individuals, but that there was no reason not to name them. For readers unfamiliar with what had taken place, it explained the context for writing the letter in the first place; for readers familiar with events, the names were known anyway. And all three writers were already in the news, frequently mentioned in the same major articles.
As long as the focus of the letter was on condemning the behaviour rather than the writers, I felt it was okay – and I think that was achieved. There is no baying mob. There is no moral panic. There are simply objections to specific types of behaviour. In a piece of advice that will be quoted again shortly, if you don’t like the letter, you don’t have to sign it. You can always write your own, or not, or whatever.
2. It’s badly worded. You should have said this or that instead of this and that.
The writers who signed the letter were happy with the wording, as were the people who signed it online afterwards. If you don’t like the letter, you don’t have to sign it. You can always write your own, or not, or whatever.
3. You don’t say what’s wrong with the activities / don’t differentiate between them in terms of badness / don’t invent and define morality from first principles in front of my eyes.
No, indeed. I suppose there was a general consensus that it was fairly obvious that these activities were wrong. Many people seem to agree. However, we can have a quick run through this.
Four behaviours were referred to:
a) Using sock puppet accounts to create buzz;
b) Leaving positive self-reviews under assumed names;
c) Leaving negative other-reviews under assumed names;
d) Paying others to purchase and review one’s own work.
Behaviours a) and b) are arguably illegal (the vendor posing as a consumer), but here is why I believe these things are wrong: they are attempts to deceive the reader of the review or comment to procure an advantage at their expense. In each case, there is a relevant piece of information obscured from the reader that would change the reader’s perception of the review or comment, and therefore its impact upon the reader.
Barry Eisler brings Kant into it, but only quotes the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, which feeds into the fairly obvious idea that this behaviour is wrong because if everyone behaved like this then the review system would collapse. But the second formulation (roughly “Treat others not merely as means, but as ends in themselves”) speaks more appropriately to intent. Readers were in those places to find information that would help them choose whether to buy a book. The writers in question disregarded the ends of the readers, treating them merely as means to further their own. And they directly intended to do so.
With each behaviour, there are individual wrinkles. So, does the letter differentiate between the four types? Well, it lists them separately. Does it condemn them all? Yes, it does. Does it argue that they are all equally wrong, or wrong in the same ways? No, it does not.
It’s worth pointing out again that other signatories may feel differently from me; they may explain their objections in other ways entirely. But you know what? They all signed the letter. And they don’t have to show you their working. If you don’t like the letter, you don’t have to sign it. You can always write your own, or not, or whatever.
4. Other activities are just as bad.
They may be. One example that keeps being raised is blurbing. My feeling is that this is very different, as the blurber generally receives no direct material advantage from the blurb, and is putting their name to their opinion. (In fact, they’re risking their name).
That’s a separate argument. The letter condemns the behaviours mentioned – it says nothing about other behaviours. From my point of view, the behaviours listed are all clearly wrong. They are definitely over the line. It may be that others are too, in certain circumstances, but that would require an argument from someone as to why. You can always write that letter instead, or not, or whatever, and it’s possible I’d sign that too.
5. Comments were deleted from the blog post.
Yes, they were. That website is set up with the intention of allowing people to sign it if they wish, not to debate its merits or self-promote in the thread below. If you don’t like the letter, you don’t have to sign it. You can always discuss and debate it on your own website, or not, or whatever.
6. Worse things happen at sea! It’s not that bad!
Indeed, they do. You can always write about the worse things that happen at sea, or not, or whatever
7. You’re sanctimonious, smug etc.
Possibly. But look. In the past month, I’ve been called ugly and told that I only have tattoos because of a lack of self-esteem. I’ve been accused of envy, had (inaccurate) sales figures posted in various places, and been told I have no future as a writer. I’ve been a thinly disguised character in a terribly written short story, where I’m described as looking like I’ve just come out of prison and being a ”wimp at heart”. People who have reviewed me in good faith have had their reviews voted down. I’ve had defamatory lies posted about me by a friend of Stephen Leather who publishes daddy-daughter incest porn. I’ve had people attempt to organise online campaigns targeting me for abuse. And so on.
In short, you’re going to have to try harder to upset me.
8. I have another point to make.
The floor is open. I’ve been a bit slack, last week or so, replying to stuff. I have a book to write – I really do! – but if you want to comment below then I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can.