As you’ll see if your eyes ever glance over to the right of this page, I have been known to do bits and pieces for Private Eye. Not as much as I used to, admittedly. Sometimes months go by without submitting anything. What did I do? Oh, shedloads of stuff for the Books and Bookmen column from 1999 until I decided that nearly all publishers were bastards and gave up for the sake of my sanity. For my sins, I was the one who named erstwhile Waterstone’s boss David Kneale ‘the Mekon’. Calling Alan Giles ‘Weasel’ wasn’t mine. That was just a head office nickname for him that someone told me about.
An email arrived from the Eye yesterday, forwarded from a reader signing him or herself ‘Mr G. Reaper’. It went as follows:
Glancing through Louis Barfe’s website I saw claims that he contributes to Private Eye.
Glancing through Amazon’s list of two books by Louis Barfe, I saw a small handful of distinctly suspicious reviews, indicative of someone or someone’s close friends enthusiastically praising their own or Barfe’s work. Indeed, certain praiseworthy quotations from Mr Barfe’s website are repeated almost verbatim on one Amazon review.
Bearing in mind that Private Eye quite rightly exposes others for duplicitously puffing their own work or that of their cronies on Amazon, I wondered whether you would have the integrity to do so when it involves one of your own employees?
It’s true that Bookworm has picked up on the odd bit of what appears to be Amazon review fraud over the years, but I always thought we were identifying the covert but painfully-obvious backscratching, the reviews that have blatantly been written by the author themselves and the suspiciously glowing notices for books that have been compared unfavourably to Andrex in all other quarters. Is that how this review and these reviews appear?
Yes, the Big George in question is the same one who wrote the Have I Got News For You theme tune. When Where Have All the Good Times Gone? came out, he interviewed me on the BBC eastern counties regional radio show that he then had (he’s now on BBC London). Not because he knew me, because he didn’t at that time (we email back and forth, but we’ve only actually met once), but because he loved the book, and he seems to love Turned Out Nice Again too. As he’s someone with a lot of music industry and television entertainment experience, it meant a lot. Similarly, when Bernard Shaw raved about Turned Out Nice Again that meant a lot too, as I knew of Bernard by reputation as a musician who’d worked in many television orchestras and seen a lot of what I wrote about first-hand. Save for a few cordial encounters on a message board for drummers, including one where he declared himself ready to leap on any mistakes I might have made in the book, I never actually knew him or met him. I use the past tense because he died at the start of this year. So, two-thirds of my ‘cronies’ and ‘close friends’ are someone I never met and someone I’ve met once. It’s hardly freemasonry, is it?
That leaves Miss T Jones, who is indeed a friend of mine – in fact, she says so at the start of the review. However, I know that she read it not because we’re friends, but because of the subject matter, a shared interest in which is one of the main reasons why we’re friends in the first place. She goes on to say that had my book not been any good, she’d have said so. I know this to be true.
As the vast majority of the press reviews for both books were favourable, the Andrex situation doesn’t apply. Nor was there any systematic backscratching. I have been informed by several other authors and various people in publishing that it is now the norm for a writer to solicit Amazon reviews. It might be the norm, but it’s not something I’d be happy with. I’ll take what comes, rough or smooth.
Moreover, if I were hell-bent on puffing my work, would I have posted “…this book is not worth reading” from Robert Hanks’ Independent review of Turned Out Nice Again on the book’s Amazon page? On seeing that I had, my publisher questioned the wisdom of doing so, and flat out refused when I maintained that it would be a spiffing wheeze to put it on the paperback jacket.
So, there you go, Mr Reaper. No need for the Eye to expose me, as I’m perfectly happy to expose myself, mainly because I’ve no reason to be ashamed.