…AND YOUR ENEMIES CLOSER

by Gar Anthony Haywood

At this point, there isn’t much more to write about the most recent literary sockpuppet scandal that hasn’t already been written.  R.J. Ellory has been the subject of more ink and page-views over the past two weeks than Clint Eastwood’s empty chair.  The poor bastard’s been slammed from pillar-to-post for writing fake reviews under phony names that not only glorified his own work, but trashed the work of others, and enough of his fellow writers have stepped up to condemn him — and, to some extent, even defend him — that one would think there’s no angle to this shitstorm that hasn’t already been examined a thousand times over.

Well, I can think of maybe one.

As Martyn demonstrated here earlier this week, the vast majority of the outrage people have expressed over Ellory’s behavior has been due to the reviews he pseudonymously posted ripping other authors, including Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride.  People wonder what could have possessed the man to do such a thing.  After all, aren’t we in the crime writing community all one big happy family?  Don’t we all share a mutual respect for one another that supersedes any jealousies or resentments we could otherwise harbor toward those more successful than we are?  Aren’t we above all the foolish and petty infighting that has marred the landscape of literary fiction for years?

Uh, no, no and no.

The truth is, crime writers are just as capable of making enemies of other crime writers as Gore Vidal was of making one of Norman Mailer.  We may all be in this writing game together, but some of us are sinking like a stone while others are tanning themselves on the deck of the Good Ship Lollypop, and the disparity between the two states of being sometimes goes to a crazed person’s head.  Most of the time, this crazed person is the writer holding the short end of the stick, but not always; sometimes, the fear and paranoia behind all the venom are actually a byproduct of being the one on top looking down.

I know a thing or two about this enemy-making business because I’ve made more than a few myself.  I know this leaves you incredulous — “An old softy like Gar Haywood making enemies?” — but it’s true.  I’ve done it in various ways:

  • Daring to criticize other authors by name.  Just as the first rule of Fight Club is “You do not talk about Fight Club!” (followed by the second rule: “You DO NOT talk about Fight Club!”), some crime writers believe a similar, even more sacred rule exists for Authors’ Club: “You DO NOT talk about other authors!”  Which is an admirable sentiment, to be sure, but a rather unrealistic and immature one, as well.  I mean, “If you can’t say something nice . . .” might work fine as an operating principle out on the playground at PS 44, but no adult who enjoys thoughtful discussions of matters literary as much as I do should be expected to adhere to it.

    Needless to say, there’s a line between honest criticism and personal attack that should never be crossed, and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever crossed it.  But this is a distinction lost on some of the writers I’ve publicly taken to task for one perceived technical failing or another.  To them, any negative word spoken by one writer about another in the public square is tantamount to slander, and whoa be to him who breaks the Brotherhood’s code of silence in this manner.

  • Taking myself too seriously.  Humble as I am, I am not without ego, and some of my peers have confused a healthy dose of self-confidence with insufferable hubris.  This is perfectly ridiculous.  How could anybody with my Bookscan numbers be afflicted with insufferable hubris?
  • Not taking myself seriously enough.  Believe it or not, not everyone finds my brand of self-deprecating humor, as illustrated above, hilarious.  In fact, they think it cheapens my profession, which happens to also be their profession, so a joke at my expense is a joke at their expense.  And how will they ever convince the Pulitzer fiction committee to give their work a serious look with clowns like me constantly mucking up the genre with a sense of humor?

As near as I can tell, the general assumption has been that R.J. Ellory posted those malicious reviews of Mark Billingham’s and Stuart MacBride’s books simply to scuttle their careers and advance his own.  And maybe his motives were precisely that impersonal.

But I doubt it.  My guess is — and it’s only a guess — somewhere down the line, Mr. Billingham and Mr. MacBride, individually or as a pair, did or said something that Ellory found personally painful, and deserving of some kind of payback.  So he gave it to them.

If I’ve learned anything about myself and my fellow crime writers over the years, it’s that, by and large, we are all rather delicate creatures.  Which is to say, we bruise easily.  We don’t like criticism and we don’t trust the judgment of anyone who would presume to offer it, especially another writer.

Let me give you an example:

There is a Big Name Author I used to appear on panels with quite frequently.  Let’s call him Leonard.  I have always liked and admired Leonard, and have a great deal of respect for his work, as many readers of genre and non-genre fiction alike do to this day.  But back then, Leonard, like everyone else who’s ever shared an open microphone with me, was often at the heart of the one-liners I like to sprinkle throughout a panel appearance, and unbeknownst to me, he didn’t like it.  Stephen or David will tell you, having seen it firsthand, that no co-panelist of mine is safe from my rapier-like wit, I’m an equal-opportunity quipster — but Leonard had the idea I was always singling him out for special ridicule.

So the phone rings on my desk one day, not long after we’d done a panel together and a month or so before we were scheduled to do another.  And Leonard — who’d never called me on the phone before — says, “I can’t do our panel.”

I’m thinking he’s fallen ill.  “Oh, man, I’m sorry.  Are you okay?”

“No, no, I’m fine, it’s not like that.  I mean, I can’t do another panel with you.  I just can’t.”

“What?”

The rest of the conversation is a blur after all these years, but through my shock and awe I heard Leonard tell me that he couldn’t take my making fun of him anymore, and he wasn’t going to.  We’d appeared on our last panel together, he was about to call the organizers of our next one to cancel and he just wanted me to know why he was doing it, first.

I was blown away.  He thought I didn’t like him.  Eventually, after I’d explained that nothing could be further from the truth, and offered to pull out of our panel appearance in his stead since he was the real draw of the event, not me, cooler heads prevailed and he agreed to do the thing, after all.

But as you might imagine, nothing has been the same between us since.

I hesitate to suspect Leonard “hates” me now, because that sounds incredibly pompous considering our difference in professional stations.  You’d think he had more important people to hate on.  Still, if I cared to, I could probably build a case for him continuing to strongly dislike me based on some rather damning evidence, some of it eerily similar to that which earned R.J. Ellory such recent infamy.

I bring all this up now to pose a single question: Is writer-on-writer crime a damn shame?

Answer: Absolutely.

But nobody should be surprised by it anymore.

13 thoughts on “…AND YOUR ENEMIES CLOSER

  1. Jim Winter

    Ellory's attacks on MacBride and Billingham, though, were simply gutless. I have a friend who has a shortlist (very short) of writers he loves to eviscerate in private chat. Notice I said "private." He also admits he's jealous of the other writers.

    I won't name this guy because he's keeping it private.

    For the most part, though, I think crime writers do spoil each other. We do get along fairly well as a group, better than some other genres. And we don't have the rep of open backstabbing that literary writers seem to think is a badge of honor. So when someone starts trashing another writer openly (or via sock puppet), it's news.

  2. Gar Haywood

    Jim: I sure hope none of what I wrote here came off as a defense of Ellory because there IS no defending his actions. And I don't think any author should "eviscerate" another author in public, because that's crossing the line I mentioned. Fair, critical analysis? Yes. Trash talk? No.

  3. Rob Gregory Browne

    Good post, Gar. I think trash talk is fine. I don't know a male who doesn't engage in it and there's nothing better than trading quips with someone who's quick-witted and anxious to play.

    As for critical analysis? I tend to avoid it except in very private conversations, simply because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Besides, let's face it. Such analysis is entirely subjective, and what good does it really do to make it public?

    As for the whole sock puppet-fake review thing, I'm frankly sick to death of it. Especially when it turns out that it isn't just authors doing it, but publishing executives as well. Yet, as far as I can tell, the exec gets a pass, while the authors are vilified. Where's the moral outrage when it comes to someone who can actually affect your career?

    I was incensed by all of this at first, then it suddenly hit meโ€”who the hell really cares? I'm pretty sure the readers don't. Or, at the very least, they aren't paying much attention to this nonsense, so they don't really have a REASON to care.

    And as disgusted as I might be by someone else's behavior, I'm far from pureโ€”so who am I to judge?

  4. Gar Haywood

    Rob: I am absolutely convinced that you're right about how far — and how far back — this sock-puppetry business goes. I suspect people on every strata of the publishing business — writers, editors, publicists, agents — have been writing/posting fake reviews for years. And yeah, it sucks. Nobody should get away with it scott free.

    But I also fear you're right about the attitude of most readers. They could probably not care less, which is ironic as hell, considering THEY'RE the ones being manipulated and lied to. The real outrage should be thiers, not ours.

    I will admit that saying ANYTHING negative about another author publicly can be a sticky business, because you DON'T want to be hurtful. But removing oneself from The Book Conversation, when you love reading as much as I do, is a tough thing to do. I'm still a reader at heart and I really enjoy discussing books that work and books that don't, and all the things that go into making the difference. Subjective? No question. But that's what having and stating an opinion is all about, right?

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yike, Gar, your story about the guy who thought you were insulting him is scary. I wonder how many people I've pissed off the same way? (A bunch on my own blog, that's for sure…)

    I may be delusional but have long suspected that those of us who have worked as screenwriters have a much thicker skin than "pure" authors, simply because we've been subjected to so much more abuse, derision, dysfunction and outright insanity in our side on the business. Not to mention outright cage fighting between writers – underhanded credit grabs, outright betrayals for money…

    And sometimes I wonder if I come off as – well, a hard bitch – online, on panels, at conferences, because I do have that thick skin.

  6. Jake Nantz

    As opinionated as I am (in case you haven't noticed), I actually agree with RGB that most analysis I would probably keep quiet. Now I admit that part of it is I don't want to piss off someone who might be a valuable contact if I ever get to the agented-looking-for-editor stage (or the putting-my-work-out-on-Amazon-and-going-it-alone stage).

    The rest is, well, I tend to be memorable in my own way (Louise Ure claimed to know when it was me commenting even before she saw the name…guess the writerly voice is distinctive…hooray). I tend to say things to get a quick laugh that may end up really hurting someone or pissing them off. Why do that? It may be a writer I genuinely admire, but have this false sense of "Oh, we know each other from interactions on the internet at fill-in-the-blank site or blog and he'she will know I'm just kidding." Then later when I find out I've really upset someone, that's a colleague I've angered for no reason other than they couldn't tell I was just screwing around.

    What the sock-puppetteers did is reprehensible. Period. But I don't know that I'd even openly criticize another writer publicly (or even with some gossi…er, I mean people, in private). Just doesn't seem worth it in this day of the internet.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yike, Gar, your story about the guy who thought you were insulting him is scary. I wonder how many people I've pissed off the same way? (A bunch on my own blog, that's for sure…)

    I may be delusional but have long suspected that those of us who have worked as screenwriters have a much thicker skin than "pure" authors, simply because we've been subjected to so much more abuse, derision, dysfunction and outright insanity in our side on the business. Not to mention studio-encouraged cage fighting between writers – underhanded credit grabs, betrayals for money…

    And sometimes I wonder if I come off as – well, a hard bitch – online, on panels, at conferences, because I do have that thick skin.

  8. Bozo Buttons

    I don't endorse sock puppetry, per se. However, I think it's downright foolish to throw your scatter your real self out there on the web for everything that crosses your mind. I learned lessons about the nature of electronic mob mentality long before the internet was even commonly used, on a BBS.

    Apparently there's a way to put up a BBS post that parrots back elements of the reader's personal profile, without the poster actually knowing any of these details. Some kind of wild-cards, no doubt. I was young, naive, and a little bit drunk. I had no reason not to believe I wasn't being singled out by the system admin. I went off on tirade that was so scathing, top to bottom, the users of the BBS were afraid to laugh, at least in typed out format.

    Even with the memory of that event strong in my mind, I went on to trip over a sacred cow on slash dot, and then later offend all my oldest friends on Facebook. It turns out, am as socially awkward virtually as I am in the physical world, perhaps even more so. Enough is enough.

    I no longer do the "real" person gig. This is not to say that the on-line characters I embody are terribly secret, or even making a pretense of being real. But the other side of that coin is that these personalities will defend their statements and stick around for any virtual beating they may have earned. When they disappear, it's quietly when nobody's watching, not when the heat gets too hot.

    Still, even a thin veneer between your on-line persona, and the real you is quite a comfort. This is a world where almost any stray comment can bring out the pitchforks and torches, usually to the complete surprise of the offender.

  9. Gar Haywood

    Bozo: The downside to using virtual identities to protect yourself from those who would flame you after you've gone completely honest on them is, where's your credibility? How can someone take what you say in such a guise as serious discourse, rather than the blather of some nut who's merely attempting to incite the crowd? When you use your own name to offer public criticism, granted, you risk getting hammered by those who don't agree with you. But when you don't, and it's obvious you aren't, the risk you run is being taken for someone who's only trying to get a rise out of others, not stating a legitimate opinion.

  10. David Corbett

    Gar:

    I think the pretense that the crime writing community is one big happy family has been fraying ever since publishing began its meltdown and the ebook revolt took off.

    The camaraderie that once existed was based in many ways on the fact that there seemed to be room for all of us — not to became extremely rich but at least to get published, to get noticed, to get read.

    This was in contrast to the zero sum game that seems to exist in lit fiction, where you succeed at my expense, because the opportunities are so few and the rewards so small, except for a very select few. And lit fiction encourages a certain element of trench warfare, aka cat-fighting, on the grounds that by God this is art we're talking about and it's goddamn important. This gave backbiting a veneer of legitimacy, at least in the Land of Snoot.

    In contrast, there was a self-effacing noblesse oblige to crime writing that spared it from that kind of venom, at least in public. There were a few critics who didn't mind dishing it out, some of it merited, some not, but the writers themselves were quite collegial. I think that was beginning to get tested and has now gone largely by the wayside with recent events.

    Jake Konrath has spared no excess in badmouthing as hypocrites, "jerkoffs," "pinheads" etc. anyone who expressed even disapproval, let alone outrage, at Ellory's actions. I doubt this will become the norm, but his ability to grab the spotlight won't go unnoticed by those desperate for a little attention themselves. And the PR emphasis that is so necessary for success especially in e-publishing has broadened the gray area between legitimate and dubious (or outright disturbing) self-promotion.

    Larry Gandle has exposed himself as a less than objective reviewer. He's entitled to his tastes, but to remark that Ellory "did nothing wrong" because he (Gandle) shared Ellory's negative views of the books he pseudonymously trashed borders on the bizarre. Will that affect how he's perceived, or how his reviews are perceived? Probably, but to what extent, I have no clue, because everyone's clawing for someone, anyone, to notice their books, and if they think Gandle might be someone who'd take to their work, who cares what he said elsewhere? I find that sad, but not shocking.

    The palsy atmosphere at Bouchercon and other conferences is gone. People are pissed, they're guarded, and they're suspicious.

    That said, I think crime writing would benefit from a little more critical openness — even daring. The NY Times enlists writers to review other writers, and if we want to be taken seriously, we should be able to remark on one another's work with a critical eye without being deemed flaming assholes or betrayers of the secret handshake.

    It hurts to be dressed down in public, especially by fellow writer, and it can be professionally ruinous in the current environment. But does that mean the only choice we have is between gushing praise and silence? I hope not. But I also think critical statements need to be made openly and honestly, so readers can judge not just the critique but its source.

  11. PD Martin

    I've been out of the loop on this (have been away and not accessing emails, news, etc.) so now I'm catching up! So for me, this blog (and Martyn's) was a fabulous round-up of what I've missed ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks, Gar! Gotta say, as someone who's just come into this, I am shocked. Why would any author do that? Extremely unprofessional behaviour. And I do find authors are mostly a very supportive community. But I guess there's always one (or a handful), right?
    Phillipa

  12. Brian Hoffman

    It is time to let this go.

    People stretch for an advantage in everything and one or two of them go over the line.
    Corked bats in baseball
    Drugs in weightlifting, Olympics, baseball, bicycling, etc.
    Electronic bugs on the opposite teams bench in football
    Insider trading
    Plagiarism by a man who'd go on to be Vice-President

    Time to let this go and go back to writing, a little smarter, a little disillusioned.

    For everyone who cheats there are dozens, hundreds, thousands who don't.

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