Saturday, 25 August 2012

Ill-behaved authors

I've spoken about naughty authors before, but reading this article about Stephen Leather really chilled me. It seems that none of us are safe to criticise in case we have our identity stolen!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/05/nick-cohen-cheating-authors-journalists

Edit - as the old cliché goes: the plot thickens!

After reading the article I checked out Jeremy Duns' blog, and his lengthy post about thriller writer, Stephen Leather. It's really very damning, and I came away with the feeling that Leather was not only immoral, but also slightly creepy. But is this a fair assessment?

The other writer mentioned in the Guardian article, the supposed victim of Mr Leather, was Steve Roach. You can find his response to Duns' blog post in the comments section, but it was so hidden by bloggerific-linking obscurity that I've reproduced it in full here:
"The record is not straight, I’m afraid, because the Cohen article has been blowing up all over the internet and you were instrumental in providing most (if not all) of the material for that article. Perhaps a more pertinent point is the fact that you are still writing about all of this yourself, and have full control over what is being published from your point of view, and the stuff I mentioned in my previous comment is absent. You are still choosing to post direct links to the Cohen article as of today (perpetuating the inaccuracies you have since commented that you have put ‘straight’). 


"It appears to anybody reading the article that I am terrified of Stephen Leather, and that I am some sort of simpering victim. This is not the case, and I think it’s only fair for you to say, particularly when you are building a case for Stephen Leather to be presented as a cyber bully as a result of what he directly did to me, that the situation is nothing of the sort and never has been. When my disagreements with Leather were in full swing, I gave back as good as I got. It’s more accurate to say that the whole debacle was more of a fight than a bullying situation. If you are basing your definition of ‘cyber bullying’ on events involving myself (which you have been), then the phrase is not accurate. 
"Regarding Cohen’s article, he states that Leather attacked me from behind a ‘coward’s cloak of anonymity’ - although the worst of Leather’s attacks on me were upsetting, he made no bones about using his own name. (It’s with an amount irony that I’d need a bulldozer to move that I note the most recent link to this very article, which you have chosen to post using your administrative control, is by the poster called “0d5a5f0c-eee7-11e1-a2f1-000f20980440”).
As for our phone conversation, I really don’t appreciate the fact that you recorded it without my knowledge. Further to this, I would submit that the following applies: “recording (a telephone conversation) without notification is prohibited where some of the contents of the communication—a phone conversation or an e-mail—are made available to a third party”
"This is from the Wikipedia entry on ‘Telephone recording laws’ relating to the United Kingdom. In this case, the third party was a reporter working for a national newspaper who subsequently published an article. I have no idea whether an entry on Wikipedia represents an accurate and legally binding definition – that’s up to you to decide – but taken at face value I’d say that recording our conversation without my knowledge is technically illegal based upon what you subsequently used the information for. Even if it isn’t illegal, it’s a morally questionable act.
"Whilst I have no problem with any of the things I said during our conversation, I do have a problem with the content being used out of context as a mechanism to attack Stephen Leather, a person who I once had enormous issues with but am now on friendly terms with. That, by the way, has nothing to do with being afraid of upsetting Stephen Leather, but more to do with the fact that the situation you / Cohen are portraying was never really the reality of my disagreements with him.
With this in mind, I will ask that you destroy the recording. From a personal point of view, I am a writer with a minor internet presence and would like to keep it that way. I do not want to wake up every day to find an exponentially growing number of people basing their opinion of me – and, more importantly, my work – as something that is the result of out-of-context and therefore inaccurate information. On the other side of the coin, I’m pretty certain Stephen Leather isn’t happy about that same inaccurate information being used as something to give him a public battering. For the sake of accuracy, if you mention the scenario between myself and Stephen Leather as it was, you should balance this out with information about how things now stand. That’s just being fair.
"Your comment about me being ‘evasive’ in replying to you on Twitter is also contextually questionable. For a writer, you don’t appear to realize the power of certain words you bandy around. ‘Evasive’ carries certain implications. The truth is, you approached me out of the blue, with a bombardment of Tweets accusing me of being Stephen Leather. I had no idea who you were, and why I was the focus of such extreme attention from a total stranger. I gave you a number of very clear reasons why I couldn’t possibly be Stephen Leather, not least of which was the reason that it would be an awfully elaborate and time consuming plan to create a false identity by writing 15 books just for the purpose of creating a ‘sock puppet’ account. This didn’t deter you and you kept on Tweeting relentlessly. So I was incredulous, perturbed and certainly not in any position to deny my own existence and admit that I only existed as a figment of another writer’s imagination. To clarify, this doesn’t equate to being ‘evasive’!

"As for your comment relating to my comment about paying people to buy my books, let me put that into context. I have a very small circle of friends who want to read whatever I put out, and as I am quite prolific I don’t want to keep pestering them to buy my books so I give them a pound each time I release something. Half the time they’ve bought the book(s) anyway, so it’s a moot point. I used to be in a number of bands, and was always letting my mates into gigs without their needing to pay. Same thing, no big deal. I also have a wonderful reader who emails me every now and then with the odd typo, and as a thank you I also make a point of giving her free books. To extrapolate this to the extreme, if I win the lottery tomorrow and give a million people a pound each to buy one of my books, that’s none of your business. I’d be a complete idiot for doing such a thing, but again that would be nobody else’s business but my own.
"The whole issue of friends writing reviews for author’s books is not something I myself have an issue with in theory – again, when I was in a band, it was friends’ word-of-mouth that drew the audiences in, and of course that’s how the world works. If you seriously don’t think this doesn’t happen with pretty much everything that is for sale, then you are somewhat deluded. I make no secret of the fact that a small percentage of my reviews (particularly when I first started releasing books via Amazon) are from people I know. If they enjoyed any of my books, they have their own opinion and can leave a review if they like. 
"Although I now actively discourage this scenario (I ask my friends not to post reviews on Amazon for the simple reason that certain people are on the lookout for such things and such reviews are very easy to spot) it’s not an issue for me for other authors to encourage reviews from friends and family. Sometimes, they are the only reviews that will ever appear before the book sinks into obscurity forever, and I can understand that it gives the author a little ego boost to see some sort of validation that they haven’t completely wasted their time. I would find it incredible if none of your own books haven’t been reviewed in this way – and who really cares if one or two of your reviews is from somebody you actually know in the real world?

"It’s inconceivable to think that an author as successful as Stephen Leather doesn’t have a number of fans that buy everything he writes and rush to leave amazing reviews when they’ve finished reading. Contextually, I have a good friend that can’t stand Stephen Leather because of the things that happened a long time ago, but even in the middle of the carnage he admitted to me that he’d read one of his books and thought it was great. If he didn’t write books with mass appeal, he wouldn’t be as successful as he is. I read one myself recently and I liked it.  
"Are you really suggesting, in all seriousness, that even if (and I say IF) Stephen Leather has a few mates and even a couple of sock puppet accounts, that it would make even the tiniest of dents in the overall sales figures he enjoys? Of course it doesn’t. The truth is, such things are negligible in the grand scheme of things. Think about it for a few seconds and that becomes patently obvious. If the only people buying his books were a few mates and a couple of sock puppet accounts, he’d be in the same position as a million unsuccessful writers and we wouldn’t be having this ‘conversation’.
Suggesting that he – or anyone – is breaking the law because friends / family / fans choose to leave glowing reviews about an author’s work is utterly ludicrous. 
"I’ll finish this overlong, time-consuming post by repeating what I told you during our phone conversation: You are going after Stephen Leather with an accusation (using sock-puppet accounts) that he already addressed himself in a public forum at Harrogate. I told you that upsetting Stephen Leather wasn’t a good idea, something I know from experience, and something I said with the altruistic and gentle aim of steering you away from getting into a public argument with a high profile author. I’ve been there and it doesn’t look good for anybody involved, and is ultimately a pointless waste of time.
"You've chosen to ignore that advice and are now at the centre of an internet storm, which I suspect you are continuing for personal reasons in order to prove what a great investigative journalist you are. Whilst I can’t discourage you from that endeavour, I can ask that you amend your various online accounts of events to more accurately encompass the current stance of an unwilling participant in this whole debacle. Which would be me. Thank you."
So it seems that, while Stephen Leather may have acted questionably in the past, he has shown some cuddliness towards this particular author. Duns' interpretation, however, was that Roach was somehow being brainwashed, intimidated or pressured. I think we ought to give Roach a little more credit, rather than assume that he has no intent of his own, nor strength to fight back.

It's hard to know what to make of the situation overall, however. How many of Duns' accusations do have some basis? When looking at the link to the comment Duns describes as 'racist diatribe', there is a paragraph containing some very right-wing sentiments (and I would argue that they are also anthropologically ignorant) by a Joe King. Obviously I cannot prove whether Duns' suspicion that Joe King = Stephen Leather is true, but I think Duns' description of that paragraph as diatribe is exaggeration. If Stephen Leather did write those comments, then that would make him no worse than the idiots you find writing comments on the Daily Mail pages, and therefore not worthy of attention.

But here I am, discussing Stephen Leather, and whether or not he is a good boy. He sells many books. He is prolific. He has a real mix of fans and critics of his behaviour on Amazon. I am sure that when I last checked his website there were peculiar pictures of himself posing with guns, but perhaps I was imagining it. Anyway, does any of this matter?

In terms of his opinions or attitudes towards other people in the world, he's free to have those, no matter who disagrees with them. And, in truth, I'm not entirely sure what those opinions are. In terms of his activities, and if they are as underhanded as Duns claims, then I do have a problem. There is a persistent feeling of failure that is unshakeable in a self-published author. It may be small and kitten-like when you're selling well, but it is always there. I fear what others think of me and my writing (before they try it!), and the assumptions that I will be branded with when the phrase 'self-published' comes up. I would rather not have the fake-review and sock-puppet baggage attached to me as a result of the reputations of others in the same business; it is that association that causes the failure kitten to turn into the all-powerful shame monster. But a part of me feels that self-publishing is now inextricably linked with aggressive marketing and fakery.* It would be great if this could be undone.

Perhaps the supposed villain of this piece, Mr Stephen Leather, would like a chance to respond to some of this here. He is very welcome. I'll send him an invite and keep my fingers crossed that I don't get oppressed and/or intimidated.

*Ironic really. I bet you 20p that many of the great publishing houses have had staff review their own books in the past. Where there's money to be made...


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