Owen Jones is being trolled. No, don’t all rush for the tissues at once. What’s happened is that Jones’s new book, The Establishment, was targeted by what the Lefty author calls “right-wing trolls.” One-star reviews appeared on Amazon within hours of the title becoming available to assessment by the public. The only thing to do, apparently, was make an impassioned plea to Facebook.
Jones wrote about his intense anguish at public criticism in the hope that more sympathetic readers might balance out the trolls. That’s against Amazon’s rules, of course: as an author, you’re not allowed to solicit positive reviews. And Jones’s legions of fans – there are now hundreds of spammy positive reviews, versus the seven he was upset about – by far outweighed the original offence.
Now, look. On the face of it, I am very sympathetic to the problem. Amazon’s review system is rotten, and authors are right to be furious about the lack of oversight and how easy it can be to hijack a book’s performance in the charts and to permanently damage a first- or second-time author’s career. A few malicious reviews can set the tone of a book’s reception.
The problem is especially acute for polemicists – another reason I sympathise with Owen. I no more want to see Jones’s book torpedoed by trolls from the right than I do my own torpedoed by trolls from the Left. It’s not acceptable behaviour. I mean, please: when it comes to books, leave the sneering, vindictiveness, childishness and disingenuousness to those of us with our names on the dust jackets.
And I also want to say a word or two in praise of Owen Jones. Almost uniquely for a homosexual, Jones writes with no musicality or love for the sound of English whatsoever. He has no grasp of rhythm, metre or a judiciously chosen metaphor. But he is an important writer because he is effective: his prose might not be elegant, but it is efficient. Utilitarian. Tough to argue with.
That goes for Jones’s media performances too. He is a formidable adversary on television, and I have not thought badly of colleagues who have declined to debate him. Plus, unlike so many others on the Left, there are no signs that he indulges in Hari-esque corner-cutting. Making up quotes for a bit of colour is not his style.
We need adversaries like this, as J. S. Mill noted, if we’re to prove in the marketplace of ideas that we’re right. We want our enemy to be in the best possible fighting shape, because it keeps us honest and ensures our arguments are at their sharpest and most compelling. It is a good thing for everyone.
But it is not a good thing that respectable, credible authors feel moved to play the fool with the launch of their books, following stupid social media strategies that compound errors, and do nothing to resolve them. Jones says all he wants is honest responses to his books, and it’s tough to square that with his plea for help, which was only ever going to produce more garbage reviews, albeit with star ratings more to the author’s liking.
I was going to review the book this week, but Jones’s handling of its launch has somewhat eclipsed any witty aperçus I might have made about whatever Marxist trash he’s selling. I suspect that, for others too, this will be all that is really remembered about it, especially since Owen is writing a column about his harrowing experience at the hands of those seven trolls.
They say all publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure his publishers will be overjoyed watching this childish drama play out, are you? And it’s tough to imagine a seasoned author reacting in this way.
Jones might not be responsible for the original negative reviews, but he has certainly capitalised on them. My own book, about sociopathic Silicon Valley CEOs, comes out next year. Being a competitive sort, I naturally feel inclined to out-do Owen’s embarrassing self-made launch drama. So, what do we reckon? Should I mail myself a few turds? Stage a robbery? Just how low is an author expected to go these days to produce a bestseller?
I should say, contrary to internet rumour, there’s no suggestion this was conspiracy, rather than cock-up: that is to say, there is no evidence Jones was responsible for the seven reviews that so traumatised him he was forced to unleash the mob. Indeed, I apologise for introducing the idea to readers’ imaginations. But how lucky for him that those trollish reviews appeared, since the effect of his response has been to produce hundred of positive reviews for his book on an algorithmically-organised website on the day of its launch.
That’s all most people will ever see or know. Thank God for the trolls, eh?