Amazon, a serial killer of authors’ reputations The Sunday Times 20.09.20

The original article is here.

I’ve spent most of the past week nose down in Troubled Blood, the fifth Cormoran Strike novel by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. It is the best one yet, by miles — confident, utterly gripping, niftily plotted, clearly meticulously researched (there are all sorts of faint echoes of long-ago murders) and heavy on satisfying characterisation. The plot — there are no spoilers here, by the way — concerns the disappearance 40 years before the start of the book of a female GP who may or may not have been the victim of a serial killer. The novel was published on Tuesday and is 944 pages long.

I’m halfway through and I’m a fast reader. Still, an awful lot of people seem to have finished it already — some even before it was published, in fact — to judge by the accusations hurled at Rowling-Galbraith on social media. These started appearing after one newspaper’s early semi-review wrongly said that the book featured a “transvestite serial killer”. Hysterical, negative — to put it mildly — “reader” reviews quickly started appearing on Amazon and Goodreads, which Amazon owns, accusing Rowling of transphobia. And there they sit, in all their trollish glory. Neither Amazon nor Goodreads seems interested in removing them. At the time of writing, Troubled Blood is No 1 on Amazon’s book chart. Funny way to treat a bestselling author, isn’t it? Kerching and also “yeah, sorry about the people libelling you but we can’t be arsed to do anything about it”.

I am aware of Rowling’s views on gender and biological sex but, even with the absolutely worst will in the world, it is simply impossible to see what these online reviewers are on about in the context of this novel. The material here isn’t that at all. The serial killer, Dennis Creed, isn’t a “transvestite” and is never once described as such by the author. He is horribly ingenious and occasionally disguises himself to carry out his abductions. The cast of this book is vast: Creed is one character among dozens and far from the lone suspect in the crime being investigated. Troubled Blood is written with care. Like many readers of crime fiction I am particular in what I will and won’t read about: nothing involving children and no over-detailed, borderline-lascivious descriptions of crimes against women.

The first are easy to swerve but the second category — the grotesquely abused woman chained in a cellar and being raped and/or tortured in detail for pages on end — is a motif that endures with writers of both sexes. Aside from the fact that I don’t read crime fiction to feel sickened (I think this explains the success of psychological thrillers, at least among women), it seems to me lazy and unimaginative to build a narrative around a helpless, powerless woman; to never bother fleshing her out as a human being and then to kill her.

Victims of crime are helpless and powerless and often women, so it’s a tricky path to navigate but Galbraith-Rowling does it brilliantly in Troubled Blood. Her victim, Margot Bamborough, who disappeared in 1974, is treated with respect and compassion and comes vividly to life, like a photograph developing, the more the detectives, Strike and Robin Ellacott, discover about her. The horrors they unveil are described with respect and compassion — in elegant, brief sentences that are powerful and distressing, precisely because they don’t sit there drooling over the more grotesque detail. Rowling pulls the curtain back briefly, gives you a glimpse of horror and then quickly puts it in place again. That respect is evident throughout, even with the less attractive characters. Nobody is a caricature and the author is filled with curiosity about what makes them how they are. Troubled Blood is a thoughtful book so it is particularly galling to see it reduced to an outraged hashtag by people who clearly haven’t read it.

That’s one thing. The other is: why doesn’t Amazon protect authors? JK Rowling will be fine, because she’s JK Rowling, although that doesn’t mean she isn’t a person with feelings. But it is easy to tell an authentic review from a fake one. Why leave the fake ones up? It isn’t just that they are unpleasant and of no use to anybody genuinely interested in a title but they also bring down authors’ star ratings and do them financial and reputational damage.

We all bang on about awful Facebook and awful Twitter but Amazon is mentioned only in relation to its tax bill/AI/Jeff Bezos’s vast fortune. Surely it has a responsibility — a duty of care, even — to the people who were there at the beginning, when Amazon was primarily a bookseller. Not everyone has Rowling’s clout. And while ferreting out the fakes might require people rather than algorithms, it’s not as though Amazon can’t afford it.

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There is a person behind every book — often a solitary, quite shy person, who sits at their laptop typing all day, or typing all night after their day job, because the average income of a published author in 2017 was £10,500, according to the Society of Authors. Any one of those authors can fall foul of the mob, or have their chances of success trashed by obsessive individuals who trawl the internet with the sole intention of ruining a stranger’s reputation — trolls, in other words.

Amazon is one of the big four tech giants, along with Google, Facebook and Apple. Those other vast multinationals at least make noises about tidying up the internet and making it kinder. Silence from Amazon, which would have a far easier job of it, given that all the bad stuff is in one place and accessible via its home page. Why do trolls still have a home there and why doesn’t Amazon care?

@IndiaKnight