I've often thought of the post-war generation as the luckiest in history. The Baby-Boomers - in the UK, at least - had so much: universal healthcare, free education, welfare, jobs and houses ...
The present generation appears to have even more. But I think they have less. True, they have access to the most remarkable invention of all time, the internet. Practically all the knowledge in the world is available to them in an instant. We can talk, face-to-face, with almost anyone, wherever they are, in real time. Music, books and films can be downloaded, often for free.
No one has ever enjoyed privileges like those before. And I suspect that they will not last. The infrastructure required to maintain a healthy internet is mind-boggling. Besides which, the internet may effectively eat itself. The way things are going ...
Let me illustrate. Yesterday, a really rather lovely review of my book, The King Arthur Conspiracy, was posted on the new Review blog. The reviewer knew nothing about the book when it first arrived, and I had never met, heard of or communicated with the reviewer before she received it. For the record, she is an avid and active reviewer of books, for the Historical Novel Society and others.
She very kindly posted her review on the Goodreads website, entirely on her own initiative, and then posted it also on Amazon.com.
And then something odd happened. Her review on Amazon was instantly "disliked".
Now, I'm no expert on Amazon. So when I heard through Facebook that her review was attracting numerous dislikes, all very suddenly, I couldn't pretend to have any idea what was going on. All I do know is that she became very hurt and upset by the reaction, which seemed to have little or nothing to do with the review itself.
Within a very short while, Amazon had deleted the entire review.
Previously, The King Arthur Conspiracy had attracted four 5-Star reviews over a fair period of time, all extremely enthusiastic and complimentary. Then, a while back, somebody took the trouble to post a 1-Star review, pronouncing the book "pure junk". His reasons for doing so were a bit bizarre (he criticised my use of place-names, which he pointed out were not recorded until several hundred years after Arthur lived - but then, Gaelic culture was entirely oral, and no one felt the need for maps, and to pretend that place-names were spontaneously invented just before the maps were drawn is silly, to say the least). Otherwise, his review was a mere bile-spewing exercise. But hey, what can you do?
I didn't respond. What would be the point? Just as you can't really answer back when a professional reviewer slates you, so you can't do much when an amateur tears into your work. Best to stay out of it.
However, it is a problem - because anyone who visits the Amazon.com page for The King Arthur Conspiracy sees, first amongst the customer reviews, a rather savage - if barely reasonable or logical - assault, instead of the preceeding 5-Star reviews, which were uniformly glowing. In that regard, another pleasant 5-Star review was a bit of a boon, because that would then take precedence. The crude rubbishing would fall back into second place.
So having that 5-Star review attacked and then removed is disappointing. It means, of course, that the nasty - and entirely less-than-typical - review returns to the top of the pile.
I'm really not sure what happened. There are two ways of looking at it:
1) the reviewer has her detractors, who keep an eye out for her reviews (of which there are plenty) with the intention solely of "disliking" them
2) the book has its detractors, who keep an eye out for positive reviews, which they then seek to spoil and, if possible, force Amazon to take them down as quickly as possible
I can't think of any other options.
Whichever it was - concerted intolerance towards the reviewer or the book - we're looking at something unpleasant, ignoble ... and sadly all too common in the internet age.
There are "reasons" why option (2) might be the right one. Arthur arouses strong emotions, especially among those who have - shall we say - imperialistic notions, and want Arthur to be the familiar knight-in-shining-armour of the medieval fantasies. Such people are hugely intolerant of any research into the historical Arthur. In much the same camp, broadly speaking, are those of a hard line religious persuasion, who would no doubt seek to harm the book and its reputation because of its revelations about the early Church.
On the other hand, if option (1) is correct - the frenzied attack on the review was motivated more by animosity towards the reviewer - then I'm slightly more perplexed. Why do that? As far as I have been able to determine, the reviewer is a hard-working, conscientious person with a genuine love of books and a commendable desire to promote authors if and when she feels that their work is worthy of recommendation. And she recommended The King Arthur Conspiracy very highly.
It's all rather puzzling. Whatever the cause or motivation, an independent review of my book on the historical Arthur immediately became the target of a concerted attack for reason or reasons unknown and by persons who were too cowardly to show their faces.
Overall, Amazon's policy of inviting and encouraging customers to leave reviews of their products has always struck me as a good thing. It's very democratic, and intended - no doubt - to be helpful to all parties. But human nature is what it is, and the system has repeatedly come in for abuse.
Some writers have got all their friends and family to flood their pages with excellent reviews. Some authors have set out to sabotage rivals by posting anonymous scathing reviews.
Now, either individual reviewers are being targeted (why?) or individual books are being targeted because a group of people don't want others to read them and so they will take steps to ensure that only the most vicious (if wholly useless) reviews remain immediately visible. Either way, we're dealing with some extremely sad and twisted people here - people who will undermine the unpaid work of a dedicated reviewer or strive to harm book sales for their own ideological reasons.
I would ask everybody to be aware of this. For the sake of free speech - which I believe is a given - I do not seek to have negative reviews deleted, nor do I respond to such reviews. Assuming that the review in question represented a genuine response to my work (and not, say, a kneejerk backlash based on ignorance or prejudice), then it has every right to remain there. The balance remains with the positive, 5-Star reviews.
But it would appear that there are people - acting in concert, it would seem - who don't believe in free speech at all. Whether it's the work of the reviewer which they seek to spoil or the work of the author which they disapprove of, the outcome is the same. A good review is attacked and then removed. The reviewer suffers (she was very upset), as does the author, whose sales are inevitably affected.
If the type of internet troll or bully who indulges in this sort of behaviour had any form of moral courage and integrity, they would either ignore reviews they disagree with or give reasoned and rational grounds for attacking them. Entering into any sort of debate, though, is anathema to such people. In fact, free and open debate is the opposite of what they want.
They want to shut down free speech and bury historical research. They want to prevent hard working writers and reviewers from having their say, simply because they have developed a grudge.
You are not allowed to write about the historical Arthur or the early Church in Britain, unless you do so in the terms approved of by these invisible trolls.
In other words, you are not allowed to write about history. Or religion. Because they will swiftly move to have you censored. And anyone who reads and admires what you have written will be victimised.
It would seem that we don't burn books on bonfires anymore. We just rubbish them on Amazon. And so the internet proves to be every bit as bigoted and fanatical as the Inquisition.
In years to come, people will gather in caves and tell stories of their predecessors - gigantic people, who ate whatever they wanted whenever they wanted (food was "fast"), who made heat and light happen just like that, and who had all the knowledge in the world at their fingertips.
But they destroyed it all through petty bickering, jealousy, selfishness, and a weird fascination for the pointless and inane.
And because some of them could not tolerate free speech and the results of painstaking research.