We all click our teeth about people trying to arrange for favorable reviews of their books or buying masses of copies so they’ll get onto the bestseller list. Now The Guardian (via Book Riot) reveals that Marcel Proust paid substantial sums to get favorable notices of Du côté de chez Swann onto the front pages of a couple of papers. He wrote the glowing reviews himself and sent them to his publisher to be retyped so that handwriting wouldn’t betray the evidence.

Is this OK? Does the fact that the book would (one assumes) have been a world-wide success anyway, somehow make this maneuver forgivable — was he just gilding the lily, but the flower remains a lily nevertheless? (Or should I strive here for a metaphor involving white and black swans?)

Not sure that it is OK, though of course, for all we know the practice may be much more common than we’d like to believe. Poor old Proust just got found out because copies of correspondence about the dodge surfaced in a copy of the book. Should we be more surprised that Proust was sufficiently lacking in self-confidence that he would stoop to such a trick, or that he was sufficiently unsure of the value of his work that he thought it needed such a boost? Or, perhaps, was this just what everyone did back then?

Log rolling may be quite widespread — you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours — but somehow we feel less censorious about a writer favorably reviewing a competitor’s book and then, surprise, surprise, finding that that competitor returns the complement with a similar rave. Though such a “deal” may not be a proper agreement discussed ahead of time, but merely based on an assumption of mutuality, such reviews could be said to be only half a step away from drafting the review yourself. Anonymous reviewing used to be the norm. The Times Literary Supplement started naming reviewers in 1974. What went on behind the anonymity? Maybe there’s a PhD topic in linguistic analysis of anonymous reviews to see how often they were written by the author of the book under review.

“Blurbing” has come to mean the writing of favorable comments which appear on the jacket or cover of a book. (Dictionaries appear to ignore “blurb” as a verb, though it is surely in fairly common usage.) There is no doubt a rich vein of mutuality in blurbing. We like to pretend that book reviewers are all honest and above cheap trickery. But even if you are not guilty of puffing a lousy book by a friend, reviewing something written by someone you share a lot with cannot fail to tempt you towards yes, rather than no. And this can be perfectly innocent/subconscious — you are bound, aren’t you, to find yourself agreeing with what a like-minded writer says, and what’s a friend but a like-minded acquaintance?

Reviews on Amazon are notoriously unreliable. It’s obviously a good idea to read these with a salt cellar to hand. I find them useful for factual information, about the content, say. I’ve never been tempted to act on the opinions or value judgements of a complete stranger (who could even be a robot) whose qualifications (or lack thereof) are not manifest.