Esdras Barnivelt was an 18th century critic who wrote a pamphlet that sought to counter mis-interpretations of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. Pope had been targeted by a number of other pamphlet writers, and Barnivelt was trying to off-set some of this criticism. But as The Guardian reports, Barnivelt was actually a false name, used by Pope to defend his own work. Sock-puppetry, in other words, is as old as the hills.
Pope seems to have been motivated by a belief that critics were presenting his work in a misleading light. Even back in the 18th century, some critics could be particularly venemous, and their motivations were not always a pure-hearted desire to engage in literary debate. Today, when someone leaves an anonymous review on Amazon, they get to vent their thoughts without having to stand by their words and argue their point. It’s not a level playing field, so is it right to let reviewers say what they want, how they want, while demanding that everyone else plays fair? Pope certainly doesn’t seem to have thought so.
If Pope were alive today, Esdras Barnivelt would have been a pseudonym used to leave a review at Amazon, or the title of an anonymous blog. I’m not defending sock-puppetry or the buying of reviews, but at the same time I’m never going to be persuaded that authors and publishers are mostly to blame for the rotten state of the reviewing eco-system. Is it naive to think that the majority of reviews could ever be completely free of ‘undue influence’? Sock-puppets and paid reviews are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. We all need to start leaving reviews for products we buy online. Individually, each of us will have our own foibles and motivations; collectively, though, we’ll still improve the situation. And, to be fair to Pope, Esdras Barnivelt made some good points.