Bertie Inkgreen pulled to a stop on the Plott’s driveway, spraying gravel in an extravagant arc. Lord Plott ducked protectively over the rosebush he was strapping upright. “I say,” he protested. “Bit of shrapnel there.”
“Sorry, uncle,” Bertie said. “How’s it…”
Lady Philomena Plott appeared on the steps. “Ulysses!”
“You look flustered, old girl. You all right?”
“I’m all right,” Lady Plott said, in tones that thundered with portent. “It’s your wretched cousin Dolores.”
“Now what’s she done?” Lord Plott said.
“Remember that thriller she self-published? Well, someone wrote a review of it on the internet. And they didn’t like it. And now Dolores is making a fool of herself. Thought I’d better warn you before you saw it.”
“Sounds to me as though this requires gin,” said Lord Plott.
The three of them, armed with alcohol, gathered in the glow of the gigantic screen (Lord Plott, despite a lasting cynicism regarding Gadgetry, was also a great believer in Efficiency. Besides, he lost his glasses a lot).
A series of increasingly hysterical comments quivered on the screen. Reference was made to Bullies, and Lack of Understanding, and the Fine Sensibilities of the Author, and Jealousy. Friends were dispatched to the reviewer’s webpage to make unpleasant comments.
“Well, the reviews were a bit harsh,” Bertie volunteered.
“Bertie, dear boy, one doesn’t respond to reviews. It’s just not sensible. And one certainly doesn’t accuse one’s readers of being…” Lady Plott peered at the screen, and winced, “Ill-educated bullies.’”
“I’ve responded to reviews,” Lord Plott said. “One, anyway. Chap pointed out a mistake I’d made about catching perch. Quite right too. Said thank you very much and used him as a researcher next time I wrote a story with fishin’ in it.”
“That’s different, Lissy dear. But this…If someone criticises your melons at the local agricultural show…”
“I wouldn’t dream of criticising your melons, auntie,” Bertie said. The fumes of a classic Ulysses Plott gin and tonic were already beginning to work their disinhibiting magic.
“Ahem,” Lady Plott said. “If someone criticises anything you’ve grown, you don’t get all your friends to go round to their allotment with a flamethrower. Not only is it jolly bad form, it’s very likely to give rise to comment at the Royal Horticultural Society. Remember that business with the Fontleroys and old Arthur, and the paraquat, Lissy? Very nasty.”
“Yes, haven’t seen anything like it since I was out in Jalalabad. But old Arthur was mad as a hatter. Dolores doesn’t have that excuse. Never used to be this sort of row going on,” Lord Plott said, jabbing a trembling finger at the screen. “Seen too much of it recently. People taking exception to reviews, ferreting out reviewers’ private information, encouraging other people to be threatening for them when they were too much of a bloody coward themselves to risk getting a well-deserved punch in the nose… I’m not convinced about this internet business; allows people to behave like a damned shower without facing the consequences.”
“Well,” Bertie said, “that’s not entirely true, you know. Even if you do it anonymously, plenty of people have ways of finding out where you’re posting from. Say Auntie Dolores set up some sock puppets…”
“Sock puppets?” Lord Plott brightened. “Now that reminds me of Figgy Timbleton. Things that fella could do with a sock would bring tears to your eyes.”
“What’s a sock puppet?” Lady Plott said.
Bertie forced down his speculations about Figgy Timbleton and said; “Pretending to be someone else. Say, if she went on and wrote, ‘This book’s absolutely wonderful, and you’re all just stupid, signed, not-Dolores-at-all,’ that would be being a sock-puppet. But it’s often easy to spot them because they write just like the person they’re pretending not to be, and even if they don’t – well, people who know how to look can find out if they’re posting from the same address and things. And since she has put her name on it…well.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about there being no consequences, Ulysses,” Lady Plott said. “Even if the silly old fool was about to get a sniff of a contract on her next book, don’t think many publishers would take her now. Blatantly obvious she’s a loose cannon. Of course, she could still apologise.”
“Have to do it properly, mind,” Lord Plott declared, whiskers aquiver with fervour. “None of that ‘Oh it’s not my fault, I was misled, I was ill…’ hah!” The syllable had the explosive quality of a doodlebug. “Stand up, face front, and take responsibility for your bloody actions, that’s what I say.”
“Now Lissy, remember your blood pressure,” Lady Plott said. “You’re going puce and it clashes with the hanging baskets.”
“But shouldn’t you ever respond to reviews? I mean, what if they’re just wrong?” Bertie said.
“Readers are customers, Bertie dear,” Lady Plott said. “And as such, they’re always right. Even when they’re wrong.”
“Absolutely,” Lord Plott said. “Reviews aren’t for the author, lad, they’re for readers. Just like growing vegetables for the agricultural show. Someone doesn’t like your tomatoes, they’ve got a perfect right to tell people they taste like used teabags. Got no obligation to tell you they’re wonderful. In fact, if they did, you’d go on growing disgusting tomatoes, and never learn better, what?”
“And sometimes you might have grown a perfectly good tomato and they just don’t like tomatoes,” Lady Plott said. “Which no-one can do anything about, so there’s no point getting upset over it.”
“So what are we going to do about Auntie Dolores?” Bertie said.
“Absolutely nothing,” Lady Plott said firmly. “Woman’s an adult. If she’s going to behave like a six-year old in a tantrum, then she’ll have to face the consequences. Let’s go and see if that sweetcorn’s ready, and I’ll give you some for your mother.”
Lord Plott turned off the computer with a decisive jab.