“Book-love, I say again, lasts throughout life, it never flags or fails, but, like Beauty itself, is a joy forever.”
(Holbrook Jackson, The Anatomy of Bibliomania)
How can one judge how much one loves a book when one also loves the author? This question has been raised by the recent debacle in which an anonymous reviewer on Amazon who praised author Orlando Figes and was scathing about books by rival authors was revealed to be none other than Figes’ wife, Dr Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Cambridge University and human rights barrister.
It all began when Cambridge-based academic, Dr Rachel Polonsky was looking at the reviews on Amazon of her book on Russian culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern. She noticed there was one review which stood out among the many favourable reviews. The reviewer, “Historian” described her book as “dense”, “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”.
Polonsky looked at all the other books “Historian” had reviewed, and noticed that “Historian” was scathing about most books, but had a soft spot for Figes’ work. “Historian” also had a secondary nickname “Orlando-Birkbeck”. In addition, there had been a history of tension between Polonsky and Figes because Polonsky had given an unfavourable review of Figes’ book Natasha’s Dance in 2002. Polonsky’s review said that the book excelled in a particular “genre of pastiche writing” and she found “problems of accuracy as well as scholarly practice” in it. Figes was apparently considering legal action in relation to the review.
Polonsky also noticed that “Historian” was scathing of books by two other authors. One was The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson 2008 prize for non fiction. Figes had also been shortlisted for the prize. The review by “Historian” began: “Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking when they gave this book the Samuel Johnson Prize?”
The other author whom “Historian” criticised was Professor Robert Service, author of biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. “Historian” said that Service’s biography of Stalin was “curiously dull” and recommended readers instead buy Figes’ book, The Whisperers, which she said showed “superb storytelling skills”.
Polonsky alerted Service to the reviews, and Service sent a furious e-mail to other prominent authors and academics complaining about the reviews. Service also sent a copy of the email to Figes, and signed it, “Cheers from under the mud”. Figes replied to everyone in Service’s e-mail denying any role in the reviews, which he said could have been written by “virtually anybody”. Polonsky threatened to take legal action to discover who the author was. It was after this that Figes’ lawyer issued a statement:
“My client’s wife wrote the reviews. My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.”
Wow. It would be interesting to hear how that conversation between husband and wife went. The whole thing has turned out to be hideously embarrassing for Figes.
I wonder what the fallout from this debacle will be? I suspect the spouses and friends of writers will be more careful about posting anonymous scathing reviews (or at least they will be more careful about covering their tracks!) Perhaps it’s also a lesson to take reviews on Amazon with a grain of salt – they may be genuine, but then again, they may not!
[UPDATE by SL: Well well well, I learn via David Jackmanson in the comments that Figes wrote the nasty reviews himself, and that his wife was the fall guy. This is on a whole other level].