All’s fair in love and literature?

By Legal Eagle

“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].


  1. Posted April 22, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Why am I not surprised? There’s an Australian connection:

  2. su
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    New line for the bio: A human rights barrister who fails to evince an understanding of basic ethical conduct.

    So many user reviews on bookshop sites are useless because they are merely bald opinion without substantiation but occasionally you find very considered, literate reviews by people who clearly know the subject . Such a reviewer would never write this sentence : “The book is not nearly as good as its many plaudits in the press and book prize judges think.”

    On the fallout – would Polonsky be able to sue?

  3. Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    It’s hard enough writing a book but then there’s a whole other job – the politics. In Australia it’s mainly the politics. No-one actually expects that anyone actually wants to read your book. The reason we have writers here is so that politicians can point them out on the shelves when visiting dignitaries from places with an actual culture come to visit.

  4. Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    It’s a pretty dumb idea to sue a critic for a bad review. You might lose. And then you’ve got to deal with the fact that the courts say you’re a shithouse writer.

    And without the Dan Brown paycheque either.

  5. conrad
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Let’s hope they stay married. Imagine what her reviews would look like after a divorce.

  6. Miss Candy
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Adrian – I agree, I think this is the bigger issue. Are we all vulnerable to law suit amidst swarms of ebay ratings, blogs, comments and reviews?

    I believe there was a case in Australia recently regarding a food critic, where the court considered that the nature of a food critic was such that their opinion could not be questioned on the basis of fact if it was honestly the subjective experience of the food and service.

    I’m no defamation lawyer, but I’ve often thought about the legal implications of the proliferation of online reviews.

  7. Posted April 23, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t know whether you could actually sue someone for saying your book is crap. However if there’s unsubstantiated claims of inaccuracy in a history then perhaps, yes.

    But doesn’t every history book inevitably have at least one factual booboo? Eric Hobsbawm wrote a scathing review of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution which did actually take it down a peg or two. But it’s still a good book.

    Unfortunately Eric just had to learn the hard way.

    Thing is that criticism is already a tainted art. Most critics these days are simply an extension of the PR/Advertising apparatus. You get told directly that you can’t write what you really think in a lot of places. If you make bad reviews actionable, well, forget it.

  8. su
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I think there is still the assumption, even if the form is tainted by PR, that the review should, at the very least, not be an attempt to damage a reputation so that your partner/lover can benefit and so I wondered whether this could meet the criteria for defamation. Not that I think anyone should sue, just wondering if they could.

  9. Posted April 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Su: it’s certainly really egregious conflict of interest, which is something they teach you about in first year law. It’s why every single post I write about the UK election has a declaration that I’m a member of the Oxford Conservative Association in it. Just disagreeing with Tory HQ on lots of things and being up front about it isn’t enough. Well, I don’t think so, anyway.

  10. Posted April 23, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Childish. And still more evidence for John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F***wit Theory.

  11. Posted April 24, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    The story gets better. Figes has admitted *he* wrote the reviews himself.

  12. Posted April 24, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Christ on a bicycle, David, I’ll do an update.

  13. Posted April 25, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    For some reason, I keep seeing an analogy between this and the latest Catherine Deveny exercise in opening her mouth and inserting both feet seriatim, about which the most intelligent commentary I’ve seen is over at Pavlov’s Cat’s place.

  14. Ken Nielsen
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    All we can say is “What was he thinking?”.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by searchtempo. searchtempo said: All’s fair in love and literature?: “Book-love, I say again, lasts throughout life, it never flags or fails, but, … […]

  2. […] great essay in Meanjin by Maria Tumarkin about English historian Orlando Figes. I’ve written a brief post on Figes before, a historian who researches Russian history: It all began when Cambridge-based […]

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