Leading academics in bitter row over anonymous ‘poison’ book reviews
Some of Britain’s leading authors and academics are embroiled in a row over anonymous reviews on Amazon that prompted furious emails, legal threats and an astonishing confession.
Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, and author of a book on Stalin, has named his wife as the author of comments criticising books written by other renowned scholars as being “dark and pretentious” and “critically dull”.
Mr Figes had initially denied any knowledge of the reviewer who used the pseudonym “Historian” and wrote glowing comments about his own books.
But following an angry exchange of emails and lawyers’ letters with fellow historians, professor Robert Service, a fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and Dr Rachel Polonsky, he yesterday issued a statement saying his wife, Dr Stephanie Palmer, a leading law lecturer at Cambridge University, had admitted responsibility.
The row has sent shock waves through the normally genteel world of academia as claim and counter-claim have been circulated by email to other top writers.
Prof Service, a biographer of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky; Kate Summerscale, author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; and Dr Polonsky were the three writers targeted by Dr Palmer’s distinctly unfavourable ‘customer reviews’.
Questions were first raised by Dr Polonsky after she read comments on her latest work, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, on Amazon’s UK site.
Although other users had given her hardback an average of four and a half stars out of five, ‘Historian’ tore into it as “dense and pretentious” writing and awarded only the minimum one star. The comment began: “This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.”
Dr Polonsky’s suspicions were raised when she noticed the critic also had a secondary nickname ‘Orlando-Birkbeck’.
It reminded her of a 2002 spat with Prof. Figes caused by a savage review she wrote in the Times Literary Supplement dismissing his book, Natasha’s Dance, as “pastiche writing”.
She noticed the user had also laid into The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Ms Summerscale, which won the Samuel Johnson 2008 prize for non fiction – a prize for which Prof Figes was also shortlisted. The two-star review began: “Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking when they gave this book the Samuel Johnson Prize?”
The user also described Prof Service’s biography of Stalin as “curiously dull” and recommended readers instead buy Prof Figes’ book, The Whisperers, to which the user awarded five stars, lauding its “superb storytelling skills”.
Dr Polonsky alerted Prof Service to her suspicions on Monday last week. By Tuesday morning the offending reviews by ‘Historian’ had been deleted from the site and a cached copy is all that remains.
However Prof Service still sent a furious email to more than a dozen other authors and academics including Antony Beevor, Norman Davies and Julian Jackson, professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London – saying the online reviews were “a way of tearing up someone’s reputation”.
He described them as “unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion” and “a very rum business”, adding: “Gorbachev banned anonimki from being used in the USSR as a way of tearing up someone’s reputation. Now the grubby practice has sprouted up here.
“How to expunge the practice and expose the practitioners of malign electronic denunciation in countries of free expression is, I think, a matter for debate. I attach the scanned pages of ‘Orlando-Birkbeck’ on Amazon and if you have any thoughts I’d welcome hearing from you.”
Although Prof. Service did not name him, he then sent a copy of the email, which was signed “Cheers from under the mud”, to Prof Figes.
Prof Figes replied on Thursday to all the recipients of Prof Service’s email, denying any role in the reviews, which he said could have been written by “virtually anybody”.
He wrote: “I am not the author of the Amazon reviews penned by ‘orlando-birkbeck’. If I had wanted to malign Rachel Polonsky, Bob Service or Kate Summerscale by writing anonymous reviews (which I do not), that – clearly – would have been the very last nickname I would have chosen.
He said he had “no ill-will” towards Dr Polonsky, adding: “I was also asked by many newspapers to review Bob’s biography of Trotsky but declined to do so because it didn’t fit in with my work schedule. If I had wanted to attack his book, I could have been paid to do so in the press.”
On Friday he forwarded emails from Amazon that appeared to show he had no connection to the offending profiles, but Dr Polonsky was not satisfied and employed law firm Carter Ruck who said it might seek a court order to establish the true identity of the poster using computer records.
The saga then took a dramatic twist on Frifay night when Prof Figes’ lawyer, David Price, 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.”
Mr Price said neither Prof Figes nor Dr Palmer, an Australian-born barrister at Blackstone chambers and a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, would not be commenting further.
Award-winning novelist and cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht said the row was “unprecedented”. He said: “This cuts to the heart of the shady pseudonymous culture of Amazon reviews. This is a real breakthrough, an unprecedented triumph for truth and transparency online.”
Neither Prof Service, Ms Summerscale or Amazon was available for comment.
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