The mystery reviewer who rubbished the work of historian Orlando Figes’s rivals has been revealed as his wife. But should all online reviewers be forced to reveal their identities?
So it was Mrs White in the study with the spanner, all along. Or rather, the professor’s wife on Amazon with the poison. It seems that the mystery online reviewer who savaged works by some of Britain’s leading Russianists turns out to be the wife of historian Orlando Figes.
Poor Rachel Polonsky, whose travelogue Molotov’s Magic Lantern was savaged as “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”. Poor Robert Service, whose history of communism, Comrades, was judged “an awful book” and apparently, poor Orlando Figes, who, according to his lawyer, had an awkward chat with his wife last Friday. But when Philip Hensher lines up with Jack Bremer to declare it a “scandal”, aren’t we in danger of making a mountain out of a molehill?
First of all, there is this lazy assumption that a few posts on an Amazon page are in some way equivalent to a book review. It’s all good fun, but just look at the Amazon.co.uk page on Hensher’s latest novel. J Minogue accuses Hensher of having “pretentions for the macro as well as the micro”, suggests a “good editing out of 200 pages or so” and tails off in disagreement with the suggestion that The Northern Clemency is about “people like us”. H Hagan (Hellcat) “wouldn’t recommend it”, while CD Stapleton’s wife asked him what it was like but he “couldn’t really articulate”. Now we all may be in heartfelt agreement with J Minogue, but surely, like MA Orthofer at the Literary Saloon, we’ve all learned by now to take Amazon reviews “cum grano salis”. Surely it takes more than a couple of daft reviews on a bookshop website to oblige “bloggers” to “make the case for their anonymity” as Hensher suggests?
“What possibly [sic] justification can there be for a blog of book reviews, or the reviews on Amazon, to remain anonymous,” asks Hensher, “unless to conceal improper interests?” Well, there are some around here who might be able to think of a few. Maybe you want to keep on the inside track, maybe your blog would make things awkward at work, or maybe you’d just rather your mum doesn’t know that you swear, but the possibility of publishing without being identified has a long and distinguished history. After all, as Colin Burrow notes: “When Henry VIII proclaimed in 1546 that the names of printers and authors should appear on all published books, it was not because he was burning to read the latest heretical treatise.”
All this brings me to the irony of Figesgate first appearing in the TLS, which only started using bylines on reviews in 1974 after the then editor decided that it was time for reviewers “to take responsibility for their opinions”. But in the age of Twitter, the final word must go to @sarahw. “The golden rule is this:” she tweets, “if you sock-puppet Amazon reviews, you will always be found out.”