Sunday, April 18, 2010


Sticking up for hubby

I've written before about the potential pitfalls of the Amazon customer review system: namely, the opportunities for logrolling, anonymous attacks, and nepotistic boosterism. Back in 2004, when the company's Canadian's site temporarily (and accidentally) disclosed the identities of its citizen critics, I noted:
A fairly large number of authors had gotten glowing testimonials from friends, husbands, wives, colleagues and paid flacks. A few had "reviewed" their own books. The novelist John Rechy, among those caught in flagrante, pleaded the equivalent of self-defense: He was simply fighting fire with anonymous fire. Other miscreants cited the ancient tradition of self-puffery, practiced by both Walt Whitman (who wrote not one but three unsigned reviews of Leaves of Grass, and quoted them all in the second edition) and Anthony Burgess (who paid for the stunt with his job).
None of these practices, which exist to a lesser degree in the archaic world of ink-and-paper journalism, will bring the world crashing down on our heads. And caveat lector is always a useful mantra to keep in mind when reading anonymous comments on any website or blog. Still, according to these pieces in the Guardian and the Telegraph, a British attorney and senior law lecturer at Cambridge University has now set the bar just a wee bit higher when it comes to customer-reviewing pratfalls. The perp, Stephanie Palmer, is married to the distinguished historian Orlando Figes. In an excess, perhaps, of conjugal zeal, she has made a habit of praising her husband's books on Amazon's UK site, signing these assessments as "Historian."

Of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (2008), for example, she writes: "The opportunity to hear these Russians speak of these things as individuals, in their own voices, is overwhelming, and a gift to all of us. Orlando Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes forever." On Amazon's American site, "Historian" supplied a different but no less glowing review, which included plugs for her husband's earlier books: "Figes is a great writer--anyone who has read Natasha's Dance or the multi prize-winning A People's Tragedy will tell you that." (The British reviews were promptly scrubbed from the Amazon site, but can still be seen on this cached page. For the moment, the American review remains on the site.)

If Palmer had limited herself to puffing her husband's books, she probably would have gone undetected. And really, who would have blamed her for fending off his equally anonymous detractors? Unfortunately, she took to drubbing books by his academic rivals, including Robert Service, whose history of world communism, Comrades, she flicked away as impenetrable dross: "This is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull to read." Turning to the same author's Stalin: A Biography, she engaged in a similar round of ankle-biting before recommending some alternate choices to consumers: "This is not a book that places Stalin in the context of his times, or makes his rise to power, his terror and his cult, understandable. For that it is better to go to Montefiore and to Figes's The Whisperers."

Well, she got busted. For the full details, see the articles mentioned above--the short version is that after several of Palmer's victims complained, and suggested that Figes himself was the culprit, she confessed. Her husband supposedly knew nothing of her online advocacy. Amazon pulled the actual reviews off the site. No doubt some very interesting conversations have been going on in the Figes-Palmer breakfast nook. Meanwhile, the Telegraph quotes critic, novelist, and Mahler fiend Norman Lebrecht on the outcome: "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." I wish I could share his sense of triumph. But this is essentially a hiccup, just like the Canadian fracas back in 2004, and will do nothing to change the duck-and-cover style of reviewing at Amazon, nor the deeply entrenched role of anonymity on the Web.

UPDATE: Whoops, Orlando Figes has now confessed to writing the carping reviews himself, according to this AP dispatch. Presumably he found the spectacle of his wife falling on her sword too distasteful, and decided to fess up. In a written statement, he took "full responsibility" for the sock-puppet fiasco:
I am ashamed of my behavior, and don't entirely understand why I acted as I did. It was stupid--some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm. This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse. I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help.

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Interesting item, James. I'll follow the links to the articles. And, although I don't quite know why, your sentence "No doubt some very interesting conversations have been going on in the Figes-Palmer breakfast nook" had me laughing out loud.
Ha ha, I'm glad it amused you, Charles. To a certain extent, this is one more tempest in the customer-reviewing teapot. Why should Robert Service really care what some clod said about his book at Amazon? Sure, there is the specter of lost sales, but as long as the critical shiv is accompanied by some more positive responses, it tends to fade into the general din. Or so it seems to me.
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