My colleague Justin sent me a link to this story today.

Oh, my.

The future of one of Britain’s leading historians was looking increasingly uncertain tonight after he admitted that he was the author of anonymous reviews that praised his own work as “fascinating” and “uplifting” while rubbishing that of his rivals.

In a row that has scandalised the academic world Orlando Figes, one of the stars of contemporary history, had issued a string of legal threats to academic colleagues, literary journals and newspapers that suggested he might have written the reviews posted on

When challenged about the reviews, Figes’s lawyer initially denied Figes was the author and threatened legal action. In a later statement, Figes blamed them on his wife, the barrister Stephanie Palmer.

But today Figes, a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, admitted “full responsibility” for the posts, saying he had been under “intense pressure”. He added: “I have made some foolish errors and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned.”

Rival historian Robert Service, whose work on the history of communism Figes described as “awful” in the Amazon posts, said he and his wife had been through hell….

(I’m hoping this is because of the legal threats and not because of the bad review, because if a bad review on Amazon puts you through hell, life as a writer is going to be very uncomfortable. Anyway, back to the story…)

Service raised the matter of the rogue reviews with other historians and contacted Figes, who first suggested the two could "mend their relations" before his lawyer, David Price, issued a legal warning. The next day Figes turned his fire on the TLS after its diary quoted some of the comments from its website, which suggested "that Orlando Figes and orlando-birkbeck are one and the same" and calling on Figes to clear up the matter.

(If the most deceptive Amazon alias you can POSSIBLY come up with is your first name plus your employer, you have bigger problems than the TLS.)

Price contacted the newspaper, denying that Figes had any involvement in the reviews, demanding a “corrective publication”, and suggesting that his client would be entitled to damages.

Just a few hours later Price issued a new statement, this time saying that Figes’s wife had posted the comments, and that Figes himself had “only just found out about this, this evening”.

But after a week of questions and increasingly critical headlines, Figes today revealed that he had been responsible for the comments.

He apologised to Polonsky, Service and his lawyer – “to whom I gave incorrect information” – for actions he called “stupid”, adding: “Some of the reviews were small-minded and ungenerous, but they were not intended to harm.”

As Justin remarked to me, “Don’t do it. No matter how much you want to. Someone always finds out.” How true.

In fact, some of you may remember the 2004 glitch on Amazon’s Canadian site, reported in the New York Times:

Close observers of noticed something peculiar this week: the company’s Canadian site had suddenly revealed the identities of thousands of people who had anonymously posted book reviews on the United States site under signatures like ”a reader from New York.”

The weeklong glitch, which Amazon fixed after outed reviewers complained, provided a rare glimpse at how writers and readers are wielding the online reviews as a tool to promote or pan a book — when they think no one is watching.

John Rechy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel ”City of Night” and winner of the PEN-USA West lifetime achievement award, is one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon’s highest rating. Mr. Rechy, who laughed about it when approached, sees it as a means to survival when online stars mean sales.

”That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd,” said Mr. Rechy, who, having been caught, freely admitted to praising his new book, ”The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens,” on Amazon under the signature ”a reader from Chicago.” ”How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them”…

Numbering 10 million and growing by tens of thousands each week, the reader reviews are the most popular feature of Amazon’s sites, according to the company, which also culls reviews from more traditional critics like Publishers Weekly. Many authors applaud the democracy of allowing readers to voice their opinions, and rejoice when they see a new one posted — so long as it is positive….

The growth of electronic commerce has spawned a new kind of critical authority — one’s peers. On Amazon alone, customers depend on one another for advice on CD’s, DVD’s, garden tools and electronic equipment. On dozens of other Web sites, average citizens anonymously review restaurants, software, even teachers.

The word-of-mouth advice is widely seen as empowering to consumers who no longer have to rely on privileged critics with access to a television station or printing press to disseminate their opinions. But the reliability of the new authorities is the subject of increasing debate, at least among active Amazon users…

Despite the widespread presumption that the reviews are stacked, both readers and writers say they affect sales, especially for new writers whose books are not widely reviewed elsewhere.

I understand why Mr. Rechy struck back. I’ve had readers post one-star reviews of my books because they were banned from our message boards; because they heard from someone else that the book was bad; because they heard me say something in an unconnected interview that they disagreed with; because they didn’t like ANOTHER one of my books…

Ultimately, you have to ignore them and get on with what you’re doing, trusting that a good book will find its readers. (The book of mine that got the most savage one-star reviews on Amazon–seventeen of them–also got 105 five-star reviews. So there.) But I wish Amazon could find some way to deal with the anonymity problem. Posting an irresponsible, vindictive review is SO much easier if you’re sure no one will EVER know who did it.

Or relatively sure. Wonder if we could arrange one of those “glitches” for the Amazon store in the U.S.?

Showing 4 comments
  • PollyOR

    Loved Justin’s quote. So true!

    What I hate is people who give rave reviews while admitting that they haven’t even read the book yet. Of course this works the other way too.

  • M&M

    What a prince, he blamed his wife for posting the reviews. Way to damage your reputation and your marriage all at once!

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    I read a review of a Noah’s Ark children’s picture book that gave the book 1 star because the reader didn’t believe in the flood (or most religion). Never mind that this is mostly outside any literary or artistic value that the picture book might have had.

    I also dislike the reviews obviously written by children (probably as a class assignment) that give the book 1-2 stars because it wasn’t the dross that they were accustomed to or because they didn’t like being assigned to read books.

    On the other hand, I don’t like my real name out there on the internet. So not being anonymous would keep me from posting both critical and positive reviews.

  • Aja Shoup

    Hmmm… my husband works for Amazon… I wonder…

    These are amazing points. I guess you have to be very objective to reviews and their bitter tones. Now that I think about it, it seems most of the bitter ones dont even relate to the quality of the book. Well there you have it… isnt a perfect world… you just burst my bubble. 😉

    I just received History of the Medieval World in the mail today. I am devouring it rigth next to my daughter and her knights vs samurai studies. Fun times in our house tonight!! Now if I could just get a quart of ice cream delivered in time with my books, all would be well.


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