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Sayre's law, Amazon edition
April 19, 2010 5:05 AM   Subscribe

The professor, his wife, and the secret, savage book reviews on Amazon 'An extraordinary literary "whodunnit" over the identity of a mystery reviewer who savaged works by some of Britain's leading academics on the Amazon website has culminated in a top historian admitting that the culprit was, in fact, his wife.'
posted by Abiezer (52 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." - William Sayre
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:26 AM on April 19, 2010 [13 favorites]


The spat began last week when the Cambridge-based academic, Dr Rachel Polonsky, noticed among the many favourable reviews of her book on Russian culture, Molotov's Magic Lantern, one condemning her efforts as "dense", "pretentious" and "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published".

Dense? Pretentious? Every time I read Molotov's Magic Lantern, I want to hit Polonsky over the skull with her own shin-bone.
posted by three blind mice at 5:30 AM on April 19, 2010 [9 favorites]


In it, Service condemned the online reviews as "unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion", 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."
Gotta love seeing well-respected historians make spurious and hyperbolic historical analogies.
posted by Kattullus at 5:31 AM on April 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


Bizzare.

Not the reviews, the response. I mean, hiring lawyers? This Robert Service guy sounds like a petulant baby. If you don't like a review on amazon, you can mark it as 'unhelpful'.
posted by delmoi at 5:32 AM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


What gets me is that the wife in question is a senior lecturer in law and a barrister. Surely she's got better things to do with her time than write dodgy amazon reviews?

ON which note, there's a great review of the textbook my husband co-authored on amazon - it's not serious but I don't think it's likely to put anyone off. And it's not by me.
posted by handee at 5:35 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


In it, Service condemned the online reviews as "unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion", 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."

OMG, consumer-level reviews!

I hate Amazon's reviewing system, because, from what I gather from reading the blogs of literary agents, those in the book world (publishers, agents, authors) view them as Serious Marketing and will finagle their way to positive reviews even if it's not always an accurate reflection of a reader's opinion of the book. Like, I once saw an author's husband respond to negative reviews, arguing with reviewers. I feel I can't trust the book reviews there at all, which makes them fairly useless to me.

GoodReads is better for accuracy and transparency, thanks to the community that exists there.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:37 AM on April 19, 2010


I hate to break it to you, PhoBWanKenobi, but the same kind of stuff goes on at Goodreads. I've seen contests for "leave a good review for my book on Goodreads, I'll send you stuff." I've seen bands of teen book bloggers trash books en masse because the author didn't give them stuff.

Then there are the random fans of (X) title, who go through marking rivals of (X) title with 1 star reviews- many times before the book is even out of revisions and copyedits, and thus impossible for them to have read.

And plenty of people write crappy, non-review reviews on Goodreads, because if you don't post regularly, you can't win the free books being given away. You should take the reviews pretty much anywhere with a giant honking grain of salt.

Back on topic- this article is a master class on how not to review. Friends and family shouldn't be trashing rivals and praising you, and an author being trashed needs to learn to just suck it up and move on. It's like reading the gossip in a kindergarten newsletter.
posted by headspace at 5:42 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


What is the legal angle on this? Why the lawyers? I thought people pretty much banged out their Amazon book reviews, supportable or not, and clicked Send. Do you have to reveal your motives and provide solid support for your opinions when you write an Amazon book review?
posted by pracowity at 5:43 AM on April 19, 2010


Here's an inspirational review to help him out this dark place.
posted by gman at 5:54 AM on April 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


I have a hard time believing anyone makes book buying decisions based on Amazon reviews. But then, this is one of the many reasons I am not a multimillionaire.
posted by chavenet at 5:56 AM on April 19, 2010


What is the legal angle on this? Why the lawyers?

This is Amazon in the U.K. where libel laws are insane. See, for example, the recent Simon Singh suit discussed here.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:23 AM on April 19, 2010


I bought at least one book solely on the strength of its reviews, and I am very glad I did.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:37 AM on April 19, 2010


I hate to break it to you, PhoBWanKenobi, but the same kind of stuff goes on at Goodreads. I've seen contests for "leave a good review for my book on Goodreads, I'll send you stuff." I've seen bands of teen book bloggers trash books en masse because the author didn't give them stuff.

I've seen that stuff on there, but it's not quite as endemic. I also follow some popular reviewers (here's one, here's another) who manage to rank within the top 30 "best" reviewers on goodreads despite penning what are obviously opinionated, critical, and challenging reviews--I've yet to see one from either reviewer that seems freebie-motivated. They might not be representative (clearly I seek that sort of thing out), but I've yet to find similar reviewers on Amazon, despite having looked pretty thoroughly.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:53 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Back on topic- this article is a master class on how not to review. Friends and family shouldn't be trashing rivals and praising you, and an author being trashed needs to learn to just suck it up and move on. It's like reading the gossip in a kindergarten newsletter.

I do agree with this, though. I don't think I've ever seen an author--or someone connected to an author--respond to a review gracefully or in a way that made me feel more inclined to read the book in question. Although sometimes their responses are amusing, like this one from Pulitzer-winning poet Franz Wright.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:56 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


God, it's like Service decided there wasn't enough petty embarrassment in the story, so he just had to up the ante by mentioning the Soviet Union. Way to auto-destruct your own credibility, dude.
posted by chinston at 7:04 AM on April 19, 2010


I've seen bands of teen book bloggers trash books en masse because the author didn't give them stuff.

That sounds kinda great, in a Jasper Fforde kind of a way.
posted by Leon at 7:06 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love "The Cremation of Sam McGee" as much as the next guy, but shouldn't Robert Service be a liltle more, um, dead by now?
posted by wenestvedt at 7:10 AM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Friends and family shouldn't be trashing rivals and praising you, and an author being trashed needs to learn to just suck it up and move on.

My takeaway message from this whole pathetic story? FIAMO, people. FIAMO.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 7:15 AM on April 19, 2010


Huh, I was just considering moving some of my own feeble book reviews/commentary to Goodreads and this thread has about convinced me not to. I'd never have considered reviewing books or music on Amazon, though. Reading Amazon reviews is an amusing time-waster but it doesn't contribute to my knowledge about the items reviewed nearly as often as it confirms mildly misanthropic opinion of humanity in general.
posted by immlass at 7:28 AM on April 19, 2010


I am a real proper book reviewer, at a real proper newspaper, and have been for years. My job is to point you at good stuff, not to savage shit that I disagree with artistically, linguistically, generically, whatever.

I take this admittedly rather light responsibility with a whole dose of serious.
posted by Wolof at 7:32 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


What gets me is that the wife in question is a senior lecturer in law and a barrister. Surely she's got better things to do with her time than write dodgy amazon reviews?

You overestimate the goodness of the things that lawyers can do.
posted by WalterMitty at 7:38 AM on April 19, 2010


Huh, I was just considering moving some of my own feeble book reviews/commentary to Goodreads and this thread has about convinced me not to.

Well, that's a shame, immlass. I've been reviewing every book I read on there since March of 2007, and I've been very, very happy with the community and the discourse that I've found there. If you ever reconsider it, shoot me an MeMail--I'd love to take a peek, however feeble you think your reviews are!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:40 AM on April 19, 2010


Now wait. He says his wife did it? His wife?

By the way, Service's biography of Lenin is excellent. Five stars! Highly recommended!
posted by MarshallPoe at 7:49 AM on April 19, 2010


You overestimate the goodness of the things that lawyers can do.

She's a lecturer in human rights law.
Source
posted by djgh at 8:06 AM on April 19, 2010


So, these books... they don't vibrate? I just don't know what to believe any more.
posted by No-sword at 8:12 AM on April 19, 2010


Huh, I was just considering moving some of my own feeble book reviews/commentary to Goodreads and this thread has about convinced me not to. I'd never have considered reviewing books or music on Amazon, though. Reading Amazon reviews is an amusing time-waster but it doesn't contribute to my knowledge about the items reviewed nearly as often as it confirms mildly misanthropic opinion of humanity in general.

My theory is that even if people are shilling or savaging reviews, the more honest ones out there the better. Go for it!
posted by djgh at 8:13 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Dense? Pretentious? Every time I read Molotov's Magic Lantern, I want to hit Polonsky over the skull with her own shin-bone.

I know you're quoting Twain on Austen, and I love the quote, but I'm curious to know whether you've read Molotov's Magic Lantern and whether you actually disliked it. Reviews like this one (by someone who knows the territory pretty well) make me want to read it.
posted by languagehat at 8:35 AM on April 19, 2010


It helps to know that this is part of a long-running public feud between Polonsky and Figes. She trashed his book Natasha's Dance in a review in the TLS in 2002; he hit back, indirectly, through an article in the Guardian in which various unnamed 'friends of Figes' suggested that her review was motivated by professional envy. In 2007 the Guardian ran an interview with Figes in which it was suggested that Polonsky was a 'frustrated academic' who bore a grudge against him for refusing to write her a reference. Polonsky sued the Guardian and won damages and an apology.

The Guardian makes no mention of the libel case in this latest article, which shows signs of having been carefully vetted by the paper's legal team. Figes, too, has form when it comes to suing other academics for libel, so it's not surprising that all parties concerned should have brought in the lawyers. The fact that Polonsky has retained the services of Carter-Fuck, the most aggressive firm of libel lawyers in Britain, suggests that we're going to be hearing more of this.
posted by verstegan at 8:44 AM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


" I'm so sorry but my wife has made a mistake." --Basil Fawlty
posted by storybored at 8:50 AM on April 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


The professor, his wife, and the secret, savage book reviews on Amazon

No, no, no. It was the millionaire who had a wife. The professor was the one who was tapping the movie star.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 9:00 AM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Carter-Fuck, the most aggressive firm of libel lawyers in Britain,

That was briefly too awesome to be real and turned out, sadly, to be too awesome to be real.
posted by Shepherd at 9:09 AM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I have a hard time believing anyone makes book buying decisions based on Amazon reviews.

I do.

But I only take the reviews seriously when there are dozens of them. Two reviews? I don't even bother reading them. But I've found that when there are a couple of hundred reviews, I can pretty accurately predict whether or not I'm going to enjoy the book. I don't do that by taking an average. I do it by skimming through the reviews, searching for minds that seem similar to mine.

If I find just one like-minded review, I won't necessarily buy the book. But if there are ten well-written reviews, by people who seem to have similar tastes to me, then I'll buy the book. I've never regretted that decision. I can't think of a single time when I thought, "What were those people thinking?"

I NEVER buy based on superlatives. I don't care if a book is "stunning" or "astounding" (or "horrible"). That tells me nothing. But many reviewers go into great detail.

I also often find reviews helpful in terms of which books to avoid. For instance, I HATE bad prose. It's often hard to tell if a genre book has bad prose, because many genre readers are only concerned with the plot and characters. Now, if one reviewer says, "The story was pretty exciting, but the writing was kind of clunky," that doesn't mean much to me. But if twelve people say something like that, I give the book a miss.

Amazon reviews are particularly helpful when the book is a How-to, e.g. a computer book. You get reviews by people who have really tried all the steps in the book. Many of the reviews point out specific errors.

I'm one of those really careful buyers who wants to be as sure as possible that he'll like a book before reading it. I generally start with the NY Times review. Then I'll ask friends. Then I'll read the Amazon reviews. So they are not the only tools I use. But they sure are useful!
posted by grumblebee at 9:16 AM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


And here, I feel bad for defying the bimodal distribution by giving almost everything three stars ("it was ok") on Amazon unless it's really, really good.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:21 AM on April 19, 2010


This has the makings of In Our Time's most awesomely awkward and uncomfortable episode EVAR. C'mon Melvyn Bragg, let's make it happen!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:26 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


> She's a lecturer in human rights law.

For or against?
posted by ardgedee at 9:28 AM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm with grumblebee. I find Amazon reviews very helpful if there are enough of them.
posted by ericost at 9:35 AM on April 19, 2010


So, where exactly is the crime that requires the lawyers? I forget which statute protects you from having your feelings hurt.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:09 AM on April 19, 2010


Amazon has apparently taken the "Historian" hatchet-job reviews down because of the media attention, but I'm not sure doing this actually violated any site policy. The last time I looked through Amazon's reviewer rules, there was nothing about conflicts of interest or disclosure. They had a prohibition on any compensation, beyond a free product, for writing reviews, but that's it.

In fact, I think the average Amazon book review is so idiotic that academic slander might be a net positive contribution to the discourse there. A hit-piece that takes the time to give any justification for panning the book in question is more like real criticism than most of the ungrounded personal opinions and free-association in the usual reviews from disinterested parties.
posted by RogerB at 12:20 PM on April 19, 2010


There's a nice piece at the Guardian's books blog about how non-scandalous this is. By contrast, Philip Hensher seems weirdly incensed:

I can see the reason for SalamPax, the famous gay Iraqi blogger, to write pseudonymously. What possibly justification can there be for a blog of book reviews, or the reviews on Amazon, to remain anonymous, unless to conceal improper interests? [...] Why do they allow their reviewers to post under pseudonyms anyway?
posted by RogerB at 12:49 PM on April 19, 2010


So, where exactly is the crime that requires the lawyers? I forget which statute protects you from having your feelings hurt.

Well, did you see the apology the Guardian wrote to Polonsky as restitution for the 2007 incident with Figes?
We should not have linked Orlando Figes' remarks concerning frustrated academics to Rachel Polonsky of whom they would be entirely false. The implication that a review of his book in the TLS was motivated by a personal grudge or professional envy or anything other than scholarly concern is without foundation. We apologise to Rachel Polonsky for any embarrassment or distress.
I mean, it really does seem sometimes like UK libel law gives you a right not to have your feelings hurt. Whether someone is a frustrated academic motivated by professional envy seems like it's essentially an opinion, not a falsehood.
posted by palliser at 1:40 PM on April 19, 2010


I mean, it really does seem sometimes like UK libel law gives you a right not to have your feelings hurt. Whether someone is a frustrated academic motivated by professional envy seems like it's essentially an opinion, not a falsehood.

I wonder if after the high-profile Singh libel issue there'll be some reform. I'd be interested to hear any MeFite UK lawyers pipe up on this one.
posted by djgh at 2:29 PM on April 19, 2010


And here, I feel bad for defying the bimodal distribution by giving almost everything three stars ("it was ok") on Amazon unless it's really, really good.

You're kidding?! The 2 and 3 star reviews are the ones I do actually read. You people are the ones who - when you can put a sentence together - actually write about the good and bad points of a book, or compare it to something else in the genre or by the same author that was better. The 5 star ZOMG!!!!11! reviews are often too fawning, and the 1 star "this sux" reviews lack content and certain important grammatical bits. Carry on! (though we know Amazon is gaming those reviews, too)
posted by whatzit at 2:47 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


This book on probability is one of the few books on Amazon to have a near-uniform distribution of reviews. Curious, that.
posted by scose at 10:22 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah, academics pissing on each others' literary cornflakes. Where would we – and more importantly, the lawyers – be without them? I can't work out what's funnier: the fact that supposedly professional historians (or, well, one and the spouse of another) are treating Amazon reviews as if they're the letters pages of the LRB or the TLS, or the fact that they then take it so seriously they resort to legal rottweilers like Carter-Fuck.

Talking of which:

djgh: I wonder if after the high-profile Singh libel issue there'll be some reform. I'd be interested to hear any MeFite UK lawyers pipe up on this one.

I wouldn't count on it. Jack Straw [Justice Secretary] attempted to enact reform before the dissolution of Parliament and all went a bit Hindenburg, unfortunately. Various friends of Carter-Fuck and other interested parties (ie MPs who are lawyers, or on lawyers' payrolls, or close friends with them) stood up in the House and waffled about "denying access to justice" to the kind of poor downtrodden people who could never afford to mount a libel action anyway. And thus meaningful reform was avoided. Phew!

Sadly, this sorry parade of anti-reform naysayers included MeFi's own Member in the House, Tom Watson, aka baggymp. He lays out his arguments in a post here, but to say I don't buy it is putting it lightly. Depressing, after his admirable stand against the Digital Economy Bill.
posted by Len at 5:22 AM on April 20, 2010


The story gets even better. It wasn't the wife, it was Figes himself.
posted by handee at 7:36 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blaiming his wife is such a ridiculous low to fall to... I have no words really. By all rights this should be a career-ender. Unfortunately, it probably won't (I may be too cynical).
posted by Kattullus at 8:07 AM on April 23, 2010


Good gravy! A delicious development; it's too bad it can't be added as an addendum to the original post rather than being stuck down here where hardly anyone will see it.

> By all rights this should be a career-ender.

Oh, come now, people's careers have survived far worse than this, especially in jolly old England, where they appreciate drunks, eccentrics, and childish academics. No, it'll just get brought up at parties now and then and be alluded to opaquely in reviews.
posted by languagehat at 8:51 AM on April 23, 2010


Yeah, there's worse, but I can't think of much worse than blaming your spouse for your own sins that isn't actually a crime. As I said, it probably won't end his career, but his status will be greatly diminished. Academic communities are small societies. Russian history is fairly big, as these communities go, but everybody will know this story. But who knows, maybe his scholarship will be good enough for him to reclaim his perch.
posted by Kattullus at 9:09 AM on April 23, 2010


Good God, that's shameful - and on reflection, less the dissing others than the cloying praise for his own work. What on earth was he thinking?
posted by Abiezer at 12:23 PM on April 23, 2010


By all rights this should be a career-ender.

By all rights, it should be a marriage-ender.
posted by Grangousier at 12:26 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, come now, people's careers have survived far worse than this, especially in jolly old England, where they appreciate drunks, eccentrics, and childish academics.

Ah, but the thing about the English academic system is that alcoholism is tolerable, malice is amusing, but self-promotion is an unforgivable sin.
posted by verstegan at 3:04 AM on April 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I see Germaine Greer still has a job.
posted by Wolof at 7:53 AM on April 24, 2010


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