Sunday, 18 April 2010

BOOK NEWS: 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.

Leading academics in bitter row over anonymous 'poison' book  reviews
(Lt-Rt) Orlando Figes, Rachel Polonsky, Kate Summerscale and Stephanie Palmer

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'.

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