13 June 2010

Homophobes and Book Burners Weigh In



Orlando Figes made the news a couple of months ago when the Times revealed that he'd posted a slew of savage pseudonymous reviews of rivals' works on Amazon. "This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published", he wrote of Molotov's Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky, going on to pronounce books by Sovietologist Robert Service variously as "disappointing" and "a dull read". Then Professor Figes' focussed a critical eye on his own book, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, writing that it "leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted." Once caught, he sullied himself further by lashing out, threatening lawsuits and allowing his wife to take the fall. At the end of it all, Stalin was to blame; it seems the stunning lapses in judgement can be traced back to Figes' study of the General Secretary's reign, which had led to a "very deep depression". You see, The Whisperers isn't really so uplifting after all.

Sordid, unseemly, this would all be old news were it not for the fact that it had no effect on an Amazon policy that allows would-be reviewers to hide behind cloaks of anonymity and paperless masks composed of silly pseudonyms.

Looking into the newish Penguin edition of The Wars, I notice that Amazon.ca provides 35 customer reviews of the novel, nearly all of which are anonymous or have been posted under noms de plume. Most are complimentary, but a fair percentage are not.

Who, one wonders, are these people?

Well, let's see. Someone going by the name Rudy Patudy claims to be a high school teacher. Here, in just two sentences, the educator not only displays creative use of punctuation and the lower case, but comes up with a whole new definition for the word "trollop":


Then there's Furyman from Coboconk, Ontario, a reader of books on the First and Eleventh World Wars:


That's right, don't you mistake Furyman for a book burner – though his motto, Gott Mit Uns, was used by the Wehrmacht right up to the fall of the Third Reich. No, the true practitioner of libricide is the brave anonymous soul who posted this:


Into the ground? What do I know – I've never been to a book burning.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that these negative reviews were written by rivals – I very much doubt that Rudy Patudy is Jane Urquhart – but has Amazon learned nothing from Professor Figes' lesson? Why allow anonymous reviews? Why encourage reviewers to use pseudonyms? Why not request that people put their names behind their misspelled words? Sure, the deceitful will continue to hide, but it's at least a start.

As it stands, Amazon has no one but itself to blame for such absolute trollop.

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