Sunday, 25 April 2010

Amazon Reviews, Uxoriousness and Sock Puppetry

One of the pleasures of being married to another writer is the discovery that two people can do the same sort of thing—researching, writing, publishing—in such different ways. I can only write at the last minute before a deadline, whereas Paula gets herself organized way in advance. I get very insecure about published reviews but ignore readers’ reviews on Amazon, whereas Paula refuses to read her reviews in the press but pays a lot of attention to what she calls “real readers’ reviews” on Amazon. I suppose the difference there is that as a professor I worry about reputation and the “peer-review” process of published reviews, while as a full-time author Paula cares most about giving pleasure to her readers. To judge from the glowing reviews of her Mad World on Amazon, almost all of which have “real names”, anonymous reviewing is going out of fashion there—except, of course, in the much-discussed case of Professor Orlando Figes (who seemed to me a perfectly good bloke when I met him at a dinner party when we were graduate students aeons ago, and whose Natasha’s Dance was, I thought, a very enjoyable and informative survey of Russian culture). As everyone knows, first he denied any involvement in the anonymous Amazon reviews knifing his rivals’ books and praising his own to the skies, then he announced that his wife had written them.
At this point, I felt like raising a cheer for Mrs Figes. Uxoriousness (maritoriousness?) seems to me an excusable, even a desirable, vice. Indeed, I committed a gross act of it myself last summer when Mad World was published. One particular review claimed that it covered the identical territory to another, previously published book: knowing how extensively Paula had sweated over primary sources, how much new material she had unearthed and how utterly different it was from the other book, I wrote an irked email to the reviewer and editor in question, chiding them for this blatant untruth … which elicited a charmingly apologetic reply that quite disarmed me and made me very glad that I had not embarrassed myself by throwing my husbandly hissy fit in public.
Now it is revealed that it wasn’t Mrs Figes in the library with the pen poisoned by uxoriousness, but actually Professor Orlando in the chatroom with the sock puppet. For me, the discovery of the splendid term sock puppetry has been the real revelation of the affair. Here is a link to an article about how a couple of years ago the prof appears to have used some other sock puppets to tart up his own Wikipedia entry.
On a more serious note, though, the attempt to use threatening letters from lawyers to silence fair literary comment, as described in the TLS’s powerful account of its own role in the affair, is chilling in itself and utterly bizarre, in a very Freudian way, coming from someone whose most recent book concerns the whisperings of the Stalinist secret police and their informers.

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