Historian's wife and her poison pen expose dark side of literary criticism

The web is the perfect medium for academics with an axe to grind, says John Walsh
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The Independent Culture

The use of libel law by academics to threaten the press has been condemned by a leading literary figure. Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, spoke out against Orlando Figes, the historian and author, after Figes's wife confessed to writing several reviews for Amazon.com, praising her husband's work and trashing that of his rivals. After Figes's legal advisers had accused the TLS of defamation for first raising the issue, Stothard said: "When academics start using the same techniques as John Terry or other celebrities to try and kill legitimate press comment on issues of general importance, the intellectual life of this country is seriously compromised."

Two centuries after John Keats nearly gave up writing poetry after a damning review of his first collection was published in Blackwoods magazine, an anonymous online review is at the centre of this poison-pen scandal. Among the people involved are a dozen authors and academics, several professors of history at the UK's top universities, one distinguished academic lawyer, two libel lawyers, two literary magazines and a fictional character called Natasha from Tolstoy's War and Peace.

The story concerning the mystery of the reviews broke last week in the Times Literary Supplement, the scrupulously ethical journal of book reviews and cultural evaluation. In his back-page notebook, "NB", James Campbell discussed a review that had appeared on Amazon, of Molotov's Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky. It wasn't crazy about the book. In fact it gave it a good kicking: "This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published... Her writing is so dense and pretentious, itself so tangled in literary allusions, that it is hard to follow."

The author of the review lurked behind the nom de plume of "Historian" and the secondary identity, "orlando-birkbeck." As Campbell pointed out, someone writing under the latter name had dealt with other books on Russian topics, including Comrades by Robert Service, professor of history at St Antony's College, Oxford, which orlando-birkbeck described as "awful". A rare sighting of a positive review by this caustic and carping authority was his, or her, assessment ("Beautifully written ... leaves the reader awed, humbled yet uplifted ... a gift to us all") of The Whisperers by Orlando Figes.

Campbell reported that some online users wondered if "orlando-birkbeck" could be the same person as Figes, who teaches Russian studies at Birkbeck College, London. Could he have been getting his own back on Ms Polonski, whose crushing 2002 review (in the TLS) of his book Natasha's Dance accused him of a "cavalier use of sources"? Campbell found such suggestions "implausible" and hoped Professor Figes "will tell us they are mistaken".

The TLS was published on Thursday. On Friday, the Figes story was picked up by the London Review of Books, which revealed that "orlando-birkbeck" had also rubbished The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which topped the bestseller charts in 2008 and won a prize ("Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking when they gave this book the Samuel Johnson prize?" "orlando-birkbeck" wrote) for which Orlando Figes had been coincidentally shortlisted.

Meanwhile, Rachel Polonski had not been idle. She had read the damning review of her book on Molotov, and contacted Robert Service (whose Comrades had been described by "orlando-birkbeck" as "curiously dull") to share her suspicions of their provenance. Not a man to be trifled with, Service sent an email to a dozen fellow historians (including Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad) asking for their comments on "how to expunge the practice and expose the practitioners of malign electronic denunciation in countries of free expression" and drawing parallels with the old Soviet practice of destroying academic reputations by anonymous personal attacks.

Soon after, according to Stothard, Figes's lawyer contacted Professor Service, threatening that, in the event of libel proceedings, he, Service, would be liable. Then Figes himself broke cover. He emailed all the recipients of Service's emails, to complain about the "system" of anonymous postings on the internet. "I am not the author of the Amazon reviews penned by 'orlando-birkbeck' ... Virtually anybody could have written the Amazon reviews. The system is open to abuse, as is so much of the internet, where I have been the victim of malicious campaigns and anonymous attacks on numerous occasions over recent years. Perhaps we shouldn't take anonymous reviews on Amazon seriously," he wrote.

Some people, however, were taking them very seriously. Dr Polonsky continued her terrier-like investigations of "orlando-birkbeck" and tracked the DNA of the reviewer on Amazon, apparently discovering that the person who ordered books from Amazon using that name was Figes.

On Friday, at 2pm, Figes's lawyer got in touch to demand a retraction of the TLS's story, and damages. Their use of the words "We find these suggestions ... implausible" was, he said, no defence. They were in trouble. The journal's editors passed a worrying Friday evening – but Saturday dawned with the news that the culprit was none other than Orlando Figes's wife, Stephanie Palmer, a Cambridge law lecturer – as revealed exclusively by The Independent.

"My client's wife wrote the reviews," said Figes's lawyer's statement. "My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear." Ms Figes added: "I can confirm that statement."

It was an extraordinary turn of events, and continues to beg several questions. How had Mr Figes known nothing until the day before? How had Ms Palmer kept quiet about being the author of several reviews that praised Figes's books and damned his rivals'? How could a high-flying lawyer, with a reputation for work in human rights, be involved in such underhand behaviour?

And should Amazon continue to allow anonymous reviewers to snipe at authors unchecked, when they could be pursuing a similarly malign agenda? "What possible justification can there be," asked the novelist and Independent columnist Philip Hensher yesterday, "for a blog of book reviews, or the reviews on Amazon, to remain anonymous, unless to conceal improper interests?"

Except, of course, that anonymity used to be the norm in literary assessment. "Anonymity doesn't necessarily produce bad behaviour," said Sir Peter Stothard. "Reviews in the TLS used to be anonymous and it was often argued that reviewers could be more honest if their work was unsigned. But the real issue is – and I feel very strongly about this – the willingness of some writers to use legal intimidation in order to suppress comment." Professor Figes is currently stranded in Italy, and is unavailable for comment.