Philip Hensher: Anonymity protects too many critics

Amazon know your real name. Why do they allow their reviewers to post under pseudonyms anyway?

Share
Related Topics

The online reviews were forthright in their likes and dislikes; the reviewer was anonymous, but displayed a clear interest in Russian history. Robert Service's books were "a dull read", "disappointing" or just plain "rubbish ... an awful book". Rachel Polonsky's Molotov's Magic Lantern, a book universally acclaimed elsewhere, was to this anonymous Amazon reviewer "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published".

Not that "Historian" was entirely negative in his or her views on books. Orlando Figes's The Whisperers had "superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes for ever". Apart from that, however, Historian was readier to attack than to praise. Moving beyond his or her usual territory of Russian history, Historian wrote of Kate Summerscale's immensely popular and successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: "the book is not nearly as good as its many plaudits in the Press and book prize judges think".

Miss Summerscale's book was the good and deserving winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize a year or two back. Curiously, Historian's admired Orlando Figes was also on the shortlist the same year, and failed to win. Even more curiously, this contributor had generated an online profile under the tag "Orlando-Birkbeck", the London college where Mr Figes teaches.

Of course, it must have been immediately apparent to everyone that Orlando Figes himself could not possibly have written these reviews. He himself is rather a good writer, and the reviews, though quick to pass judgement on literary style, were often semi-literate, as that sentence about the plaudits in the Press suggests. Nevertheless, Miss Polonsky was concerned, and Mr Service wrote with his worries to some colleagues. Threatening letters from Mr Figes's lawyers winged out, including to a friend of mine who had commented on events in her Facebook profile.

On Friday the whole thing collapsed. Mr Figes said that he had discovered that the reviews had been written by his wife, Stephanie Palmer, an academic lawyer at Cambridge University. She had abused Mr Figes's rivals and made ecstatically enthusiastic claims for his own works.

With the internet have come huge opportunities for anonymity. Anyone can say what they like about anyone else without there being the slightest risk of an interest, a direct connection, or an obligation being uncovered. That doesn't seem an advantage, on the whole. 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?

Let's be clear: what Miss Palmer did was an absolute scandal, one to which none of her victims would ever have stooped. When Rachel Polonsky wrote a savagely critical review of a book of Orlando Figes's in 2002, she did so honourably, under her own name in The Times Literary Supplement. Miss Palmer, through her anonymous reviews, has by contrast destroyed all her own credibility, and much of her distinguished husband's. But there is another, larger scandal, which is this. Amazon won't permit you to post a review unless you have ordered books from them. They know your real name. Why do they allow their reviewers to post under pseudonyms anyway? Should not bloggers have to make the case for their anonymity?

Concerts that appeal to the ghoul in me

"Reaction was mixed" and "opinion was divided" usually means not mixed and not divided at all. It usually means everyone thought something was crap. But opinion really is divided about Whitney Houston's amazing concert tour. After a well-documented drug addiction, she is not what she was, and the power and flexibility of her voice have been tragically eroded. Her extraordinary assault on her early 1990s hit "I Will Always Love You" is a current YouTube favourite.

On the other hand, there was genuine adoration in the crowd, along with some booing. Some reviewers – to, admittedly, considerable scepticism – thought that she delivered a compelling show. Probably the two positions are equally true. Audiences have their ghoulish aspect, and sometimes rather hope to see a performer fall apart. One thinks of Judy Garland's legendary run at the Talk of the Town in 1969, where the audience took to throwing breadsticks at the singer.

I freely admit to buying tickets to the appearance of a really past-it diva in an opera with the hope of witnessing an onstage catastrophe. Whitney Houston's gig was nowhere near as bad as that. But her extraordinary charisma just draws the eye, inexplicably, whether what you are looking at is mastery, or something far short of that.

So now we know where the fruit is cut up

Every novelist knows that the introduction of a violent, random event can transform and reveal the truth of a human situation. You don't know what your characters are like until a car crashes into their front garden. Their nature will be revealed by an unpredictable and, in itself, meaningless happening.

And so in real life. No human agency causes the eruption of a volcano, but its remote effects instantly lay bare the rhythms and restrictions of the way we live now. I'm happily ensconced in Geneva, but surprising numbers of friends have been unwillingly stuck in Madrid, Oslo, or much more remote places, dining glumly in hotel restaurants and looking up the train timetables. "Still in Kiev?" I texted a friend who had innocently gone to a conference, never thinking of the effects of an Icelandic volcano on his plans. "For the rest of my life, probably," he replied.

Surely the oddest discovery the Eruption has forced on us is to do with the flying-in of fruit. I bet you didn't know until this week that those little boxes of pineapple chunks come from fruit which have not only been grown in Africa, but peeled, diced and packaged there too. I'm sure this over-elaborate procedure all makes perfect economic sense in normal circumstances. For the immediate future, however, it looks as if you might just have to peel your own fruit.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms