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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker