Critical Mass

“Historian” Is History at Amazon

By Eric Banks

In short order, Critical Mass will be reporting the results of our semiannual NBCC Reads survey, which queried which work of fiction or nonfiction has the smartest things to say about conjugal love. At his blog House of Mirth, NBCC board member James Marcus (who chairs the NBCC Reads committee) has smart things to say himself about a high-profile intersection of spousal support and anonymous reviewing:

Caveat lectoris always a useful mantra to keep in mind when reading anonymous comments on any website or blog. Still, according to these pieces in the Guardian and the Telegraph, a British attorney and senior law lecturer at Cambridge University has now set the bar just a wee bit higher when it comes to customer-reviewing pratfalls. The perp, Stephanie Palmer, is married to the distinguished historian Orlando Figes. In an excess, perhaps, of conjugal zeal, she has made a habit of praising her husband's books on Amazon's UK site, signing these assessments as “Historian.”

A nasty review by “Historian” of Molotov’s Magic Lantern (“dense,” “pretentious,” “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”) posted at raised the suspicions of the book’s author, Rachel Polonsky, who had famously savaged Figes’s Natasha’s Dance in the pages of TLS in 2002. Polansky passed along her hunch about the identity of the anonymous poster to Robert Service, himself the subject of a barbed review from the prolific keyboard of “Historian,” whose record of panning books seemed to reverse itself only in the case of Figes’s own work. (“Historian” nicely ended a review of Figes’s The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia with the line “I hope he writes for ever.”) Service angrily contacted other historians. On Thursday, Figes denied that he and “Historian” were one and the same; Polansky meanwhile contacted her lawyer. The following day, Figes’s counsel issued a statement that Palmer was the guilty poster. subsequently pulled the reviews, but Marcus’s post includes a cached version.

(If you haven’t already responded to the NBCC Reads survey, it’s not too late, though the deadline is tomorrow. You can still send your thoughts to