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April 19, 2010

Authors Behaving Badly, Brit Historian Edition
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:05 PM * 57 comments

Amazon reviews (both one and five star) based on (let us say) extra-textual criteria, sockpuppets, lawyers! Startling revelations! Yes, it’s Authors Behaving Badly!

According to The Daily Fail Mail, distinguished historians (and one distinguished historian’s wife) were engaged in a years-long snipefest amid the Amazon.com reviews of assorted published popular histories.

Oh, and The Daily Mail gives all of their real names.

Read the whole thing here:

I blame my wife: Top historian accused of rubbishing rivals in Amazon reviews… then his wife says SHE did it
By David Rose, 18th April 2010

Didn’t anyone tell them about the ABM? Haven’t there been enough examples?

There are no secrets in the world. Anything that goes over the ‘net is liable to turn up at the lead story on the Six O’clock News.

Comments on Authors Behaving Badly, Brit Historian Edition:
#1 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 06:03 PM:

Ooh, and academia to boot! I've got the popcorn; who'll bring the ice cream?

#2 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 06:34 PM:

Ice cream, right here. Any flavor preferences?

#3 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 07:00 PM:

Got any Figes Newton flavor?

#4 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 07:43 PM:

Birkbeck? Cambridge? The Oxonian laughter should be quite, ahem, modestly restrained.

#5 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 07:57 PM:

Beer would be nice. I have a few bottles of Extra Special Bitter Rivalry.

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 08:09 PM:

Who was that Dead Sea Scrolls scholar who was disgraced a while back when it turned out his grown son had been attacking and spoofing other Dead Sea Scrolls scholars who'd disagreed with him?

#7 ::: Mattathias ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 08:10 PM:

It's said the politics in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

I'll bring matches. Fireworks are no fun if no-one has matches.

#8 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 08:23 PM:

as an academic, and a deeply trivial one, i have to say that this episode does not merit coverage in the daily mail and guardian.

sock-puppety negative reviews on amazon? that's not news.

#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 08:40 PM:

Kid Bitzer: Someone posts sockpuppet reviews on Amazon: dog bites man.

Major scholar accused of vicious sockpuppet reviews of colleagues' books on Amazon, issues denials, makes legal threats, vast thrash; then issues statement that scholar's wife, senior lecturer in law at Cambridge, barrister, human rights specialist, etc., wrote the reviews: moral lesson instructive to the young, mighty heap of schadenfreude, interesting subject for idle speculation, et cetera.

#10 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 08:44 PM:

moral lesson instructive to the young, mighty heap of schadenfreude, interesting subject for idle speculation, et cetera.

Emphasis mine, and heartily agreed. This also applies to the Other Thread in which I am sitting firmly on my fingers to avoid unleashing my inner asshat. Schadenfreude, properly prepared, is a glorious and beautiful thing.

Pass the pie.

#11 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 08:50 PM:

oh, i suppose it does enjoy a wealth of corroborative detail, and the narrative is not wholly bald and unconvincing.

and, in any case, far be it from me to discourage idle speculation.

#12 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 08:53 PM:

John Scalzi's Schadenfreude pie.

#13 ::: Nathaniel ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 10:06 PM:

Teresa, that scholar was Norman Golb, of the University of Chicago. The whole kerfuffle was about whether the scrolls originated in Jerusalem (as Golb maintains) rather than Qumran.

#14 ::: hapax ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 10:37 PM:

Pshaw. Academic rivalries used to be carried out with much more panache in the days before Teh Intertubez.

Placetne, magistra?

#15 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 11:41 PM:

Bruce @5, if I ever brew an ESB, that's the name for it.

#16 ::: K. Chew ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2010, 11:58 PM:

Two British medieval historians, Michael Postan and A.R. Bridbury, apparently had a nasty rivalry that lasted decades. There wasn't enough room in the field of medieval economic history for both of them.

#17 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2010, 01:18 AM:

The big change is that British Universities seem to be acquiring HR departments, with all that implies. And Professors are being judged on their ability to gather funding from corporate interests.

There is apparently an Oxford chair in the Education department which is funded by a major publisher of textbooks.

#18 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2010, 07:08 AM:

Posh historians. Utter shits the lot of them. I'm so glad I'm a prole.

An impeccable resource on the issue:

http://www.micaelita.com/historytoday/

#19 ::: Sarah E ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2010, 08:02 AM:

#16
There wasn't enough room in the field of medieval economic history for both of them.

Which is why I prefer to listen to the Ronettes’ version…

#20 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2010, 10:07 AM:

I recall Clive James's delightful poem about schadenfreude, "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered":

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book --
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seeminly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.


The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.


Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyart with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots--
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun".


Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error--
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

#21 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2010, 11:30 AM:

When mentioning that poem, I prefer to link to the author's (rather well designed) web site instead of including the whole thing.

#22 ::: LDR ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2010, 02:44 PM:

hapax@14: I saw what you did there.

#23 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2010, 10:02 AM:

Indeed - it wasn't in vane.

#24 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2010, 02:28 PM:

Indeed - it wasn't in vane.

*darkly* Not YET.

#25 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2010, 02:46 PM:

Helen, I think that's a bit strong. Poison in the discourse isn't going to solve anything.

#26 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2010, 03:21 PM:

Carrie, 25: True enough--if you poison the discourse, you'll have its carcase to deal with.

#27 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2010, 03:27 PM:

26
At least, if you must poison it, make sure the unpleasantness happens elsewhere.

#28 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2010, 07:29 PM:

Which carcase? Whose body?

#29 ::: Dragoness Eclectic ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2010, 11:30 PM:

*hugs everyone for their allusions to her favorite mystery author*

#30 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2010, 07:38 AM:

Isn't it a shame
Seems an awful waste
Such a nice plump frame
Wots is name
Has...had...has....

#31 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2010, 07:55 PM:

*innocently whistles songs in the French language*

#32 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2010, 11:04 AM:

Oh! Oh! it gets better! Figes confesses to writing the stuff himself, and is now on 'sick leave'.... haha-hoho-heehee! Freude! Freude! Schaden! Freude!!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/23/poison-pen-reviews-historian-orlando-figes

#33 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2010, 02:45 PM:

I can't help but wonder if his wife agreed to be portrayed as the offender, or if he was just flailing and pointing fingers: "It wasn't me, it was... it was... her! My wife did it! Yeah, that's it."

If my husband tried something like that without having gotten my consent to do so, it wouldn't be merely his professional life that would be in upheaval.

#34 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2010, 04:41 PM:

Has anyone written a "Schadenfreude" set of lyrics for "Ode To Joy"?

#35 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2010, 04:53 PM:

Joel Polowin @34, I've tried a couple of times, but it needs some work.

#36 ::: zarquon ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2010, 04:50 AM:

This is all that needs be said.

#37 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2010, 02:55 PM:

Interesting. He's "apologised" about the reviews (and, apparently, to his wife, so I suspect Lexica @33 was on the right track there). He says that the reviews "were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm."

Not intended to harm? Really? Posting an extremely negative review of somebody's book (competing with his own) isn't intended to harm? Did he think perhaps nobody would read his reviews? Or simply that having read them, everybody would buy the book anyway? In that case, why bother writing them?

#38 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2010, 06:00 PM:

Jules, are you postulating that all negative book reviews are intended to harm the author?

#39 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2010, 10:13 PM:

Here's the best I can do with the Ode to Joy thing (not that great, I'm afraid):

Schaden! (Schaden!) Freude! (Freude!)

Rotten times have come to you and we are very ha-a-ppy,
If you hadn't been a jerk things wouldn't be so cra-ppy.
You are sad and we a-are glad and finge-ers are a'wa-a-gging,
Maybe next time you'll remember
Meddle not with dragons.

#40 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2010, 10:43 PM:

Jules, are you postulating that all negative book reviews are intended to harm the author?

No, I doubt that's what's being postulated.

Are you saying that these particular reviews had some other intent?

#41 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2010, 11:32 PM:

Schadenfreude, schadenfreude, schadenfreude pie!
When somebody's plans have gone very awry,
And you say "tut" or "oh dear", but want to say "fie!"
It's Schadenfreud, schadenfreude, schadenfreude pie!

Schadenfreude, schadenfreude, schadenfreude pie
Sweetness and bitterness, crunchy and dry,
If somebody else is caught out in a lie,
Schadenfreude, schadenfreude, schadenfreude pie.

Schadenfreud, schadenfreude, schadenfreude pie,
If all got their due, we'd be all hanging high,
There but for grace of the good Lord go I,
In schadenfreude, schadenfreude, schadenfreude pie.

Schadenfreud, schadenfreude, schadenfreude pie,
Already the crust and the makings have I,
But cut me a slice; for why should I decry,
Schadenfreude, schadenfreude, schadenfreude pie.

#42 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 12:50 AM:

That's cute, but it has the big problem that the final "e" in "schadenfreude" isn't silent.

#43 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 01:58 AM:

JDM: Are you saying that *these particular* reviews had some other intent?

No, but then I read Jules's "Posting an extremely negative review of somebody's book (competing with his own) isn't intended to harm?" as a statement about extremely negative book reviews in general. Which reading may have had something to do with Jules's phrasing...

"Doing something to somebody isn't intended to...?" rather than "They did that to Person, and I'm supposed to believe they didn't intend to...?"

...but probably had a lot more to do with my failing at reading for context.

So, fair enough.

#44 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 05:27 AM:

scholarship

#45 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 07:00 AM:

Details of the detective work that revealed Prof. Figes was behind the Amazon reviews:

How I rumbled the lying professor: The story behind the discredited don who rubbished rivals on Amazon...then left his own wife to take the blame

(In the Daily Mail.)

#46 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 10:53 AM:

42
I elided (is that the right word?) that 'e', to make it scan, in my mind. It's a possible solution, even in the original language.

#47 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 02:03 PM:

I elided (is that the right word?) that 'e', to make it scan, in my mind. It's a possible solution, even in the original language.

I think the elision would be a lot more plausible if the next word were not "pie," but something beginning with a vowel (and yes, I realize that would ruin the Cottleston reference -- dunno what to do about it). In general, though, yours is definitely better than mine.

#48 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 04:36 PM:

Earl Cooley III @ 21: For future reference, I've only been able to find "The Book of Mine Enemy Has Been Remaindered" on Clive James' website as an audio file, and it's in a Windows format that my Mac doesn't support. It appears that I'd have to pay $30 for a plugin to be able to play it.

#49 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 04:56 PM:

The problem I had with the "Remaindered" poem was that it is long enough that quoting the whole thing seems to me to be a bit past the line of fair use. The fact that the text is not on the author's official web site suggests to me that perhaps he would prefer that people buy the book.

#50 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 05:35 PM:

The Daily Mail article by Polonsky was quite interesting, Jim, and led me to leave a comment there. Thanks for the link!

#51 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 10:02 PM:

Wow, that Figes is a genuine dyed-in-the-wool scumbag. And kind of a wacko too.

#52 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2010, 10:46 PM:

# 48 -- JanetL

You can find a text copy of "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered" at the archive for the public radio show "Writer's Almanac" from October of 2008

There is also an audio file of the text in Real Media format. It's a Real Media (.RAM) file of that show's installment (5 minutes) spoken by Garrison Keillor.

#53 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2010, 09:48 AM:

Nicole@38: Well, "intention" is a complex concept. The purpose of publishing a negative review has to be at least partly to warn people off the book, doesn't it? And the author benefits financially from the book being sold (as well as reputationally from the book getting notably high sales, from good reviews, from favorable citations, and from various other things).

I think that one should not publish a bad review without being aware that it is likely to harm the author to some extent. But that's somewhat different from actual "intent to harm the author," at least in my lexicon.

#54 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2010, 09:51 AM:

Couldn't resist:

Freude schöne Schadenfreude,
Nectar and ambrosia!
We have mocked you and enjoyed a
Laugh at your exposure.
Though you thought that you were clever,
You've been caught out on the 'Net.
Untold millions see forever
What you'd rather we forget.

#55 ::: CaoPaux ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2010, 10:24 AM:

"A leading historian who wrote anonymous reviews on the Amazon website praising his own work and criticising rivals is to pay libel damages and costs."

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10670407

#56 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2010, 02:19 PM:

Unless the damages are pretty substantial, he appears to be getting off lightly for having attempted to permanently ruin the reputations of three people (including his own wife).

#57 ::: TexAnne sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2010, 09:17 AM:

Even less coherent than usual.

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