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Are there victims of Amazon's killer reviews?

April 19, 2010 |  8:36 am

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Last week, a literary "whodunit" circling around extraordinarily nasty reviews on Amazon's British website came to a surprise conclusion. The anonymous reviews fit a pattern: The targets were some of the nation's leading academics, and all the reviews were all written by the screen name "Historian," the Guardian reports.

The spat began last week when the Cambridge-based academic, Dr Rachel Polonsky, noticed among the many favourable reviews of her book on Russian culture, Molotov's Magic Lantern, one condemning her efforts as "dense", "pretentious" and "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published".

It ended late on Friday evening with the surprise unveiling of [Prof. Orlando] Figes's wife, Dr Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Cambridge University, barrister, and member of the top human rights specialists, Blackstone Chambers, as the reviewer calling herself "Historian", and responsible for several anonymous online attacks on the works of her husband's rivals.

A review of Figes' book by "Historian" had been favorable, so attention initially turned to him, but he denied involvement. Later things became so heated that the announcement his wife was the anonymous reviewer  was delivered through a lawyer.

Although the strongly worded reviews took British academics aback, there are plenty of good books that are pilloried by Amazon reviewers. Salon collected several savage reviews of acknowledged masterpieces, including Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," George Orwell's "1984," "An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser, "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck and "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte. They all went something like this:

Looking for a sappy, cliched, novel to read? One predictable as most young-adult books and more degrading than harlequin romances? Well, To Kill a Mockingbird is your book.

No matter how strongly they feel, a few naysayers are not going to sink the reputations of Anne Frank or George Orwell. And these reviews do have a context: Other readers can vote them "helpful" or not; the most helpful float to the top. And if you click through to see all reviews, the most helpful favorable and most helpful critical reviews are prominently displayed. Amazon's review scheme isn't just a bunch of voices trying to shout the loudest; it has built in the wisdom of crowds.

But not all books can expect to gather a crowd of reviews. Though "The Grapes of Wrath" has 655 reviews, economist Jeffrey Sachs' "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet" has just 34. If only a few people have read a book, or if it has a specialized audience, such as those books that got trashed by Stephanie Palmer, can negative reviews affect sales?

Amazon isn't exactly a neutral reviewing ground. I've heard of newly published authors urging friends to leave nice reviews on the site to give their books a little momentum. Some of the reviews on Amazon seem more like notes left in a friend's yearbook than anything else. And I'd like to think that most readers see that  too.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Scott Eells / Bloomberg News

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