I’ve just read a quite remarkable article on the BBC website, describing how a leading Historian has admitted to writing negative Amazon reviews on his rivals work. Professor Orlando Figes, of London’s Birbeck College, has finally owned up to writing a string of damming comments on his rivals books on Amazon. The admission comes after weeks of intrigue. Figes – who is currently on sick leave – has issued a statement of apology.
The row began after Rachel Polonsky, a Russian expert, discovered a less than complimentary review on Amazon of her recently published book. The comment said that her book was ‘hard to follow’, while another book by Robert Service was apparently ‘awful’. Yet the same username described a book by Figes as ‘fascinating’. Polonsky discovered that the username, ‘orlando-birbeck’ (not exactly imaginative) had the same home address as Figes. When confronted with the allegations Figes initially threatened legal action. Then he claimed that his wife had written the comments.
“It was stupid – some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm… This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse… I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help.”
Service, a leading authority on Russian History and one of the authors targeted by Figes, stated in the Guardian that the “secretive rubbishing of my work… [was] disgraceful.”
It really is a unique story, and not the kind of thing that you would expect from Historians. I would be very surprised if it does not go on more than we think, but for someone so prominent to not only do it but get caught out, is quite unheard of. It does sound as if Figes has some mental health issues that need addressing. But even then, it is hard to see him being able to come back from this. How can he go back to being a Professor of History, teaching History students? If I knew that one of my tutors had been exposed for trying to smear their peers, I wouldn’t be able to take them seriously.
Historians are meant to let their books do the talking – ugly spats and hostile reviewing should be left to the TV pundits. Objectivity is crucial, and if a historian stoops to trying to smear his rivals, how can we take his work seriously? One big lie casts doubt on all of his work – if someone can lie like that, what does that say about their integrity? Like David Irving after Richard Evans demolished his arguments, his credibility is shot to pieces.
Its a warning to us all, thats for sure. It shows how tempting it is to lower ones self to petty squabbles, rather than channeling our energies into our work. And even the great and the good are open to the temptation of dirty tricks. And finally, it shows how the internet has affected the history profession, in that wider bookselling has upped the intensity of publishing, and also made it possible for such smearing to take place. How many historians will be casting a suspicious eye on their reviews now?