The current nonsense over anonymity and the Amazon reviews of Mrs Orlando Figes (by the way, Rachel Polonsky has apparently hired the notorious Carter Ruck lawyers… expect more anon) has obscured the honourable origins of anonymity. Both the Edinburgh Review and the Times Literary Supplement originally carried anonymous reviews. Lord Byron’s petulant fulminations in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers targeted the future Lord Jeffrey in particular; unfortunately for Byron the review that had stung him was actually penned by the future Lord Brougham. The rationale for anonymity was that specialists and “professionals” would be spared the accusation of nepotism or feuding (and it might even spare a donnish blush or two while the port was being passed round High Table): in other words anonymity was designed to allowed reviewers to be honest. Anonymity shaded away when pseudonym and the “celebrity critic” started to become prevalent. Initials – usually “Z” and suchlike – or faux-coy names like Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” – eroded anonymity as readers started to gravitate towards reviewers with a particular style. Both the TLS and the Edinburgh had aimed for a “house style” which was associated with their assumed objectivity: anonymity doubled as a kind of “we”. Reviewers like Cyril Connolly, Pauline Kael and Robert Hughes were successful by dint of “I”.
Scroll on fifty years and we have a situation in which anonymity is widespread and widely abused. Even worse perhaps is Amazon’s omninymy, a state of affairs where the superfluity of names, handles and e-identities dissolves down into a protoplasmic mush, minus the lightning. For a while Amazon was quite fun – I used to post daft reviews of obscure books just for the undergraduate prankery of it all. This kind of thing. In retrospect I think of them as satires of the abject subjectivism of the form (let alone the questionable use of language and general naivety about literature). Here, for example, are some quotes from one-star reviews of a novel I adored:
“I was very shocked with the extensive use of bad language (C and f words). I am forced to wonder why they don’t warn you about the bad language on the book cover, so you don’t waste your money if it offends you. If you can tolerate lots of bad language in a book then maybe you would enjoy this book, but I can’t comment beyond Chapter 1-I just had to put it down”.
“The style of the narrative is a big problem. It’s a bit like reading some of TS Elliot, you know you are in the presence of greatness, but you still can’t understand it. The book is far too wordy and moves between tenses so often that the plot slips away if you don’t apply utter concentration. It is trying to be too clever with the writing at the expense of the novel. I found it difficult to read, which for me meant it was too easy to put down, and too difficult to get back into. Not a good read more like an exercise in English Literature.”
“Often when I read a book at night I carry on reading into the early hours until I finish it. That has not been a problem here. I find it very putdownable. Indeed I am currently about half way through it, and may well stay there.”
“Both times I’ve started reading I have not been able to get past the second chapter as the book just doesn’t seem to keep my attention.”
“It failed to grab my attention and, to be truthful, I found it very hard to know what was going on. I struggled through to about page 30 and gave up which is a very rare thing for me to do. I find it hard to believe all the plaudits it has received. Beware.”
(I’ll post my review of the book later – after, at least, a trip to Aberdeen tomorrow).
Note the similarities: the book’s cardinal sin is to “not grab my attention”. The snideness and moral superiority. Intelligence is seen as forbidding and alienating. The readers openly confess they haven’t actually read the book but still feel free to vent their ill-informed spleen. In the case of Mrs Orlando, one wonders whether she actually read the books she damned as well, or just ticked off a list of academic rivals.
Now, I realise I have a vested interest as a critic in print as well as one on-line; but amongst all the denunciations of the supposed cabal of dumb reviewers, I am yet to find a counterbalance in favour of this kind of drivel. Opinions, so the saying goes, are like arses – we all have them. In which case professional critics might well be like supermodels: we all have them but only a small percentage should be paid to display them.
PS: of course Amazon Reviews aren’t some utopian free-for-all. You have to buy something to have the right to comment.