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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Ah, but what to do? (Updated)

[Stop Press: Amazon have told me that they have removed the offending review by Pace, so I have taken down the analysis of his efforts to mislead people.  Though he's still writing nonsense in the comments section of other reviews...  I've been accused of being a Stalinist for this, which does not amuse me.  This isn't about stifling alternative views or bad reviews; it's about taking action against the author of a competing work attempting to put people off buying your book by telling untruths about it.  Quite different.  My accuser is a believer in the free market, but a free market needs to be - well - free.]

Hoist by my own petard, am I.  A week or two back I was tempted, after reading a reply to a review (not to one of my books, or to one of my reviews - not even to a review of a book about history, actually) which began 'we would like to thank X for their review of our book (yeah, 'course you would...), to write my wise words about not replying to reviews.  All of which leaves me in a sort of pickle.  I had a nice review by T.A. Shippey in The Literary Review, to which I did feel like posting some thoughts here by way of a reply.  Some of his disagreements with me were fair enough but I didn't buy the counter-argument.  A response would have been meant simply in a spirit of conversation but it would have looked like I was just being uppity.  Hence the advice.  The most important reason I wanted to reply to Shippey, though, was just to say 'yeah, you're spot on about the excellent Duggan novels; I recommended The Little Emperors myself in a foot-note to Barbarian Migrations', so I guess I've done that now.  Anyway, the point I was making a couple of weeks back is that even bad print reviews soon get forgotten and replying to them never makes you look good (no matter how insulting etc they were) and only draws attention to the bad review.  Books stay on shelves and don't come with the review attached.

Ah, but what of the on-line review?  I guess my advice is the same, even though someone searching for your book on Google might find the review so the two are not as separated as in print media.  Indeed I drew your attention to a couple of (I think) slightly harsh reviews when I updated my piece on reviews of Worlds of Arthur.  People diss me and my work all over the interwebs.  I don't like it (who would?) but I'm used to it.

Here, though, is the pickle.  There are now two reviews on Amazon.co.uk to which I take quite serious exception.  Not for being bad reviews per se; there are other negatives on there - and criticisms in the more broadly positive reviews - to which my response is 'well, fair enough.'  The two to which I take exception are the (currently, touch wood, only) 1-star review, by one Mr Nicholas W. Le Huquet (UK: Real Name), whom I've never met but who sees fit to refer to me as 'Guy' (like he knows me), because it claims I make a couple of errors:
... he states that British and Sarmatian heavy horse were the same. It's a small point, but they were not. British cavalry, even when armoured, are almost always attested as skirmishing, whether as Britons fighting J Caesar, Britons fighting Saxons as per Y Gododdin or as Bretons fighting Franks. He also says Sarmatians were never in Britain which certainly needs to be referenced, because history appears to record differently.
Nowhere in the book do I make either of these (and I quote) 'schoolboy errors'.  An interested potential reader might be misled by this (see below for Amazon reviewing T&Cs regarding accurate representation).    Now, you might wonder what position anyone is in to review a book who can't actually read what it says, especially when Mr Nicholas W. Le Huquet (UK: Real Name) goes on to dismiss - from the lofty height of his own scholarship and standing as a historian of the period - my interpretation as 'probably wrong'.  He then proceeds to pontificate on what probably happened (regardless of the fact that, since we don't know for sure where the different provinces of late Roman Britain were, his thesis cannot even be tested).  In fact his theory lacks any supporting evidence and, to be fair, he cites none.  That makes me a little less inclined to tolerate the personal abuse he chooses to throw at me (arrogance, laziness, hypocrisy -  a word he has difficulty spelling).  

The other is one of the (currently) two 2-star reviews.  There is a more serious issue here and that is that this review is written by the author of a rival volume.  It is Edwin Pace, author of Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain, the dismal pseudo-history alluded to on p.vii of Worlds of Arthur.  That book is a catalogue of ill-informed non-arguments based on an utter misunderstanding of early medieval evidence and how to use it, all consulted in translation alone, wrapped up, as is the wont of the pseudo-historians, in claims that X or Y is the 'true' date, the 'true' identity.    (To tell you the truth, I initially only made it through about half of the main text as there were so many errors and silly arguments that it was making me angry.)  Pace is the author of the claim that source criticism is 'bias' and that we should adopt a 'forensic' approach, a claim dismantled on pp.142-3 of WoA.  So of course he wasn't going to like my book; of course it was going to piss him off.  I admitted as much on p.10 of WoA.  That doesn't bother me and he has every right to be annoyed.  He has his own website devoted to his pseudo-historical theories, on which he's free to trash me to his heart's delight.

What bothers me (and what he doesn't have every right to do) is that he has posted a 'review' on Amazon which makes a series of completely inaccurate comments about the book (alleging that I say things I don't say, take approaches I don't take) and so on, misleading, like the other reviewer, a potential reader/buyer.  Not only that, but he doesn't have the honesty to own up to his parti pris and vested interest but cowers behind a nom-de-plume ('Elafius'; I know it is him because he has written a bizarre letter of complaint to my publisher making the exact same - wrong - point as he makes in the review*).    It's against Amazon T&C's to post a review if you are the author of a competing volume (I have some problems with this as a policy); whatever you think of Amazon's T&Cs it is entirely dishonest to do so while posing as a disinterested party.  Some of you may remember the hot water that the academic modern historian Orlando Figes got into by doing precisely that.  It's also against Amazon reviewing T&Cs to make misleading or erroneous statements about the book under review, and just about every sentence of Pace's review is erroneous.

So what to do, gentle readers?  What to do?

* Note too that Elafius responds in hostile fashion to every negative review of Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain, a book that even the knuckle-headed E.L. Wisty didn't like.