Patterico's Pontifications

5/24/2019

The Moment a Soon-to-Be-Released Book Crashes and Burns [Updated]

Filed under: General — JVW @ 1:33 pm



[guest post by JVW]

Celebrity feminist author Naomi Wolf has a new book scheduled to publish next month. Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love covers the steps taken to persecute homosexuality in the first decades of Queen Victoria’s reign, and advances the argument that these measures extended throughout the entire British Empire, past and present. From the publisher’s blurb:

Until 1857, the State [sic] did not link the idea of “homosexuality” to deviancy. In the same year, the concept of the “obscene” was coined. New York Times best-selling author Naomi Wolf’s Outrages is the story, brilliantly told, of why this two-pronged State repression took hold — first in England and spreading quickly to America — and why it was attached so dramatically, for the first time, to homosexual men.

Before 1857 it wasn’t “homosexuality” that was a crime, but simply the act of sodomy. But in a single stroke, not only was love between men illegal, but anything referring to this love became obscene, unprintable, unspeakable. [. . .]

So in preparation for the book’s publication, Ms. Wolf has embarked upon the obligatory publicity tour. This brought her to BBC Radio where she was interviewed by the historian Matthew Sweet. And this is where it got bad for the American author. The entire interview can be found at the BBC’s website, and here is an exchange between the two, starting roughly at the 21:00 mark with context beginning around 19:00, highlighting a significant problem with her thesis (transcribed by me, so my fault for any mistakes; all emphasis added is mine except as noted):

MS. WOLF: [speaking of convictions for homosexual acts after the 1857 law had been enacted] You get sentences, as I mentioned, of penal servitude for ten or fifteen years and I found several dozen executions, but that was again only looking at the Old Bailey records and the crime tables —

MR. SWEET: [interrupting] Several dozen executions?

MS. WOLF: Correct. And this corrects a misapprehension that is in every website that the last man was executed for sodomy in Britain in 1835.

MR. SWEET: I don’t think you’re right about this. One of the cases that you look at, that is salient in your report, is that of Thomas Silva. It [her book] says: “teenagers were now convicted more often, and indeed in that year” — which is 1859 — “fourteen year-old Thomas Silva was actually executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for an unnatural offense, guilty, death recorded. This is the first time the phrase ‘unnatural offense’ was entered into the Old Bailey records.”

MR. SWEET [continuing]: Thomas Silva wasn’t executed. Death recorded — I was really surprised by this, and I looked it up — “death recorded” is in most of these cases that you’ve identified as executions. It doesn’t mean that he was executed. It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing sentences of death on any capital convict whom the judged to be a fit subject for pardon. I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.

MS. WOLF: Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate. [. . .]

The interviewer, an actual historian, then goes on to explain that he had found a newspaper article indicating that the jury had recommended Thomas Silva be treated mercifully on account of his youth, and that Mr. Silva was eventually set free after serving his prison term. And, oh, by the way, Thomas Silva was not found guilty of having consensual “unnatural relations” with some fellow pubescent; he was found guilty of raping a six-year-old boy, and he served a mere 30 months in prison for the crime. And what’s more, it would seem that finding the full meaning of “death recorded” was as easy as spending a few minutes on the Old Bailey website, not some dogged task that would have entailed weeks or months in the court’s archives. And then, the coup de grâce:

MR. SWEET: I wonder about the others [the examples of men cited by Ms. Wolf with the “death recorded” status who allegedly did nothing more than engage in homosexual relations], because all the others that I followed up, I can’t find any evidence that any of these relationships that you described were consensual. The other one you offer us, James Spencer, a sixty-year-old tutor, he was a teacher who committed what was described as “felonious assault on schoolboys.” One of these cases you offer is a bestiality case and not a buggery case. So I think there is a problem here with this argument.

MS. WOLF: I mean, I certainly will ask for the sources that you have. I mean, I was going by the Old Bailey records and the regional crime tables, but if there is [sic] further details to be added–

MR. SWEET: [interrupting] Well that’s how I got this, through that same portal. I mean, the problem is that the Old Bailey record doesn’t give you any detail at all; it’s just names and then the verdict. So there’s no — you don’t get any sense — and there’s nothing that I have seen that shows you what these relationships were. And I wonder whether — and as I say I can’t see evidence that any [original emphasis] of them were definitely consensual romantic relationships.

MS. WOLF: Well there I do have to argue with you. . .

MR. SWEET: Please do.

MS. WOLF: . . . because I included in this version of the book selective cases [original emphasis], and if additional details show that this kid was not actually executed, that death recorded does–

MR. SWEET: [interrupting] It means the opposite!

MS. WOLF: So that’s really, I mean, that’s really important. And I need to investigate that and update the book accordingly, and thank you so much for calling it to my attention.

Ouch. Just ouch.

The book was scheduled for publication on June 18. The sound you just heard is a book publisher pulling a print-run from the printer (assuming the book hasn’t already been printed and bound; if it has, then it’s going straight to the recycling bin), firing an entire editorial team, and cancelling an author’s contract.

Naomi Wolf has carved out a nice career for herself as a comely feminist intellectual (whose first book carried the subtext of how difficult it is to be an attractive female in a professional setting, literally the least compelling argument that can be made by a young looker like Ms. Wolf), but she has long been dogged with allegations of sloppy research and bogus, ideologically-driven facts.
Even her political allies seem to have grown tired of her act. It’s a long way from being a top advisor on women’s issues to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but with this latest fiasco Ms. Wolf, almost three decades after emerging on to the scene, may have finally immolated what was left of her career with this colossal blunder.

UPDATE: The publisher, Houghton-Mifflin/Harcourt, is in a real pickle. They are publicly saying that they can still issue the book with corrections without obliterating Ms. Wolf’s original thesis, but (admittedly not having read the book and only going on the description) I don’t see how that can be done.

– JVW

39 Responses to “The Moment a Soon-to-Be-Released Book Crashes and Burns [Updated]”

  1. Three cheers for British historian and radio host Matthew Sweet. I would wager my home that Ms. Wolf’s thesis would go unchallenged if presented as a PhD dissertation in at least half of the university history departments here in the United States, because the subject matter is, as they say, “too good to check.” But Mr. Sweet apparently cares not for the politicization of his discipline and did the work necessary to set the record straight.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  2. And yeah, I know about her very questionable allegations against Harold Bloom, her undergraduate mentor at Yale. She strikes me as an intelligent but perhaps emotionally needy woman.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  3. Golly. Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic absolutely eviscerates her in a devastating Tweet storm. Sure, it could all be owing to petty jealousies between two social critics of roughly the same age, but I think Ms. Flanagan absolutely pegs Ms. Wolf perfectly.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  4. “but with this latest fiasco Ms. Wolf, almost three decades after emerging on to the scene, may have finally immolated her career with this colossal blunder.”

    If lefty authors were immolated for committing colossal blunders, it would be a climate change event all by itself.

    Munroe (6d2e49)

  5. This is the same Ms. Wolf who thought the Bush Administration was intercepting her kids’ report cards in the mail. She’s a moron. Cue Nelson Muntz quote here:

    B.A. DuBois (80f588)

  6. don’t just blame her. Doesn’t the publisher have any fact checkers or editors?

    kaf (0363f1)

  7. This is false history. It was used in the opinion in Roe v Wade, too. The idea that the opposition to abortion – and now homosexuality – only originated in the Victoria era, so they are on;y going back to old traditional attitudes. she had to say people were executed for sexual crimes after 1857, because if not then, when, since according to her many sexual crimes weren’t even illegal .before.

    Sammy Finkelman (102c75)

  8. UPDATE: The publisher, Houghton-Mifflin/Harcourt, is in a real pickle. They are publicly saying that they can still issue the book with corrections without obliterating Ms. Wolf’s original thesis, but (admittedly not having read the book and only going on the description) I don’t see how that can be done.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  9. Doesn’t the publisher have any fact checkers or editors?

    That question is answered in the statement from the publisher, that they ultimately rely upon the author’s research integrity and fact-checking. In trade publishing, like this is, the editorial team really just takes the author’s manuscript, works on it for clarity of prose and copy-editing, then publishes it as is. If this were academic publishing, her manuscript might have been sent out to a few experts in the 19th century British judicial system who may or may not have caught the error, or it might have been sent to some professors in LGBTQ Studies who probably wouldn’t have caught it unless they happened to have done research in that area.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  10. Revisionism in all things. — Hesiod (700 BC)

    nk (dbc370)

  11. Poor girl should call Mueller for help with a redaction.

    mg (8cbc69)

  12. Naomi Wolf researched this, but she researched very narrowly, and she didn’t know what she was reading.

    It is possible someone else led her to this.

    Sammy Finkelman (db7fea)

  13. It’s no good when people read on;y origial sources.

    Sammy Finkelman (db7fea)

  14. 50th anniversary of stonewall riots coming up in june. Riot started when marylin fowler a butch lesbian decked a cop for feeling up her girl friend and then yelling at the gay men watching don’t let them get away with this. The gay lexington green.

    lany (f5cf5e)

  15. JVW, at 9 — that seems reasonable. Trade publishers can’t afford the staff to be domain experts in everything.

    aphrael (e0cdc9)

  16. Good post, JVW. Not a fan of hers, and she clearly didn’t do her homework, but I feel badly for her that it was such a public spanking. Thank God there are historians like Sweet who are committed to accuracy and it’s ongoing preservation. The Wolfs of the world a dime a dozen.

    Dana (779465)

  17. Trade publishers can’t afford the staff to be domain experts in everything.

    Yeah. I think ideally Ms. Wolf would hire a research assistant with some level of expertise in the field, but I know that authors — even ones like Ms. Wolf who are fairly prolific in her output — don’t like to share royalties or pay out of pocket for collaborators. But in this case, it certainly would have saved her a great deal of grief.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  18. If you go to JVW’s link to the book and scroll down, there are a number of reviews by authors, professionals, and outlets like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, which all give glowing reviews to Wolf’s book. It demonstrates that anyone’s version of history can be sold if it’s the *right* person selling it, and hungrily bought if the reader needs to find confirmation from someone they consider credible.

    Dana (779465)

  19. It demonstrates that a lot of people know almost no history and don’t recognize the prima facie implausibility of her thesis.

    She probably did hire a research assistant, and that caused her trouble. This has orobably got a number of earlier works cited that said the same thing – they’ve probably been collecting “proofs” that the idea of legal punishment sexual crimes only originated around 1850 for some time.

    Sammy Finkelman (db7fea)

  20. Well, Naomi Wolf will never be confused with Virginia Woolf, a far superior intellect, that’s for sure.

    Interesting that Naomi Wolf studied under Harold Bloom as an undergraduate at Yale. Unsurprising that she accused him of sexual assault years later, but then that’s the kind of stupid feminist she is. Camille Paglia studied under Harold Bloom as well, except as a graduate student. He was her dissertation adviser. Paglia’s first book, Sexual Personae, stands in stark contrast to Wolf’s first book, The Beauty Myth–the former being a study, and the latter a complaint.

    Gawain's Ghost (b25cd1)

  21. Off Topic: The war against the people fighting Ebola:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/19/world/africa/ebola-outbreak-congo.html

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/opinion/letters/ebola-violence-congo.html

    This is not an accident. I wonder who’s organziing this war against Ebola fighters. Probably the same people against vaccines. This fight by human beings on the side of possibly fatal diseases is worldwide., and takes anumber of different forms.

    Sammy Finkelman (db7fea)

  22. Seeing Wolf trying to dig out of the hole is the classic train wreck in action: can’t bear to look, can’t look away. She should stop.

    Dana (779465)

  23. Maybe Michael Bellesiles can blurb it.

    Kevin M (21ca15)

  24. Hmm. Is “death recorded” the same as “civil death”? Because that later meant “dead man walking” as far as the person’s existence in society was concerned: If he was married his wife was now a widow; his heirs owned all his estate; he could be killed with impunity by anyone since you cannot murder a dead person; he lost all civil rights. In Washington state they could mulch him.

    nk (dbc370)

  25. If you were writing a book about people being put to death wouldn’t you research the actual method of execution to add to the story?Hanging/firing squad/drawn and quartered? How on earth could she be so uninterested?

    The interviewer saying “I think it’s quite a big problem” is understatement of the year. The line about “the same portal” is classic, especially her arguing for him to check his facts using the same source she seems to have only glanced through looking for only for what she wanted to find.

    harkin (ca2d1a)

  26. I won’t link to it, because Heaven knows I am not ghoulish, but Ms. Wolf’s Twitter feed is full of her fans (and, naturally her) justifying her sloppy research. It’s sad, yet typical and completely predictable.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  27. “History is a fable agreed upon.” — Napoleon

    “We have always been at war with Eastasia.” — Eric Arthur Blair

    nk (dbc370)

  28. From an interview regarding her book The End Of America regarding fascism’s threat to democracy:

    “Well, I don’t enjoy being ahead of the curve,” she says. “I’d rather be wrong“”

    She should welcome the news.

    harkin (ca2d1a)

  29. Ms. Wolf will have a best seller without the changes. Her “heart” is in the right place against those evil old, white guys.

    NJRob (4d595c)

  30. Dr. Matthew Sweet for the win. Informed and way more gracious than he had to be. incidentally, his parents play in a Rolling Stones cover band.

    https://twitter.com/DrMatthewSweet/status/1132241520483082246/photo/1

    JRH (52aed3)

  31. @ 26 Of course Wolf and her acolytes are going to justify and defend her “sloppy research,” as you call it. Except it wasn’t her research that was sloppy. It was her misreading of sources.

    Gawain's Ghost (b25cd1)

  32. The biggest shock is that an interviewer challenged her. Well done, sir!

    Patricia (3363ec)

  33. Who reads these kinds of books???!?

    nk (dbc370)

  34. I suppose the kind of people who watch the show he was on, nk. Never saw it myself. Too many other, better (in my eyes) choices. These folks ain’t reading Mises.

    Beldar (fa637a)

  35. A statement from Wolf’s publisher:

    While HMH employs professional editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking. Despite this unfortunate error we believe the overall thesis of the book ‘Outrages’ still holds. We are discussing corrections with the author.

    I’m not interested in reading the book but I do wonder how the thesis can still hold if the supporting arguments were found to be incorrect?

    Dana (779465)

  36. 32: same people who uncritically acclaimed “Arming America.”

    Harcourt Fenton Mudd (6b1442)

  37. 34. Dana (779465) — 5/25/2019 @ 2:05 pm

    I do wonder how the thesis can still hold if the supporting arguments were found to be incorrect?

    Well, her thesis isn’t that dozens of men were executed in Britain for homosexual relationships in the 19th century. That’s one of her supporting arguments.

    Her thesis is that (in the common law world) the legal position of men who committed homosexual acts got worse in the 19th century (and public attitudes also, as a result.)

    Only that’s not true either. The opposite is true. The prospect of legal punishment for all sorts of sexual offenses, including adultery, went down, in practical terms if not in strict law. Only they tried to disguise it, by using terms like :death recorded, which finally succeeded in fooling people, after more than 150 years.

    She’s probably got some statements in her book about the 17th century (which is supposedly noted for the sexual tolerance of the non-Puritans) that are the result of misunderstanding or misinterpreting things she read about the period of time before the 19th century.

    Sammy Finkelman (db7fea)

  38. Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

    — Oscar Wilde,1887 “The Canterville Ghost”.

    And

    England and America are two countries separated by the same language!

    — Attributed to George Bernard Shaw

    Then of course there is her history of sloppy research.

    Tanny O'Haley (8a06bc)

  39. Yup. “I’m stepping out to smoke a f@g” means entirely different things in South London and Southside Chicago.

    nk (dbc370)


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