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Wolf Book Postponed in Us as Virago Holds Firm

16 June 2019

From The Bookseller:

Publication of Naomi Wolf’s latest book has been postponed in the US following “new questions” about its contents but UK publisher Virago is standing by its publication.

Wolf was initially alerted to errors in Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love during an appearance on BBC Radio 3 last month.

Historian Dr Matthew Sweet pointed out she had misunderstood the legal term “death recorded” to mean executions when it actually meant judges abstained from pronouncing a death sentence. Sweet also claimed she was wrong about the reason for the sentences. The error called into question her claim that “several dozen” men had been executed for homosexual sex in the UK.

After initially standing by the book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt told the New York Times on Thursday (13th June) it was delaying the release. A spokesman told the paper: “As we have been working with Naomi Wolf to make corrections to Outrages, new questions have arisen that require more time to explore. We are postponing publication and requesting that all copies be returned from retail accounts while we work to resolve those questions.”

. . . .

A Virago spokeswoman said: “Though the book received excellent reviews it also attracted criticism. As a result, Houghton Mifflin have decided to postpone their June publication ahead of their books going on sale while they explore the questions that have arisen. Virago will be making any necessary corrections to future reprints.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

From The Guardian:

Naomi Wolf’s US publisher has postponed the release of her new book and is recalling copies from booksellers, saying that new questions have arisen over the book’s content.

Outrages, which argues that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 led to a turn against consensual sex between men and an increase in executions for sodomy, was published in the UK on 20 May. Wolf has already acknowledged that the book contains two errors, after an on-air challenge on BBC Radio 3 during which the writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet told her that she had misunderstood the term “death recorded” in historical records as signifying an execution. In fact it denotes the opposite, Sweet pointed out, highlighting that a teenager she said had been “actually executed for sodomy” in 1859 was paroled two years after being convicted. Wolf said last month that she had thanked Sweet for highlighting the mistakes, and was correcting future editions.

. . . .

Wolf said on Friday morning that she strongly objected to the decision to postpone and recall, and that she would “do all I can to bring Outrages to American readers”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From The New York Times:

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is postponing the publication of Naomi Wolf’s forthcoming book “Outrages” after questions have been raised about the accuracy of her research.

The book, which explores how 19th-century British laws gave the government new ways to punish and criminalize same-sex relationships, was expected to go on sale in the United States on June 18, with an announced first print run of 35,000 copies.

The publisher initially stood by Ms. Wolf last month after an embarrassing on-air correction to her interpretation of historical records occurred during an interview with the BBC. Now, the company is taking the extreme step of recalling copies from retailers.

. . . .

The blowback against Ms. Wolf was swift after the BBC Radio host, Matthew Sweet, revealed a critical error in her book that undermined her thesis. During the interview, Wolf told him that she found “several dozen executions” of men accused of having sexual relations with other men.

“I don’t think you’re right about this,” he said.

Mr. Sweet said that Ms. Wolf had misunderstood the legal term “death recorded” as an execution, when in fact it meant that a death sentence was not carried out.

“It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon,” Mr. Sweet said. “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”

Ms. Wolf said she would look into the records in question and correct future editions, noting that the issue Mr. Sweet raised was “a really important thing to investigate.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt initially called the mistaken number of executions an “unfortunate error” but said, “we believe the overall thesis of the book ‘Outrages’ still holds.”

It wasn’t the first time Ms. Wolf has been questioned over the accuracy of her research and analysis. Known for books such as “The Beauty Myth” and “Vagina: A New Biography,” she has been called out in the past for vastly overstating the number of women who die from anorexia and for making dubious claims about female biology.

But the errors in “Outrages” appear to be more grave, given that Ms. Wolf’s publisher is taking the costly step of recalling finished copies, a rare measure that is usually only undertaken for books that contain fatal factual flaws or other more serious transgressions. In 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recalled books by the journalist Jonah Lehrer after evidence surfaced that he had fabricated quotes and plagiarized.

. . . .

Publishers often rely on authors to verify material in their books, and if fact checkers are used, it is typically at the author’s discretion and expense.

Recently, questions have arisen about the accuracy of books by other major nonfiction authors, including Jared Diamond and Michael Wolff, who was called out in an interview for errors in his new book about the Trump administration, “Siege: Trump Under Fire.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG was reminded about the old saying attributed to a newspaper editor, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Non-Fiction, Non-US

6 Comments to “Wolf Book Postponed in Us as Virago Holds Firm”

  1. Ah, a rare example of a publisher withholding publication of a book for a legitimate reason! If a book purporting to be non-fiction turns out to be fiction, that’s a fair enough reason to not publish it.

    • But it seems that they are still going to publish once it is corrected. Should a historical treatise still go ahead when the author has demonstrated that they are basically incompetent at historical research and will happily accept a piece of evidence without proper checks because it fits in with their thesis?

      I don’t like banning authors – especially politically motivated acts of cowardice like Dutton’s dropping of Linda Fairstein – but sacrificing a historian who can’t be bothered to click through a link to see what really happened to a criminal seems justified to me.

      • I was going by the “waiting for her to make corrections” part, because it seems that the corrections would invalidate the entire book to begin with — even HMH observed that Wolfe’s corrections resulted in more questions that needed to be answered. I jumped to the conclusion that they were just saving face, and weren’t really going to publish her after all.

        However, you’re right, they haven’t defenestrated the book. They should, even if she does “correct” it. But they haven’t quite done it yet.

  2. Wolfe is not a historian.
    The most charitable of her followers might consider her an essayist but political activist is most accurate.


  3. Good point. If you can believe Wikipedia her degree and PHD are in English Literature, which leaves me wondering what standards Oxford’s English Department use to evaluate to evaluate a thesis based on historical research (and since this thesis is supposedly the basis of her book did it also make these historical errors unnoticed by the English Department’s dons?)

    And is she really believes conspiracy theories like the supposed rigging of the Scottish independence referendum she can only stand as another example of the fact that intelligence and education are no protection against extremely stupid convictions.

  4. Virago holds firm? Not publishing a book that is dead wrong is now considered holding firm? What courage that must take.

    Will they now hold firm against publishing books about the flat earth, the green cheese makeup of the moon, and the Seven-Day-Space-Alien-Miracle-Diet?

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