Truth in Books... Whose Responsibility?

GUEST: Sam Tanenhaus
AIR DATE: 10/15/2011
VTR: 04/28/2011

 
    I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And with all the recent, quite critical talk about books and their authors’ and publishers’ respective responsibility for the truthfulness and accuracy of their content … and, I suppose, of their merchandizing … it’s probably high time for us to face the issue head on once again here.

    We did so in a 1978 Open Mind conversation and again in 1985 with my old friend Sam Vaughan, then the much honored Editor-In-Chief at Doubleday.  

  Again, in the 1990’s with Charles Scribner, Jr., of the fourth Scribner’s generation to head their distinguished publishing house since it was founded by his great-grandfather in 1846. 

     And, of course, in 2008, with Michael Korda, the brilliant, long-time but ever youthful Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster.

      Always, the issue has been the same: truth in publishing.  And who today could be better placed or prepared to parse the issue once again than Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

      Twice my Open Mind conversations here with Sam have been about the Times Book Review itself … and twice they have been about his own quite extraordinary Random House volume on The Death of Conservatism, in which my guest deemed the fate of Conservatism in America to be “of almost novelistic and dramatic interest.”

      Well, those latest programs were two years ago.  And since he thought then that the extreme Conservatives he had called hard-liners who would tear down and destroy, rather than conserve and build, had gotten the wars they wanted – at home (the culture wars) and abroad (in Iraq) - today I want to go off topic just a bit and first ask my guest if he still thinks those hardliners were repudiated in the 2008 election with the emergence of a President, quote “who seems more thoroughly steeped in the Burkean principles of ‘conservation’ and ‘correction’ than any significant figure on the Right today.” What do you say about that, Sam? That’s a little off-base to start with.

TANENHAUS: Well, but we can, we can start there, Dick … great to be back on your program.

What I said in that book was that there was no doubt in my mind that the Republican Party and particularly its conservative base would be stockpiling ammunition for the 2010 election … and that’s what they did.

And that book was really about a kind of philosophical war within the Republican Party and Conservatism at large. And I think it’s still being fought.

Now it seems to be centered in the House of Representatives where we have a Speaker of the House John Boehner who seems a more traditional Republican against more ideologically driven Tea Party representatives and the base of the Party which is now in that camp. As they’ve been in the past, you know … 1964 when Barry Goldwater was nominated. 1976 and then ’80 when they rallied around Ronald Reagan. So the issue for the Party, I think will be whether they can reach the internal compromise they need, because they’re looking ahead now to the 2012 election. And select a candidate, a nominee that the broad part of the country will find acceptable to run against a candidate, an incumbent President who’s a very good campaigner … we sometimes forget.

Barack Obama will not be easy to defeat. And he seems to be moving … gathering steam and at the center, the middle of the country, and that’s what our Presidential candidates, nominees always need to win.

HEFFNER: Well, what about that broad base of the public. Do you see it any different now than you did, maybe a half dozen years ago.

TANENHAUS: Yeah. Maybe a little bit. It’s odd because the readings we get, Dick, are so self-contradictory. Even if you go to the Tea Party, not the activists, but my paper did a poll right before the last election … talking to people who identified themselves as sympathizers with the Tea Party movement … And they were all in favor … or many of them in favor of small government and independence and libertarianism until you asked them about Social Security and Medicare. And I think we’re seeing that yet, again.

What, what do we find now that someone like Paul Ryan, probably the most articulate young Republican now … the budget … the head of the budget committee there who came up with a very ambitious proposal for cutting the deficit.

What, what does he find when he has to meet with constituents and tell them how Medicare’s going to change or that he wants to privatize Social Security. There’s a lot of anxiety. So I think the rhetoric may have shifted somewhat to the Right from the, the moment I wrote of … but I’m not sure the actual political sentiments are so different.

HEFFNER: You don’t think then, obviously that the nation is, itself, at root more Conservative than the election in the first place of Barack Obama indicated?

TANENHAUS: Well, what I thought then, and wrote then was that Obama’s politics might be a little bit left of the … of center … just as Ronald Reagan’s has been somewhat right of center … at the time of the election, the public didn’t really care.

They weren’t so concerned about ideological or philosophical differences, they wanted someone they thought they could trust in the White House.

And I think, when it comes down to cases it probably hasn’t changed all that much.

HEFFNER: You think … still think he’s a little left of center?

TANENHAUS: Uhmm, well, it’s hard to say. Because so much of our political conversation is exactly that … a conversation. I don’t think the policies are … you know, deviate from mainstream American policies … which, over the course of decades have kind of cycled up and down … a little left, a little right … you know the famous remark of FDR … Franklin Roosevelt’s … “I’m a little bit to the left of center” and now some would look at Roosevelt and see him as some kind of Socialist or something.

I think most of our politics does occur in, in the center. I think that’s where he is. Is he farther left than some others and Republicans? Probably.

But, again, a lot of that comes down to language and rhetoric. In, in the end when it comes down to political choices … the … those he’s made and the choices he’s offering the public seem to me the mainstream ones we’re really used to.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ll forgive me for having started out that way …

TANENHAUS: Sure.

HEFFNER: … not fair …

TANENHAUS: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … because I said we were going to talk about book. Let’s talk about them, let’s talk about this question of who’s responsible and do you look for the truth in books.

So many editors have said, and publishing people have said, ‘No, I’m just putting out what the writer has to say. I don’t have very much more to do with it, once I’ve guessed that he’s going to make me a book”. What do you think?

TANENHAUS: Well, I think, Dick, that’s probably true. I mean publishers were telling you that in their contracts … I have had contracts myself … there are clauses that say the, the author is responsible.

I’ll point out, too … I work at a newspaper, as you know, The New York Times. We don’t have fact checkers at The New York Times. Only The New York Times Magazine has fact checkers. Newspapers don’t have them, we depend on reporters. Book publishers don’t have them. They depend on their authors.

One of the differences is … because this question will come up … many people will say, “Well, here we have an author like Greg Mortenson who’s Three Cups of Tea is the latest controversy because some of the … he’ s accused of having fabricated or compressed some of the events and incidents in, in the book.

And I think, “Well, you know, this happens in memoirs.” There’s a long history of this, going all the way back to St. Augustine in his memoirs … but if he worked for the Times, he wouldn’t hold on to his job.

And I say the difference is if you work for the Times, you’re part of a larger news gathering operation. Which is telling readers, and, as well as we can, backing that up with the journalism we publish that every effort has been made to convey … to find out the literal truth … and then con … convey it in a way that the reader can understand and appreciate.

But an author is kind of a sole proprietor … even if a publishing house has brought his book out … that’s one book the publisher is, is got … so Random House or Simon and Schuster, Scribner … the various publishers you’ve mentioned are not accountable … I don’t think … in the same way a newspaper is.

The author doesn’t really work for them. They have a contract with him for a particular book. And so it makes sense to me that a publisher would say, “We shouldn’t be blamed for this”.

Now … should be closely and carefully edited. Should editors raise questions? Absolutely.

I’ll tell you … there’s a great, wonderful essay the great journalist Michael Kinsley wrote … in think in the 1980’s when he was editing The New Republic … he was pointing to the kind of circular problem in all fact checking in, in the printed word.

He said, “There are no fact checkers at newspaper”. Which is true …

HEFFNER: Editors.

TANENHAUS: Editors … yes … but no fact checkers.

HEFFNER: Aren’t they fact checkers?

TANENHAUS: To the extent we can … yes. But, but … anyhow … let me …

HEFFNER: Okay.

TANENHAUS: … finish …

HEFFNER: … go, go back …

TANENHAUS: … well there are no fact checkers in, in newspapers. So a newspaper article may have errors in it. Let’s, let’s just accept that. Even with editors doing their darnedest and their best to ferret out every mistake … they may not catch them … so we’ll have a newspaper story that’s printed.

Now in the era of corrections we catch up as much as we can in the newspaper role … carefully … print a correction if it’s serious breach … then there’ll be an Editor’s Note that, in effect, apologizes and explains what went wrong.

But nonetheless, there’s a fair amount of journalism out there, every day, that’s not pristine.

You know, there’s something people say all the time … about my newspaper … that if the Times writes a story about a subject you really know about, you’ll always find something in it that’s wrong. Right … you’re nodding … we know this is true.

HEFFNER: Yeah.

TANENHAUS: Okay. So Kinsely said, so you begin with the newspaper. That newspaper story may end up being a source that’s cited in an un-fact-checked book.

So, for instance, in my biographies … I draw on … I write historical biographies … and Whittaker Chambers … now William Buckley.

And I draw on a lot of journalism from the period … for detail, for color, for atmosphere, so The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Herald Tribune in those days, Time magazine, The New Yorker … whatever … so I will cite that journalism that itself may not be quite accurate. Then someone may come along, write a newspaper story that cites something I wrote that was itself based on something that might not have been thoroughly accurate. In other words, there’s this kind of endless cycle of possible mistakes that get made.

Now that’s in the world of very carefully researched and vetted books. Now we’re really talking about the world of memoir … that’s where the questions are being raised.

Memoir is a very different form. It’s become the dominant literary form of our era. It emerged in the late 1980’s with Frank McCourt’s book … late eighties, early nineties … Angela’s Ashes …and Mary Karr’s book … The Liar’s Club, set in Texas.

These were the two memoirs that more, more than others probably, set us on the path … tremendous literary success … these much acclaimed works.

And they were probably not subjected, in their moment, to the scrutiny memoirs are today. Because it was understood that the author of a memoir did take some license.

I mean the word “memoir” does derive from memory and we know memories are not exact. So there was an assumption I think, at that point, and earlier periods when great memoirs were written, going back to the nineteen century before … that, yeah, the author is manipulating the material in someway.

Now, what has happened is that the memoir has become almost a kind of scriptural text for many of us. We take these … we read these stories with a kind of seriousness, or a, a kind of credence … a will to believe and, and have faith in them that maybe readers didn’t at a different period. And it’s become more of an issue than it had been.

HEFFNER: Now, let, let me understand that, Sam. Read them with a faith in them … I would think it would be just the opposite.

Read them and, I think that’s what some of the people at this table have said … everybody knows … not that there’s no truth in advertising … because we all know that … but there’s no truth in books, there’s no truth in publishing. It is a point of view.

Our readers don’t anticipate that we have fact-checked this material. Which is it? What do you think a reader …

TANENHAUS: And that’s the key question.

HEFFNER: … understands?

TANENHAUS: Is the reader … I think you’re very distinguished guests were right in their moment. I mean certainly it’s true that a reader … that … ought to … I mean not to, you know, use the imperative voice here … but that one would expect readers to understand that any book they read is in some sense manipulated by the author.

The author is manipulating material in someway or other. That if it were the unvarnished, unorganized sequence of fact it would not be interesting to read, it would lose its narrative force and power.

Even as a biographer … whereas I don’t make anything up … I try to organize the material I’m writing in such a way … introduce information at certain points that I think … that will correspond to what a reader expects in the narrative.

In that sense the publishes you interviewed were absolutely right. And I think they would repeat that today and I would agree with them.

I think maybe what’s changed, Dick, is the relationship readers have to books. And I’m not quite sure why that’s the case. Something that really struck me at the time of the biggest recent scandal or controversy … the Million Little Pieces by James Frey … if you remember that.

HEFFNER: Right.

TANENHAUS: There were readers who wanted to sue him. And you remember this ….

HEFFNER: Yes.

TANENHAUS: … there was going to be a class action suit. They had been lied to, they thought. And it makes you wonder what kind of authority readers are conferring on authors.

I mean (laugh) author is the word behind authority … that maybe readers of an earlier period didn’t so much. It’s a very interesting thing … Christopher Lasch wrote in his great book, The Culture of Narcissism … published in 1979, I think it was.

Great book about the … what he saw as the decline of decadence of contemporary culture … and at that time the best selling books were “self-help” books. He was fascinated by those. And Lasch was a brilliant, sort of historian, as you know, intellectual historian, a cultural historian … been a student of Richard Hofstadter …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

TANENHAUS: … as you were … and he made the point that many of the people who seemed to be reading those particular books weren’t necessarily reading other books.

These are not readers of fiction or poetry … or of the classics necessarily … you know the great Greek histories or Shakespeare … they were reading these books for a specific purpose. And in an odd way, even though they were not what publishers might normally define as big readers … they were investing a kind of faith in the information … the truth that these authors would deliver.

I think … and Lasch implied … or maybe he actually said … but he implied something else … which is that if you’re reading a self-help book to learn how, how you might improve your life … then you are someone on whom the great life lessons of a Tolstoy or a Dickens are probably either would be lost on … or you won’t have the patience for.

And I think what’s happened is an analogous shift in the way people approach memoirs. Because memoirs in a sense have … have replaced the, the kind of autobiographical novel that used to be so widely read … as a sort of the Good-bye Columbus kind of first novel.

There’s a, a remark Gore Vidal, who was so witty, made many years ago … where he referred to first novels of a certain type, this direct relationship to you … he called them “Last Summer at Rutgers” …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

TANENHAUS: … in which the author is essentially telling you about his or her own life. Only it’s presented to you as fiction. All right. And the complaint, the critical complaint … in those days was … you remember was … “Oh, this doesn’t seem inventive enough. It seems to literal a transcription of the author’s life. Where’s the imagination and invention we expect in a first novel?”

First novels have, in essence, become now … memoirs. That how authors sell their books … new authors.

It’s very hard to, I mean, sell to a publisher and get a publisher to bring out a first novel or a short story collection. Very few of them published.

HEFFNER: But the memoir is easier?

TANENHAUS: The memoir is much easier. And so, what do you do … you say, “All right, I’ve got this thing … it is based, really, on my life and the things I did … only I’ve tried to make it read well”. You see and, and so now our objection is that these memoirs seem too fictionalized. Our concern is just the reverse of what it used to be.

So, what I’m saying is it’s a kind of a convergence of different forces in the culture and in the society … reading habits, publishing habits, the ambitions of authors … have put us in this odd place where we have many writers who can achieve success by telling a story that’s assumed to be true and then the question arises … “How true?” Or “how much in it might not really be true?”

And … now that can be an interesting reading dynamic and I think that’s what your previous guests were really saying. Is that the readers kind of has all that in mind if he or she reads.

But let’s say it’s somebody who’s not going to read a whole lot of other books, who’s not going to read novels … who’s not going to go to much theater and see where the lines between the real and the illusory are kind of carefully crossed and tangled. Well then maybe you really think somebody’s really telling you the literal truth all the time.

HEFFNER: Well, I can’t help but think back to Alastair Reed, who’d been my colleague at Sarah Lawrence when he taught poetry and I taught history … what a fuss there was when he went up to Yale and gave a lecture and indicated that one of his pieces in The New Yorker … that several of them had been … not fictionalized, but that he had drawn together a number of experiences and it wasn’t … they weren’t quite as represented in the page … and I remember the glee that people had in knifing, putting the shiv into The New Yorker because they claimed always that they had the greatest fact-checking apparatus in the country.

I wonder what would happen now if the New York Times Book Review or some similarly distinguished publication or not publication really tried to find out what people do expect … what they assume from what they’re reading. You’re making some assumptions.

TANENHAUS: I certainly am.

HEFFNER: I’d like to know what it is. We poll everything else, why don’t we really find out what people feel they are doing when they read a book, when they read The New York Times, when they read an OpEd piece, when they read a blog … be an interesting …

TANENHAUS: It would be. And, it’s so interesting you mention the Alastair Reid case, because I’ve thought about that, too. And I … if I remember one of the words that came up in that context was “composite” … he made composite portraits.

And you thought “Well here is this wonderful writer”, I mean Alastair Reid was a superb writer … the man was a poet translator, also superb … kind of travel journalist …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

TANENHAUS: … the kind The New Yorker kind of specialized in. And the idea that somehow he had betrayed his calling … you know seemed very presumptuous at the time.

But now, you’re right. There, there is this question of authenticity and accuracy is probably the big word … and it would be interesting to know … what readers think … particularly, Dick, when … you’re talking about a time when so many people say they don’t trust anything they read in any newspaper anyway.

Right? They go to their own news sites rather than read a paper like The New York Times, they have half a dozen blogs, they get their news from or they kind of mix and match different news sources and items to create their own sort of stew of what’s going to inform them from day to day.

On the one hand it’s very sophisticated in, in this way that, that people, or … and even some might say … skeptical or even cynical … the assumption that there was no one who would really deliver the truth to you.

And so it then does become odd when you have the cases of authors of books who are held so accountable.

I think one reason … I’m guessing … is it’s almost always books that have been very successful, or been very well received. So there’s this idea that … well, someone has profited in an unseemly way.

That … uhmm … that at least with a newspaper the … whatever skepticism people have about it, they’ll attribute to … oh, the liberal bias of the Times, if they think there is one … or of particular reporters … but … I think there is an idea necessarily that people are hugely profiting from it.

Somehow the idea of the author, the guy with the big book, who’s been on Oprah or who’s on the best seller list for week after week or year after year … that, that he’s pulled a fast on us. And it’s probably true that to some extent some of them have … you know … there’s this … that showmanship that goes into writing an extremely successful book … not necessarily a great book or a lasting book … but a very successful one … one, one that seems to tap in to public appetites and desires. You do wonder what the relationship is between that particular author and the reader.

Now, if we did the poll, administered the poll you suggest … see then my question would be … well, people will tell us one thing, but do they really mean it. Do they even understand completely what they are saying when they tell us “I expect that book to be 100% accurate”.

HEFFNER: The same problem one would raise with every poll …

TANENHAUS: Yes.

HEFFNER: … with every question …

TANENHAUS: That’s right … yeah.

HEFFNER: And whether it’s Obama’s birthright or whatever it may be. Does this … we just have a minute left or so … are you more comfortable with this picture of the relationship between author and publisher and reader?

TANENHAUS: More comfortable … than …

HEFFNER: Than you might have been …

TANENHAUS: Oh, oh … I see what you mean. Ahem, I just think it’s kind of the way it is for the moment. And that, that might change.

I guess it doesn’t seem to me that it’s fruitful for me even to evaluate it in that way. I, I just try to understand it, try to make sense of it.

And I, and as you say, I may be entirely wrong. I mean I am making a lot of assumptions here. One of the surprises to me about our culture in general, one of the great happy surprises is just how much reading there is going on all together.

Remember the death and decline of reading only a few years ago …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

TANENHAUS: And people now read voraciously.

HEFFNER: Too good a point to leave at that, but the program is over. I lied to you … we don’t have that much time left …

TANENHAUS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But if you would sit where you are, let’s do another program.

TANENHAUS: Absolutely, my pleasure.

HEFFNER: Sam Tanenhaus, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript.  It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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