Who’s responsible for book content?

GUEST: Michael Korda
VTR: 06/11/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my interest in doing today’s program about what some consider book editors’ and publishers’ too often ignored responsibilities dates back a quarter century or so to my so-called “Hollywood years”, when I was chair of the motion picture industry’s film rating system.

For a friend then had sent me an early draft of a major book about the movie industry in part relating a story involving me that my friend assumed was wildly inaccurate and thought I would want to see corrected before publication.

Well, it was wrong in important respects … and I believed then that history, the industry, I, the truth – even the author and certainly his readers – would all have been better served had the copy been somewhat edited.

But its publisher and even the book’s editor wouldn’t even talk with me, passing me on instead to house counsel who wouldn’t address any obligation to accuracy, insisting only that the book had been vetted against libel charges.

So I simply wrote a rather gentle “for shame” letter to the author … who, of course, never replied.

But now I can finally discuss this whole matter of the respective responsibilities of writers, editors, and publishers with a favorite Open Mind guest who has done it all.

Michael Korda, long-time Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster, has not only written many best selling books himself, but has published and edited famed writers like Larry McMurtry and David McCulloch, Mary Higgins Clark, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, William L. Shirer and the Durants (Will and Ariel), Henry Kissinger, and, of course, never forget Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins.

To be sure, over the past few years – with numerous rather high-profile examples of editors editing and publishers publishing works that haven’t at all been what they claimed to be – some have suggested “truth-in-packaging” laws might well be applied to the world of books. Well, I don’t expect Michael Korda to agree…but I do want to hear what my bookish friend has to say about what seems to many people to be an increasingly nasty situation. Michael?

KORDA: It’s good to be back again. I’m not sure it’s such a nasty situation. At the moment I’m writing a long … in terms of time and in terms of length of paper … biography of T. Lawrence … Lawrence of Arabia.

And Lawrence of Arabia very famously said, “History is agreed upon lies”.

HEFFNER: And you feel that is an answer to …

KORDA: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … the question that is raised?

KORDA: (Laughter) It is an approach to the question. Ah, let me say first of all that I think that the first obligation of a book publisher … I can’t speak for journalism because I’m not a journalist, but the first obligation of a book publisher is to attempt to present an author’s book … and opinions and point of view and so forth … in its original form.

Libel laws somewhat restrict us. We don’t want to be sued to libel and an author shouldn’t libel people. But on the other hand, we really don’t want an author to be hemmed in by … ahhh … a kind of an unnatural zeal for objectivity.

HEFFNER: Unnatural zeal for objectivity?

KORDA: Yes. Yes. Of course. Of course. I mean what is the determining factor … why do people write books?

And, and I’m conscious of the fact that Dr. Johnson said, “Nobody by a blockhead ever wrote but for money.” And that is, of course, one aspect of it.

But there is another aspect to it which is you write a book to put your particular point of view … story … belief … made up version of yourself … or something else, on to paper.

It is obviously wrong to publish as truth something which is false and we make a great effort, I think, not to do that.

But, when you come right down to it … if you were to take James Boswell’s diaries which constitute one of the most fascinating multi-volume books that you could possibly own and read, how much of it is true? No doubt a substantial portion of it is true, or at any rate, true as Boswell saw it.

True as Boswell wanted to believe it. True as Boswell wanted a reader later on, if there were such people … to believe it. But is it quote … “truth” … unquote? How many people’s diaries would you trust as truth?

People tend to write in diaries … a sanitized version of what actually happened. Or their version of what actually happened.

Try sitting down to write a diary and within two or three days you’ll realize that in fact you’re telling, almost always, your side of the story. There is another side to the story.

So memoirs, diaries, letters … these things though they’re printed on paper … though scholarship consists in quoting them accurately and finding out what they mean and what they refer to … they cannot be taken as if they were the twin tablets that Moses brought down from God.

People write what they want to believe and what they want you to believe. And you have to accept, therefore, that there is no absolutely firm, solid structure. You can go to Egypt and look at the autobiographies that the pharaohs caused to be engraved into stone because we use the phrase constantly … is it … you know … is it engraved in stone?

Well, it is engraved in stone. The pharaohs’ every achievement is, is engraved in stone … on a massive scale. But how much of it is true? A substantial portion of it is the equivalent of Stalinist propaganda, no doubt.

So, you have to be very, very careful when you publish somebody’s memoirs, for example … you are not publishing an objective truth. You’re publishing what … you, me, X, Y … thought of their life.

When you publish the six volumes of Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War … wonderful book … and which I greatly admire. And I am a huge Churchillian.

Nevertheless, what you got is six enormous volumes that represent Churchill’s view of what happened during the Second World War. And that above all if you read it very carefully, have been precisely, carefully designed page by page to make Churchill come out as the person who was always right.

I’ve just completed a long and to me, completely fascinating history of the Battle of Britain which is being published in January called With Wings Like Eagles … the Churchill stuff about the Battle of Britain is absolutely fascinating because I can contrast it with other people’s accounts of the same days, the same cabinet meetings and so forth and you realize then the extent to which Churchill’s description is not untrue, necessarily … but is artful and is also his opinion carried out onto paper as if it were the total truth.

HEFFNER: Now, memoir … memoir is anything that the author chooses to write … and call it memoir?

KORDA: Well, I don’t believe that an author ought to write a memoir that totally fantasizes his or her own life.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

KORDA: Well, yes, but even as those words are out of my mouth I have published many movie star autobiographies …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

KORDA: … which … however sincerely written they were … (laughter) … were … totally fantasized that person’s life. I am … I published with great affection because she was a friend of mine from the age of 17 on … Joan Collins wrote a biography, which was a huge success. And I don’t at all downplay the effort and the amount of energy that Joan put into writing her own story. But I happen to know enough about Joan to know that throughout it, it’s Joan’s version of what happened.

Is that bad? No. Should we necessarily stamp at the top of somebody’s memoir “Reader Beware … this may or may not be the truth?” But that would go back to the beginning of time.

Caesar’s admirable book on the Gallic Wars presents him to be a much more … in our use of the word … liberal personality than in fact he was. Presents his view of his victory over the Gauls, which would not be that of the Gaul’s. And is, in fact, a political document aimed at Rome in presenting Caesar as a great conqueror and would be dictator to be to the Roman body politic. For that reason should we remove it from the shelves or from the curricula of schools and universities, assuming that it’s still on them, which I doubt. No.

We have to recognize that when people write, they write and Dr. Johnson said this, “First and foremost to please themselves.”

HEFFNER: Now, you’re the Editor, publisher, you’re talking about your responsibility to the writer or whoever, whatever you call the person who presents you …

KORDA: Well, we have what you might call a bifurcated … if that’s the word … responsibility. We have a primary responsibility to the author. Which is to say that if it isn’t obscene, if it isn’t libelous … is it our job to say “you can’t write that because we don’t think you’re being fair to your ex-wife.”

HEFFNER: No, no, no, no, no.

KORDA: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Michael, no one’s talking about you saying you can’t write that. It’s a question of do you publish something, do you have some responsibility to the reader?

KORDA: You do.

HEFFNER: What is that responsibility?

KORDA: I think the responsibility to the reader is to present books that are interesting. But I think we also have to … we have to presume that the reader is knowledgeable enough to know that some things have to be taken with a grain of salt. And memoirs are almost from the beginning of the written word among the things that have to be taken with the largest grain of salt possible. Your memoirs, my memoirs, everybody’s memoirs are all one person’s view of an event. And the best memoirs in any language have to be written with a considerable grain of salt.

Letters, for example, are even more so. Who has ever written a totally sincere, absolutely truthful and completely objective letter to some other person. We don’t do that.

Love letters are a perfect example of that. So we have to read with a grain of salt. That’s not to say that I think a book that has been totally fabricated …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

KORDA: … should be published as a memoir. If somebody comes up … for example, the recent case in which somebody published … wrote a book that should have been published as a novel and then the publisher said, “You know, I think this would sell more copies if it were a memoir.” And they went right ahead and published it as a memoir.

That it seems to be is “below the belt”, just the phrase I’m looking for … and inappropriate and should have had a phrase on the jacket if they were going to publish it that said, “While the author says that this is a memoir, much of it is fiction. But we still think it’s a terrific read and a good book and you may enjoy it.” That’s legitimate, I think.

HEFFNER: Legitimate to label it as such.

KORDA: I think so, but you also have to bear in mind that rather like vintners who love their own wines … and chefs whose own dishes always taste delicious … they stand at the pot, they take a taste and they say, “Hmm, perfect!” You know, doesn’t mean that you will enjoy it. The chef is enjoying it (laughter) and thinks you ought to.

By the same token the, the desire to tell the truth in a memoir on the part of a writer does not always lead to anything we would recognize as truth. And editors and publishers cannot always be expected to guess at that.

HEFFNER: You say, “Guess at that”. Why do you do say that … “editors and publishers cannot always be expected to guess at that.”

KORDA: Somebody who comes in with a very convincing, wonderfully written, extremely exciting memoir … that doesn’t libel anybody and that tells the story of his or her life. I’m not sure that my first instinct would be to get on the phone and hire a private detective and track down whether that person actually had lived at this address at such in such a date.

The, the editor and the publisher are as likely to fall in love with a book as chefs are likely to fall in love with they cook.

HEFFNER: True or not, tasty or otherwise?

KORDA: Yes. Yes. You fall in love with it. You say to yourself, “This is great. This is terrific.” Now you meet the author, it is possible that having met the author you will say, “Whoa. Wait a minute, I don’t trust this person.” But it is also possible …

HEFFNER: But, but, but … wait …

KORDA: … that you will say, “Wonderful” …

HEFFNER: Michael, what difference does it make whether you trust the person in terms of what you’re saying, you love what she or he has written. What difference does it make?

KORDA: Well, if you’re doubting the truth of what she …

HEFFNER: Ahaaaa …

KORDA: … or he has written, then meeting that person might, of course, confirm that doubt. If the person, however, is very persuasive, very charming, tells a great story, you may say to yourself, “Oh, this is great.”

You say to yourself reading the book that we are both discussing and know we’re discussing … the, the Frey book that was such headline news. Was not necessarily my cup of tea as a book … but put yourself in the Editor’s place, you read, tears stream down your, your cheeks … what a terrible story, but a wonderful story, how wonderfully it’s told.”

There’s very little that will act as a brake on that enthusiasm for this book and this person. If, if a doubt creeps in and somebody says, “Wait a minute,” he can’t have been … who knows … at Princeton because I was at Princeton at that time and I never met him.”

Then you say, “Oh, really?” Or you should say, “Oh, really I wonder what that (laughter) … I wonder whether we can trust the rest of what’s in the book?” But how likely is it that that will happen?

HEFFNER: But now, wait a minute, how likely is it that we’re going to trust the rest of what’s in the book in terms of what you’ve been saying … I don’t know where the question of trust comes in. I thought, except for libel, which you’ve repeated … you’ve used that word again and again and again … it’s your skin that you’re thinking about … you’re not thinking about a judgment against the author, I presume. But a judgment against the publishing house.

KORDA: Well, I think it goes further than that. We recognize that libel is harmful. It’s not just that it will cost us money; it’s not just that it will cost the author money and aggravation … in untold degrees … but we are not in the business of hurting people by publishing false things about them.

So we would want to avoid libel even if it were not expensive and difficult to deal with. We don’t want …

HEFFNER: And if it were false …

KORDA: … to libel people.

HEFFNER: … if it were false, but not libelous?

KORDA: We wouldn’t knowingly want to publish falsities about anything or anyone. But I don’t know that a book publisher can necessarily always know that.

HEFFNER: You say a book publisher can’t always know that. My question … do you have some obligation to do something to ascertain whether this is true or not? That’s … that’s where we come down to basics. Do you just take this manuscript and say, “This is a delight. Not only is it a delight to me, but it will be to the buying readership audience. Period”.

KORDA: There’s a finer line of distinction. Let us say that you’re publishing, speaking as his editor, Ronald Reagan’s autobiography. And let’s us say that there’s nothing libelous in the description of his marriage to Jane Wyman. Am I obliged, however, to send those pages to Jane Wyman and say, “Does this represent your view of what happened in your marriage and the reason that it broke up …

HEFFNER: Clearly, your answer …

KORDA: And the answer is clearly …

HEFFNER: … is no.

KORDA: … not. Because what we’re publishing is Ronald Reagan’s view of what his first marriage was like and why it broke up. Mrs. … the ex-Mrs. Reagan may well write us a letter to say, “It didn’t happen like that, at all”. And the proper answer to that is, “Perhaps you’re right. But this is his book and he has a right to say what he thinks happened.”

So, you, you can’t draw this kind of firm, rigid line. If I publish Henry Kissinger’s autobiography and … or memoirs …

HEFFNER: HmmHmm.

KORDA: … and I have done so … and we have Henry Kissinger’s account of what he said to Sadat at a meeting, or what he said to Simcha Dinitz. Or what he said to Mao Tse-tung. I am not necessarily obliged to send those pages to those statesmen and diplomats and ask, “Is Henry’s description of this conversation and meeting … does that match your, your recollection of it?”

No, because we’re publishing Henry Kissinger’s view of what happened. So we can’t sort of … if we start self-censoring ourselves and if we start worrying about everything that everybody has to say in a book, we can’t publish anything. That’s not to say that if we know something is untrue, then yes, I do agree that we have an obligation to pick up the phone to the author and say, “Hey, what is it with this?”

HEFFNER: So that I shouldn’t in this program, when I so often … as I so often do programs with authors, I shouldn’t be saying the title, Simon and Schuster’s and the title … because it isn’t Simon and Schuster’s it’s really only the author’s book.

KORDA: No, it’s our book because we own it. We publish it. We put our name on it … perhaps unwisely … sometimes. But you would also have to say that if you take almost anything that’s contemporary … the, the, the author must have the right within the limits of the law and of human decency to give his or her own opinion.

If, as a publisher … you’re not prepared to back that up … for your authors then you ought not to be in the book publishing business. There are certain inherent risks built into the business and that’s one of them.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you this question. Would your counterparts, several generations ago, approach this question differently, do you think?

KORDA: Not at all.

HEFFNER: Not at all.

KORDA: Not at all. Ahmm, I don’t think that’s changed at all. I think we all recognize that certain things are risky. And …

HEFFNER: I’m not talking about risky. I’m talking about right.

KORDA: Well, we all recognize that certain things are right. But one of the things that is right about writing books and publishing them is that you’re giving vent to people’s self-expression, to their opinions, to their version of things.

You’re not saying that their version of things is the only version or that it’s 100% correct. You’re not saying that their feelings or self-expressions are objective. Because that would also not be true. But the best books are not the most objective ones.

There’s certain kinds of books that have to be totally objective and if they’re not, it’s a real problem. But if you take memoirs, if you take the writing of history, then personal opinion, personal prejudice, personal feelings creep into the writing and that’s what makes it special and what makes it good.

HEFFNER: You know …

KORDA: Without that you would have a very tasteless soup.

HEFFNER: It beats the hell out of me … in a sense, what you’re saying because I would have thought that if I had committed something to paper, that I wouldn’t have wanted a publisher sending it all over the whole wide world for criticism, but when my Documentary History of the United States came out in 1952 … a while ago … I remember my editor Marc Jaffe, who you must know …

KORDA: I remember him well.

HEFFNER: … calling me … he knew I was going across the country and saying, “Dick, we have to stop the publication of this book until we work something out” because a reader commented that you made a grave error. And he told me what the grave error was and I said, that’s great … would you mind … you don’t have to tell me his name, I knew he wouldn’t … but is he a Southerner? Is he a Southern historian? And, of course, the answer was Yes, and I said, “Okay, two different points of view.”

KORDA: Yeah, exactly.

HEFFNER: But I would want that … I would welcome those criticisms.

KORDA: Oh, and I have spent a lifetime giving them. I am a ferocious questioner of things. And … but there is a fine line between questioning something and imposing upon the author your point of view as an editor.

Thus, for example, I am a very fervent supporter of Israel. Not that it matters, but it matters to me.

HEFFNER: In one minute.

KORDA: Would make it very difficult for me to be Edward Said’s editor for a book about the Arab view of Israel and Zionism. But I think I’m objective enough to be able to do it. I would recognize, however, that a lot of the things I would question are built into his book. That that’s … I’m publishing his point of view.

If I didn’t want to publish his point of view, I shouldn’t have bought the book.

HEFFNER: Okay.

KORDA: I shouldn’t impose my point of view on him because I’m the publisher. It’s, it’s not an easy or simple relationship.

HEFFNER: If it were an easy or a simpler … simple relationship we wouldn’t be talking about it here.

KORDA: (Laugh) This is also true.

HEFFNER: Because it is a question that has come up so frequently recently.

KORDA: Oh, very, very frequently. But I think it’s nearly always come up within the context of a fairly simple problem. Which is passing fiction off as fact. And there I agree with you. I think a publisher and an editor ought to be canny enough to say, “I don’t believe this.” I would have to admit, however, that in many cases I, or any other editor, even one as good, say, as Bob Gottlieb or Nan Talese … could be fooled and have been fooled. And will be fooled.

HEFFNER: Michael Korda, thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind.

KORDA: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

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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