Samuel S. Vaughan

Truth in Publishing

VTR Date: April 13, 1985

Guest: Vaughan, Samuel S.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Samuel S. Vaughan
Title: “Truth in Publishing”
VTR: 4/13/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Fact and fiction, and that often criticized marriage of the two, faction, like drama and the documentary and docudrama, are all terms very much used, and I think too often abused these days, as we develop new ways and refine or even distort old ways of communicating one to another, whether in books or theater or journals or films or newspapers or broadcasting, or what have you. And since where the truth lies, as we attempt to mold each other’s minds, is seen now as much more elusive a matter than ever before, so here on The Open Mind I’d like somewhat systematically to engage this subject, turning to it often enough in the months ahead to see what facts there may be in fiction, and fiction in presumed fact, what higher truths, so called, there are sometimes in taking liberties with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and so on. And not just in journalism, the print or electronic scribbles of the moment, but in books too. And how better to play Diogenes looking for an honest bookie than to begin our quest by talking again with that wisest of editors, Sam Vaughan, Vice President and Editor in Chief of the Doubleday Publicizing Company.

Sam, I’m glad to have you back here again.

Vaughan: I’m glad to see you again.

Heffner: And, you know, I was reading this morning the transcript of our last program together, which, my gosh was almost a decade ago, or not quite that, but almost. And I was wondering whether you had changed your mind on any of the grander thoughts that you had expressed. And then I turned to your Daedalus article in the winter of 1983 on the community of the book, and saw that you’d raised the question, “Should there be a truth in packaging law applied to authors and publishers?” and wondered what Sam Vaughan’s answer to that question is.

Vaughan: Well, of course, I wouldn’t like it, but sometimes I think it might be a good idea. It probably started when the terrific, exciting breed of new journalist showed up, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese and David Haverstam and all the people who followed them and began dealing with the news and the truth in different ways using novelistic techniques. And I also go into thinking about that with what we nowadays call history or biography, we have the psychobiography, and we have the authorized biography, and we have the adversary biography. I think there’s been a blurring of lines between things that we used to call journalism, history, the memoir, fiction, and so on. And I think maybe the consumer needs a little protection.

Heffner: You talk about blurring of lines. That means that perhaps the publisher has an obligation to identify once again the division between those lines.

Vaughan: I think so. I think what we say about the books is our share of the responsibility for the truth about them.

Heffner: What do you mean, “what you say about them”?

Vaughan: Well, the publisher’s flap copy, the publisher’s advertising, the publisher’s publicity is what we claim the books to be. And people have to buy books mostly as, have to buy them in a poke. By “people” I mean not only readers like you and me, but librarians and booksellers and teachers. And they buy books in a poke; and sometimes they get pigs, and sometimes they get pearls.

Heffner: You mean your obligation to label something as fact or fiction?

Vaughan: Yeah. I think we ought to say what kinds of books they are. Work a little harder on description, and a little less on hyperbole.

Heffner: Yeah, but number one, doesn’t that run against the publishing as a business rather than a gentile profession?

Vaughan: We’re as schizophrenic about that as we can be. It’s certainly wouldn’t bring the business down.

Heffner: But what do you do then about that nice combination of faction, where something is fact, but not quite, is fiction but not quite, so we call it faction? What do you do?

Vaughan: Well, faction is, by now, an honest form. There are novelists who are seekers after truth, who I think are more scrupulous about it than some people who are writing what is called “nonfiction”. I mean, an Arthur Haley, for example, is really concerned to find out how things were, what people do for a living, what the issues are, and to come out with some kind of balanced report in the form of fiction about it. There aren’t many like him. Yes, but you say, “Faction is an accepted form”. But how acceptable do you really want it to be for the reader? You know what you’re publishing, and you know what you’re editing and you’ve called something faction. What about the reader? How could he make the identification, or she make the identification, draw the line between fact and fiction, just because you call it faction?

Vaughan: Well, if “faction” is not a word that people understand, then we’re not describing it properly. But readers are pretty good at judging books by their covers and by other external evidence. What I’m, I think, I’m really against is calling something a biography which isn’t a biography. If you call something faction, you say that it is both, it is fiction with a considerable level or content of fact. If you call something a biography, and it has a considerable amount of fiction in it, you have misdescribed it.

Heffner: But Sam, if you describe it accurately, to your own satisfaction, is it possible to ask another question, and that is whether the reader perceives it as you mean it to be? You seem to be saying, “Let the reader beware. We’re saying it’s not fact. We’re saying it’s not fiction. We’re saying it’s something that’s a cross”.

Vaughan: Yeah.

Heffner: But are we really trained, as viewers, as readers, as consumers, to understand that? Or do we come away from the darned book thinking that that’s the way it was?

Vaughan: I don’t know. We’re better trained for some forms of writing than we are for others. A woman I know and love very much who is a good book reader was reading the National Enquirer one day. And I said to her, “Why are you reading that”? And she said, “I don’t think I believe it, but I like to read it”. So it seems to me that she has an understanding of what it is that she’s reading. And as long as that goes on, we’re in pretty good shape. But for a long time we were given the news of the Vietnam War, or the news of Watergate, or the news of whatever, the news of Lyndon Johnson, and we were told that these were the facts of the matter. These books were presented as either histories or biographies or responsible pieces of journalism. And in some cases, I think they were polemics instead. Nothing wrong with polemics. The first American bestseller I think, was said to be Tom Paine’s – I should say, “Thomas”, but we use first names on television – Paine’s Common Sense. But that was frankly and eloquently a polemic. But these days, it seems to me, we get some books offered to us which are called reportage, which are something else. They’re impressionism. It’s me-first journalism. It’s me and then whatever happened to me and the rest of the world. I think they’re backwards.

Heffner: Okay, you say they’re backwards. And I, whether I agree with you or not doesn’t make any difference. But id o agree with you. But, what about your reader? If you say things are backwards, what about the reader? It wasn’t only Will Rodgers who said, “All I know is what I read in the newspapers”.. and we tend, don’t’ we, to believe what we see in print? Wouldn’t you, as an editor, feel that you have some added responsibility because you know what the power of print is?

Vaughan: Well, I think a lot of us feel some considerable sense of responsibility. I think that readers are becoming more sophisticated. Readers eventually look for brand names. They look for authors’ names, authors they can trust. If James Michener tells them, “This is the way Texas is”, they’re going to believe him because they have no reason not to believe him. Some Texans might not believe him, but a lot of other people will. The reader is protected by, eventually, by experience, by being burned. It’s just like going to the theater, where masterpieces are proclaimed regularly. And we go, and once In a while, one play even is, but not many.

Heffner: That means you better generally accept the notion that the reader can take care of himself or herself?

Vaughan: Well, I started by saying, or you got me to saying that I am concerned enough about the reader to think that publishers ought to be a little bit more honest in their descriptions of books. But in the long term, the reader can take care of himself or herself, sure.

Heffner: So all you want is truth in advertising.

Vaughan: (Laughter)

Heffner: …truth in publishing, call it fiction, call it fact, call It faction.

Vaughan: Right.

Heffner: What about your own responsibility, when it comes to fact for the nature of the fact, for the accuracy of the fact?

Vaughan: Well, most editors are authorities in nothing. I mean most general editors. There are a few specialist editors who know quite a lot about a subject. There are some very good cookbook editors in town, and there’s some editors who know their history, and so on. But most of us answer the description of the generalist editor who can talk with anybody about anything for two or three minutes. So my responsibility is not to make sure that the facts are correct. My responsibility is not to make sure that the facts are correct. My responsibility is to try to work with authors that I can eventually trust and respect, and whose work I’m willing to help pass on.

Heffner: That’s kind of chancy, isn’t it?

Vaughan: You spend a lot of time with aspirin and lawyers.

Heffner: Why lawyers? Now you come to the key question. Why lawyers?

Vaughan: Well, I think the, some of the recent decisions in courts have, after a long, long season that was an open season on so-called public figures, some of the recent decisions have been going against authors and publishers. It isn’t’ as easy to pick up a shotgun as it was for awhile.

Heffner: Do you think it should have been? Should be? Should be now? That you should have as quite as easy a way as you did in the past?

Vaughan: Well, my intellectual sympathies are First Amendment sympathies. I think that any fetters are a bad idea. But I do feel a certain, a really considerable sympathy for some public figures who have been so badly handled by authors, reporters, and others.

Heffner: And? Because I know there’s an “And” there.

Vaughan: Well, the “and” is, when you’re pressed to the wall, you go for the First Amendment. You say, with all its abuses and all its excesses, “Fire away”. But I think the public feels these days, to the extent that anybody can talk about the public, how much is too much. How, where’s the rough justice here? If a man or woman runs for Congress, does it really mean that anything at all can be said about them, and should there be no recourse? And I don’t know the answer to that, I just knew the question.

Heffner: But I – stop me if I’m wrong – I have the feeling that your gut answer to that, your visceral answer is, “No, we’re not all fair game”. Is that…

Vaughan: Yeah, I think so.

Heffner: Okay, then what do you as an editor have to do to make sure you haven’t made fair game of Congressman A or millionaire B or whoever?

Vaughan: Well, what a lot of us try to do is not just edit people we agree with. I’ve found in my career, part of my career as a political editor, I came into that sort of work from the time when FDR was in the White House and all was well in the world, from a sort of new deal, fair deal, democratic, liberal background. And I find myself working all my life and having a great time with conservatives and Republicans. Now, I’m useful to them because I don’t take what they say too easily. I challenge that. And that’s sometimes done on the other side of the line. That is, but I think less so. I think there are fewer challenges to liberal orthodoxy in writing than there should be.

Heffner: Well aren’t there usually challenges to conservative orthodoxy?

Vaughan: I’m sorry?

Heffner: Aren’t most of the challenges challenges to conservative orthodoxy?

Vaughan: Oh, you mean the liberal writing?

Heffner: Yeah, right.

Vaughan: I think the problem is that much of American book publishing, general book publishing – I’m not speaking of textbook publishing and such – leans a little left. And many of the best writers in the country lean a little left. So there’s a sort of cozy agreement between them that this is a view of the world that doesn’t’ need a lot of challenging. And I think it does.

Heffner: Okay. Let me go back to the question of publishers’ responsibility to make certain that what an author is doing – not just to protect their backs in terms of suits…

Vaughan: Yeah.

Heffner: …not just in terms of what the courts are saying now – but in terms of what you perceive to be the mission of publishing books, what are your responsibilities?

Vaughan: Well, we get nervous when we talk about our own responsibilities. We’d rather talk about yours. (Laughter)

Heffner: I know, but I’m asking the question about yours. (Laughter)

Vaughan: We have a whole ring of responsibilities to our shareholders and other employees in the firm, to our principle customers, booksellers and librarians, and wholesalers, and educators, but principally to the author on the one hand, and then that much neglected person that you haven’t neglected, the reader, on the other. That’s where we spend most of our time. And I have to see, as any editor does, whether I can find authors whose work is worth publishing, and who will hit as hard as they can hit, if that’s the nature of their writing, and still keep somewhere within the bounds of responsibility. I’m not much interested in, from my part, in absolutely free-form assault.

Heffner: And when they haven’t, what precautions have you taken to make certain that, in terms of their relationship to their subject, they’ve been adequately accurate and painstaking? Or are you a public utility? It comes in at one end of the conduit and goes out in book form at the other?

Vaughan: It’s important to understand that, in book publishing, the book publisher’s not agreeing with the author or even attesting to the validity of what the author’s saying. The book publisher is attesting to the right of the author to say what the author has to say. Now, we do a certain amount of checking in general publishing. There are two kinds of editors: there are editors like myself; and there are a wonderful group of editors called “copy editors”, who make respectable people out of people like me. And they check a manuscript for spelling and punctuation and grammar, but they also do some spot fact checking. If the copy editor finds, in spot fact checking, that there are errors in the book, then we’ll pull the manuscript back and go back to the author and say, “Let’s take another look at this. Have you got your facts in order”? so that’s the sort of checking we do. On the other hand, we cannot set ourselves up as authorities. The word “author” comes from the same root as “authority”. The author is the only authority in the subject. It has taken the author a year to a lifetime to write the book, so we wouldn’t presume to second-guess them or to set ourselves up as the authorities. So we do some spot checking. And if that goes well, we go with the author.

Heffner: It sounds very much like the public utility model. Fair?

Vaughan: I’ve never put out gas or electricity. I don’t know.

Heffner: There would be people who would challenge you, Sam, on that. In terms of some of the books.

Vaughan: (Laughter)

Heffner: But seriously, the notion that you can’t take responsibility…

Vaughan: Oh, I don’t mean…

Heffner: You don’t want to put the – I take that back.

Vaughan: Right.

Heffner: You don’t want to put the stamp of approval… and when you publish a book, you’re not saying, “I embrace this”, or, “We embrace this”.

Vaughan: Right.

Heffner: But do you believe that books have impact upon readers?

Vaughan: Well, if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t put up with some of the nonsense of the business.

Heffner: Okay, if you believe that then, don’t you have to take responsibility for what the impact of this book and that book and the other book that Sam Vaughan has pushed through the conduits?

Vaughan: I can’t know what the impact will be. As an article of faith I believe that a book can change a mind, affect a mind. Improve a mind, a mind or a life. But I couldn’t make any guess of what the impact would be. I try not to pass a manuscript through my fingers, as an editor, that I think is meretricious or is wrong or is in some way a misrepresentation, unless it’s honestly labeled as such. Now, there are some wonderful polemicists who write, and as long as we know what we’re delivering, that doesn’t’ bother me at all. What bothers me is the tendency toward deception, whether it’s intended or not.

Heffner: You say, “tendency”. What do you mean?

Vaughan: Well, as I said, we’ve been given a view of contemporary life by a lot of writers, in journalism, and in book form, that takes rapid revision in historical terms. I was, as a young man, assigned to be the editor for President Eisenhower and his memoirs. So all through the 1960s, when the press was telling us how terrific John Kennedy was (and in many ways he was quite terrific), and how well things were going, and how dumb Eisenhower had been – the great golfer and the chairman of the bored (spelled B-O-R-E-D) – and so on, that began to give me heartburn. And it took until the late seventies, with people like Murray Kempton and Gary Wills and others, to begin to turn that view around. Now, where were these people when these facts were being reported? That’s the sort of thing I worry about a bit.

Heffner: And you answer? Where were they? And your next question must be, “What could we have done about it?’

Vaughan: Well, their editors could have been a bit more demanding.

Heffner: Okay. That’s what brings me to the question that I think is most on my mind now. There certainly seem recently to have been a number of books that could be challenged in terms of the accuracy of their content. It seems to me more and more such books – and you perhaps will say to me, no, that’s just my perception – but if there’s anything to that perception, how do we explain that? Because that’s a function of editors rather than writers. It’s a function of publishers rather than writers.

Vaughan: One possible problem is that the book has become – it always was, to an extent – but increasingly it has become the medium for long-distance journalism. That is, in the days of Stephan Morant and Ida Targull there was some substantial journalism done in magazine form. And on and on, through the Saturday Evening Post and the first Life magazine and so on. But when those magazines disappeared, there was no place for a journalist to go with a long piece of work except into book form. Meanwhile, most of us in the book business are not trained journalists. We’re not really editors of journalism by instinct or by training, and we’re also not professionals. We have no standards of ethics. We have no agreements among us. There are mavericks and renegades, and there are serious and responsible publishers. There are all manner of people who hang out shingles called publishers. And I think a lot of journalism, therefore, has come out in book form, which does not go before an editor who would examine it with the same rigor that some of the best newspaper or magazine editors would have examined it.

Heffner: You mean, in the daily press this wouldn’t have gotten by?

Vaughan: Well, the daily press is another matter. The daily press, it seems to me there’s an implied contract between the reader and the writers and editors of newspapers or magazines. The reader knows that a newspaper is produced essentially overnight. The read has a sense that a magazine is produced in a week or a month. But the reader has some idea that a book takes much longer to do, and has a right to expect more from a book. But what you and I are concerned about is: are they getting more from a book, or are they just getting something longer?

Heffner: And you feel, something longer.

Vaughan: (Laughter) It’s usually longer.

Heffner: Sam, what was your reaction when, oh, sometime back, a year or so ago, there was that dispute about faction in journals, talking specifically about the New Yorker: and there were those who felt that there is not necessarily a higher truth; there is a different kind of truth that one can find in poetry.

Vaughan: Uh hum.

Heffner: And indeed, the author who was the subject of concern here. Alastair Reed, I remember as a poet, because he and I taught together. He taught poetry, and I taught history. Can you accept that notion that there are these different levels of truth?

Vaughan: Well, I accept that notion that some of the great truths are found in poetry and in fiction. That case was a case, I gather, where he had a source that he had invented, or so the charge was. Is that correct?

Heffner: He presented the story that he wanted to write in what one might say there fictional terms.

Vaughan: Yeah. Well, he had somebody saying something in a bar in Barcelona or someplace.

Heffner: Uh hum.

Vaughan: That’s the counterpart of the famous cabdriver who always gave the reporter for Time Magazine the juicy quote he needed. I think the reason for the outrage is that the New Yorker has a reputation for meticulous fact checking.

Heffner: Do you think the problem was the reputation and the assertion.

Vaughan: Sure.

Heffner: …that we have checked everything through, and nothing can be checked through that completely?

Vaughan: I think so. I think the Alastair Reed piece was not an earthshaking, it’s not going to move nations. An error of fact, or failure to disclose that he had invented a source or used a composite is really not that important. But people like to have at the New Yorker, because they’re so fussy, and even a little prissy. When Bill Buckley mentioned my wife and me in a book, a manuscript he wrote which was excerpted in the New Yorker, some nice person called me up and asked if my name was spelled a certain way, and if my wife’s name was spelled a certain way. And I assured him it was. I don’t know why they didn’t call her that seemed to me a form of sexism. But they should have called her and asked her what my name was. But in any case, they do that kind of thing. And they’re proud of it, and they should be. And so when they stumble, then there are a lot of people willing to laugh.

Heffner: I guess the question that I want to raise has to do with the arrogance of the assumption that we can really get at the truth, and that somehow or other all of that fact checking, whether with a publisher of a book, or with the publisher of a magazine, can result in…

Vaughan: Well, I think you’re right. I suppose everything printed or transmitted should be preceded by the caveat, “This is the best we could do, folks, up to this moment”. The newspaper really says, “This is our view of the world, as we could get it together from eight p.m. last night”.

Heffner: And your feeling is that, if a publisher identifies his book that way, or the book he and the author and the printers and the people who buy stock in the company have all put out, as long as he correctly labels it as, to the best of his knowledge, fact…

Vaughan: I think we ought to be a little more strenuous about that. As we look to learn a little bit more about the journalism we’re publishing, the science we’re publishing, there’s some things which one takes on faith. Your religious publishing is basically not fact-based, unless it’s based on archaeological scholarship or some such. But I think we ought to get more serious and work a little harder at what we say the books are. And I think we ought to be wide open to publish just about anything, but not wide open to call it anything.

Heffner: Sam, when you were here a number of years ago, and I asked you about the future of the book business, you reported that the reports of the book business’s demise were inaccurate, premature. Today how do you feel?

Vaughan: It’s still in the same condition. “The book business” meaning the writing of books and the reading of books and the purveying of books is like the theater. It’s the world’s healthiest invalid. We have been through the business of big conglomerations, and that’s passed. We are just recently going through the convulsion of having believed we could all publish of the fabled computer market, so that shakeout is occurring. We have our arguments about the prevalence of big retail book chains and so on. But we sputter on, we stumble on, because what we’re dealing with, no matter how we deal with it, is very important to individual human beings.

Heffner: And, in the minute we have remaining, what’s the prevailing myth now that you think, when you come back here, eight, nine years from now, you will say that myth is put to rest?

Vaughan: Well, it’s the usual one, that the book as we know it is about to expire or be converted into microchips. I think a few books will be and should be. But the rest of it will lurk along familiar lines.

Heffner: Is the industry healthy financially at this moment?

Vaughan: Our health is kind of reckless. We always think we’re really healthier than we are. I mean, if we were rational people, we’d be doing something else for a living.

Heffner: But that’s not an answer.

Vaughan: Is it healthy?

Heffner: Yeah.

Vaughan: Well, elements of the business are healthy. You have to take it by kinds of publishing. The mass market business was phenomenal for a while, and has been somewhat troubled for a couple of years. The textbook business was phenomenal for a while, but is still pretty good. The publishing of scientific and technical and professional books is quite, quite healthy. So you have to take it by kinds of publishing.

Heffner: Well, that’s a fair answer. Thank you so much, Sam Vaughan, for joining me today.

Vaughan: You’re welcome.

Heffner: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”