After years of professional banishment, controversial historian Michael Bellesiles is back this month with a new book—1877: America's Year of Living Violently (New Press), his first since the scandal over his 2000 effort, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.
So far, his comeback has met with a fairly predictable response—a smattering of "second chance" stories in the press; a minor backlash from some of the author's most intractable critics; but also, much to the delight of Bellesiles's editor, Marc Favreau, some strong pre-pub reviews (including PW), which have stoked hopes that a solid new book just might allow the author to rise above the scandal over his previous work. But whether Bellesiles can transcend his past and establish himself as a credible author of serious nonfiction might be the least interesting question raised by his return to publishing.
That's because, less than a decade after the Arming America controversy—one of the first to be fueled by the Internet—there has been a sharp uptick in the number of nonfiction books coming under fire, calling into question everything from publishers' fact-checking and quality control to whether the editorial practices that have served the book business for so long may be due for an update.
"There's no question," says author and former Random House publisher Daniel Menaker, a former New Yorker fact-checker, when asked if nonfiction books in the Internet age are facing increased pressure. "I believe readers actually have an obligation to read skeptically," he says. "The search for total accuracy is an insoluble problem. I'm not talking about whether Chicago is north of New Orleans, but the more philosophical question of what is a fact, especially when it comes to memoir." New Yorker editor William Maxwell had a saying, Menaker adds: "The minute we open our mouths about the past, we begin to lie."
Or, increasingly, it seems, when we sit down to write. A surge of scandals in the years following Bellesiles's Arming America—such as James Frey's and Herman Rosenblat's fictionalized memoirs, Gerald Posner's and Chris Anderson's lifted passages, and Charles Pellegrino's recently canceled The Last Train to Hiroshima—have blown the cover off the book, a once trusted medium.
With search engines, digitized online archives, plagiarism filters, and powerful social networks, every reader in the digital age is now a potential fact-checker—and every work of serious nonfiction a potential minefield. Of course, literary scandals have always existed—see Clifford Irving or Janet Malcolm. But in today's wired world, a book can become a viral news story overnight for errors large or small, real or perceived. So as audiences and critics read with increased scrutiny, have publishers' editorial practices kept pace? Has there been more fact-checking or otherwise tightened editorial processes? Not really.
"The problem with fact-checking for book publishers is partly one of economics," Menaker explains. "It would be impossible for publishers to check all their books and still create an economy of scale." If you think books are expensive now, he suggests, just imagine what comprehensive fact-checking would do to the P&L for, say, a memoir or for a work of history drawing upon primary sources tucked away in far-flung archives.
"I don't think it's a question of being responsible versus being irresponsible," adds Richard Nash, founder of digital publisher Cursor and the former publisher of Soft Skull Press. "If fact-checking was involved, we'd all publish far fewer books, and that isn't going to add to the store of human knowledge."
Fall from Grace
Perhaps no author in modern times has fallen from grace harder than Michael Bellesiles. At the turn of the millennium, he was a rising star with an award-winning book at the center of a contentious national debate over gun control. But as critics pulled at the loose ends of his research, the author's world unraveled. Within a period of months, he lost his Bancroft Prize, an NEH fellowship, and his job at Emory University. In January 2003, unable—or unwilling—to brave the controversy over Arming America any longer, Knopf canceled Bellesiles's contract, and stopped selling the book.
But while Knopf equivocated for almost three years, characterizing Bellesiles's problems as "sloppy research," Bellesiles's critics blogged, posted online articles, e-mailed on listervs, and demonstrated to every publisher just how much the feedback loop for books had changed.
Despite Bellesiles's history, Favreau told PW that New Press did nothing out of the ordinary in evaluating or preparing 1877 for publication—the final manuscript, for example, wasn't sent out for peer review nor was Bellesiles's proposal or manuscript subjected to any extra level of scrutiny. Rather, Favreau told PW, the press relied on the same "high standards" it employs for all its books: the judgment and experience of its editors and trust in the author.
"If anything, [the Arming America controversy] focused our attention more closely on evaluating the merits of [Bellesiles's] proposal for 1877, which was exceptionally strong," Favreau says. "You can call it good risk management."
Risk management is an apt metaphor for editorial work—but when it comes to nonfiction in the digital age, are the risks increasing? It certainly appears that way. With each new scandal the lack of meaningful fact-checking protocols in book publishing is increasingly portrayed as a shocking secret exposed.
In 2002, editor Jane Garrett was only gently criticized for suggesting that Knopf couldn't have "re-researched" Bellesiles's Arming America before publication. A few years later, Oprah Winfrey viciously gutted James Frey—and his publisher—on national television for embellishments in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. And in March of this year, after Holt pulled Pellegrino's Hiroshima book over questionable sources, a New York Times report used the fiasco to question the very role of publishers in the digital age. "If book publishers are supposed to be the gatekeepers," author and media-watcher Kurt Andersen bluntly asked in the piece, "tell me exactly what they're closing the gate to?"
Publishers will tell you that fact-checking isn't really their job. In fact, authors warrant in their contracts that the work they deliver is theirs and is factually sound. But one has to question the continued wisdom of relying on an author's warranty, because just as technology enables readers to read more carefully, it may be enticing writers to write more carelessly.
In 2009, Gerald Posner blamed a poisonous cocktail of deadline pressure and "inadvertent" copying and pasting of source materials into a master computer file for alleged plagiarism throughout his work. Wired editor Chris Anderson copped to inadvertently including unattributed quotes from Wikipedia in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, after source notes were removed from the book. A blogger at the Virginia Quarterly Review recognized a passage in the book, and Googled it.
Given the increased reader scrutiny enabled by technology—and writer sloppiness—should publishers re-examine their editorial practices? Is it better to spend a little money to nip something in manuscript, rather than pulp things from your warehouse?
"That's a good and complicated question," Favreau concedes. "[Publishing] clearly benefits on many levels from the growing number of online outlets devoted to discussing politics, ideas, and books. But I would hesitate to argue that we have changed—or would change—our editorial practices." Rather, he suggests the book editor's "gatekeeper" role, to paraphrase Kurt Andersen, may be more about opening gates—nurturing extended arguments and narratives—than closing them to potential error. In that sense, book editors are guided more by principles than processes.
"[Publishers] still place a lot of trust in our authors, and we hold those authors to high standards," Favreau notes. "I think the challenge today is to hold this line, precisely because serious, long-form arguments and narratives are so important to our culture." He makes a reasonable point—aren't the limited resources in book publishing better directed toward smart editors shepherding complex arguments than dumb technological filters meant to catch problem passages? Perhaps. But good faith in publishing is like good umpiring in baseball—you don't notice it until it goes bad.
"I'm glad Michael is back in action," says Richard Nash—who published Arming America at Soft Skull, after Knopf walked away. Banishing him, he suggests, would represent "an unearned smugness" in the publishing community. "There's a lot more glass in our houses than we care to admit."
One fact is clear: few books this year will likely get a closer read than 1877, given its author. And Bellesiles, who admitted "trepidation" at the thought of publishing again, told PW that in addition to his work on the manuscript with Favreau, he also hired a graduate student to double-check his citations. "I did figure that this book might draw a level of scrutiny that was perhaps unusual," he says. But he adds that he is "looking forward to" having 1877 questioned and discussed, and remains confident the book will hold up.
Favreau is confident as well. So confident, in fact, he has already signed Bellesiles's next work. Asked how he thinks 1877 will do, he is circumspect. "The horse is out of the gate, with the predictable attention paid to the past controversy," he says. "But the book absolutely makes its own case."