Book News: 'Darkness in El Dorado' Debated
Calvin Reid -- 11/27/00
Backlash after NBA nominee blasts anthropologists for devastating native people
It's axiomatic in the book publishing industry that there's no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to selling books. W.W. Norton's polemical new nonfiction work, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon by Patrick Tierney, nominated this year for National Book Award, is likely to put that maxim to the test. However, Tierney's book has been generating both good publicity--the NBA nomination--as well as bad: it has been condemned by the National Academy of Scientists and provoked a firestorm of criticism over the book's many allegations of unethical behavior by anthropologists studying the Yanomami people of Brazil's Amazon rain forest. Indeed, the American Anthropological Association has placed a statement on its Web site (www.aaanet.org/press/eldorado.htm) pledging to hold an open forum on Tierney's allegations.
While controversy and allegations about the conduct and impact of Western scientists working with indigenous peoples have been debated among anthropologists for many years, the publicity around this book has carried these issues beyond the scientific and academic community and into the mainstream media. The book's nomination for a National Book Award and an excerpt that ran in the October 9 issue of the New Yorker brought the controversy to the boiling point weeks before the book's November 16 pub date.
Tierney's most inflammatory accusation is that the two men may have contributed to, or actually caused, a deadly measles epidemic that spread among Yanomami villages by recklessly administering a potentially dangerous vaccine to the immune-deficient Indians. Tierney has also claimed that Chagnon staged scenes in his award-winning film on the Yanomami; that he disrupted Yanomami life with chaotic and destructive visits by helicopter; and that his practice of offering the Yanomami unusual amounts of tools and weaponry (axes and machetes) as payment incited tribal discord and ultimately distorted his accounts of Yanomami culture.
The book's allegations have provoked a furious outcry from Chagnon and his many supporters, students and colleagues. The book has also drawn a pointed condemnation from the National Academy of Sciences ("factual errors and innuend s in this book do a grave disservice to a great scientist"), which has joined a chorus of detractors who claim Tierney's book is error-ridden, biased and full of bad research.
An equally hostile review on Slate.com by John Tooby, a colleague of Chagnon on the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, dismissed Tierney's allegations about the measles epidemic. Tooby went on to call the book "fiction," "false on scores of points" and "thoroughly dishonest," and he suggested that "Tierney had perpetrated a hoax on the publishing world." Tooby's article drew a reply from the New Yorker in support of Tierney that pointed to the book's "balance, context and thoughtfulness" and called the attacks on it "outlandish." The New Yorker also noted that Tierney had taken care "to listen to what the Yanomami themselves had to say" about being studied by Chagnon."
But also circulating on the Web is a 68-page "preliminary" report prepared by a team of UCSB scholars offering a detailed and "ongoing" rebuttal of the book's claims. A host of web sites, among them www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness.html, have been launched to refute the book's charges.
The book didn't win the nonfiction NBA award, but the controversy over its charges continues to simmer. The book was at the top of the agenda at the recent convention of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, where Tierney appeared before a decidedly hostile audience. During a telephone interview with PW, Tierney said he originally went to the Amazon planning a book on the impact of gold miners on the area, but later turned his attention to Chagnon's well-known relationship with the Yanomami. He called his marathon four-hour appearance on a panel at the convention "very stormy." He said, "It's amazing how many people have attacked the book before it was published. It suggests that there's something to hide. That they're out to kill the messenger."
Although Tierney acknowledged that the book contains errors, he also noted, "That's natural for a book this big," and accused the NAS of misquoting him in its statement. "It's all part of a coordinated attack on me," said Tierney. John Tooby, he continued, "is associated with Chagnon. They [the UCSB team] have a lot at stake in this debate, so it's no wonder." Tierney went on to accuse Tooby: "He takes liberties with the text of the book." And Tierney dismissed accusations that he has a personal vendetta against Chagnon: "I don't know him personally and I'm not involved with any groups that have attacked his work."
Unsurprisingly, the book has had "strong advance orders," according to a Norton spokesperson (Norton declined to reveal the exact number of copies distributed). Drake McFeeley, president of W.W. Norton, told PW, "We've been under pressure, and keen to get the book out. Patrick's been itching to join the fray but we asked him to refrain until the book is available. He's convinced that he's got it right, and we support the book."
Whatever the outcome, even Tierney's detractors say the book could force the world to take a closer look at the ongoing plight of the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples. Tierney remarked, "It's a writers dream to have his every word so carefully examined."
Now in its fifth year, Salon.com is the oldest of the three sites. Always self-consciously literary, Salon.com's Wanderlust includes work from well-known travel writers such as Pico Iyer and Tim Cahill, and is not the company's first foray into print publishing. Earlier this year, Penguin published The Salon. com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors, an compendium by Salon.com critics and staffers. In 1999, Random House put out the first Salon.com anthology, Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-life Parenthood.
Though Random declined to offer sales figures on Mothers, Villard publisher Bruce Tracy, who commissioned both Mothers Who Think and Wanderlust, told PW he admired the "extraordinary content and a vast array of professional writers" who work for Salon. "On the Internet, there's generally a kind of rushed sameness about things," he explained. "What convinced me to do this anthology of travel stories was the unexpected nature of the material."
Rachel Kahan, editor of Full Frontal Fiction, likened her work with Nerve.com to mining a treasure trove. "They have a couple of years' worth of professionally edited, top-quality fiction to put into a book. My job is to make sure we achieve the right balance, tone and organization in the book," she said.
Nerve.com jumped into print publishing about a year after going live in June 1997 with its first anthology, Nerve: Literate Smut (Broadway), which landed on the L.A. Times and several independent bookseller lists for a couple of weeks. The company recently started a print magazine--also called Nerveand Chronicle published a Nerve.com photography collection called Nerve: The New Nude. After Full Frontal Fiction, Three Rivers plans another Nerve.com anthology next summer, tentatively titled Jack's Naughty Bits, from the eponymous column on the site, which selects the best sexy scenes in literature.
But for Slate's Kantor, the transition from Internet to print publishing was "discomfiting." Working for Microsoft, it makes sense that Kantor would be at home on the Internet, and so she described publishing on the Web as a happy experience. "It's something I attribute to the flexibility of the Internet--if I find a mistake, I can jump right in with the publishing software and change it immediately," she said. "Publishing a book requires you to rely on a huge team of people you don't know to make changes for you."
Despite obstacles in translating content from online to off, the transference is sure to happen.
Volume 246 Issue 48 11/27/2000