Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege and the challenge of being the publisher of The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, by Stephen Jimenez. From the start, my resolve has been tested by those who attack us for daring to ask serious questions about a story that has been of supreme importance to members of the gay community, and to anyone, myself included, who is deeply committed to the advancement of LGBTQ rights.
When the submission for The Book of Matt reached my in-box, I knew the big New York houses considered it radioactive and had already said no. I gave weight to the fact that its author is an award-winning journalist and openly gay, and that his freelance editor, Michael Denneny, is a publishing veteran who edited Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, founded the Stonewall imprint at St. Martin’s, and also is gay. I relied on the histories of the author and editor only in deciding whether the project was something I should not dismiss as sensationalist, reactionary, or mean-spirited. I evaluated the work on the quality of its sourcing and writing. I got to know Jimenez, asked him questions, assessed his demeanor.
Jimenez did not set out to explode any myths about the Shepard case, but when his research into a screenplay about what he believed to be a bigoted hate crime revealed truths that are far more complex, he decided to follow the facts where they led without regard to political consequences. For that, he has been vilified. A Google search will readily reveal that the book has been branded “trutherism,” “fiction,” and “poison”—that it has been thoroughly “debunked” and its author “discredited.” In truth, not a single fact or conclusion reported in the book has been seriously challenged since its publication a year ago. The new paperback edition features an afterword with independent corroboration from firsthand sources that came forward following the hardcover’s release. Understandings that otherwise would have remained in darkness have come to light.
I don’t mean to suggest that Steerforth’s publication of The Book of Matt was animated by an activist impulse. Steerforth’s general-interest publishing program does not have a political or social mission. However, I do now have a concern: though I can understand why Jimenez’s reporting worries many people, I would ask those opposed to his book’s publication to reflect on why they fear the idea that the roles played by crystal meth, addiction, depression, and abuse in Matthew’s story might somehow make him a victim less worthy of our sympathy and anguish. Could the answers lead to progress against misunderstanding and intolerance in areas beyond the traditional reach of the gay rights movement, which has made such great strides in recent years? Could facile rejection of Jimenez’s book mean that important lessons about the role of crystal meth in this story and in our society not get addressed?
We in the book business should count our blessings. Despite the profitability and popularity of other media that have followed the invention of the book—newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, television, the Internet—books remain a powerful force. Nothing can get people in a lather quite like the release of a biography or a work of history or investigative journalism that offers new information or a fresh interpretation. Books maintain a unique role in the shaping of history, and there are obvious reasons why. Good books are authoritative. They are well reasoned and articulate. They document their sources. They make considered determinations about the character of their subjects. They create space for reflection by both author and reader. Less worthy books might make a splash at first, but eventually they get washed away. Good books remain in the swim forever. The importance of publishing responsible works that are iconoclastic in their effort to get at the truth—especially when it’s a truth many people don’t want to hear—cannot be overstated.
As publishers, booksellers, and writers, our collective mission, more urgent than ever in today’s climate of online advocacy and intimidation, must continue to be to bring the truth to readers. Where would we be if publishers had heeded the naysayers and spitters in the 1970s and ’80s, when writers like Larry Kramer and Randy Shilts were writing unpopular truths and being attacked for them? As Shilts put it, “History is not served when reporters prize trepidation and propriety over the robust journalistic duty to tell the whole story.”
Chip Fleischer is a cofounder and the publisher of Steerforth Press and the president of Hanover Publisher Services.