I can’t say that I mind too much watching a crusading lefty being hoisted on her own progressive petard, as has happened to the writer Naomi Wolf. In her brand-new book, she claims that Victorians were executing men for sodomy for longer than previously believed. She bases this claim on having discovered in court records the phrase “death recorded” listed with sodomy convictions. But in this terrifying (for authors!) clip from BBC radio, she learns from an actual scholar that “death recorded” is a 19th century legal term that means “death sentence commuted”:
Everyone listen to Naomi Wolf realize on live radio that the historical thesis of the book she’s there to promote is based on her misunderstanding a legal term pic.twitter.com/a3tB77g3c1
— Edmund Hochreiter (@thymetikon) May 23, 2019
I gotta be honest: as a writer, when I first heard about this, my first thought was, There but for the grace of God go I. That was Alan Jacobs’s too. He writes:
Wouldn’t you — wouldn’t anyone — assume that the phrase “death recorded”means “death sentence carried out”? I know that’s what I would assume. Now, someone might say, “Well, she should have looked it up.” But we only look words or phrases up when we have reason to think that we have misunderstood them.
But Jacobs backtracked a bit when he learned that Wolf had faulted professional historians for missing this “fact” — when actually, they were right and she was wrong. Jacobs:
As I say above, it’s reasonable that the term “death recorded” would raise no alarms; but it’s far less reasonable to blithely assume that all previous professional historians simply missed information that was there to be read.
Sounds life confirmation bias got the best of Naomi Wolf (and, one assumes, her editor). I’m just now starting my next book, and you’d better believe that I’m taking this self-immolation as a sign to be even more careful.
In the new literary marketplace, where departments are stripped down, writers are out there on their own, trying to make sure everything is clear, well told, and accurate. But accuracy, for historical books like this, needs to be a team effort. That’s why there were editors, fact checkers, and people who looked into this stuff. With all the cuts, those people barely exist.
Writers find the idea for the story, come up with the hook, do the research, then write it, with a focus on story and narrative, making it readable and interesting, consideration for clicks or sales, wanting readers to be engaged. The risk of messing up is high, and when writers make mistakes, it’s not the outlet or the publisher that takes the heat, but the writers themselves.
Wolf was, in part, done a disservice by her editors, publisher, and their staff for no one having done the due diligence to check this thing out. More importantly, she was done in by her impulse to believe her theory with the support of only the most basic research, which was handily discounted by a BBC reporter in preparation of a 15-minute interview.
Right. But see, if I were Wolf’s editor, I probably would have assumed that “death recorded” meant that the inmate had been put to death. Doesn’t it seem reasonable? Then again, if Wolf indeed faults previous scholars for overlooking what was staring them right in the face, there in court records, it seems that a diligent editor would have questioned her on that. Maybe the editor too was all too willing to believe that the Victorians were more of a pack of starched-collar homo-haters than we previously thought.