Saturday, March 20, 2010

Why You Really Cant Trust Book Reviews

In “Why You Can’t Trust Book Reviews” a funny and now ironic May 1996 piece for Salon Magazine, Dwight Garner explored the reasons behind the endemic over-praising of books in the New York media. The explanation, he said, was a heady mix of dishonesty, time pressure and the corruption of the old boy network. Garner also pointed out that laziness was a key factor because it was “far easier to write a positive review than a negative one.”
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Garner subsequently became a full time staffer at the New York Times Book Review and, as if to prove again the doleful lessons of Cassandra, on January 19 2010 he reviewed Charles Pellegrino’s book The Last Train From Hiroshima with these words: “[Pellegrino] pays particular attention to forensic detail, and provides a slowmotion, almost instant by instant explanation of how the atom bomb discharged its fury. . .The Last Train From Hiroshima is a firm, compelling synthesis of earlier memoirs and archival material, as well as of the author’s own interviews and research. This is gleaming, popular wartime history, John Hersey infused with Richard Preston and a fleck of Michael Crichton.”
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The problem, of course, is that the book is a lot more Michael Crichton than John Hersey. Following an investigation by the Associated Press which found numerous errors of fact and at least two “eye witnesses” who do not actually exist an embarrassed Henry Holt decided to completely withdraw the book from publication and pulp all of the remaining copies. In a statement on March 2nd Holt’s President, Stephen Rubin, said: “Without the confidence that we can stand behind the work in its entirety, we cannot continue to sell this product to our customers.” (The book is still selling on Amazon.com and I read a copy in Readings Bookshop in St Kilda).
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After a few attempts to make excuses Charles Pellegrino has gone to ground although his website still boasts that he was the scientific consultant for James Cameron’s Avatar and among his accomplishments he continues to claim a Ph.D from the University of Wellington, which the university now vociferously denies. Why Dwight Garner was assigned The Last Train From Hiroshima by The New York Times is not clear. He seems to have no special expertise on World War 2 and how he could tell that Pellegrino’s text was imbued with “forensic detail” is somewhat baffling. He must, one imagines, have simply trusted Henry Holt to have done proper fact checking on the book, and considering the controversial nature of the subject matter, you think they would have.
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If Garner did make this assumption he was probably being overly optimistic. Many big New York publishers no longer have a fact checking department and fact checking has increasingly been farmed out to free-lancers, who, with minimal pay and tight deadlines, often will do a cursory read-through rather than a thorough edit. (Novels in many cases won’t get fact checked at all on the grounds that they are set in a fictional universe, hence the often hilarious blunders found in, say, a Dan Brown novel.) Still, those of us familiar with Charles Pellegrino’s previous book The Jesus Family Tomb might have seen this coming. Purporting to be the archaeological find of the millennium The Jesus Family Tomb describes the 1980 uncovering of a first century tomb in Jerusalem which, Pellegrino claimed, contained the bones of various family members of Jesus of Nazareth. To borrow Garner’s analogy the book is less Howard Carter and more Angela Carter, blending large amounts of supposition, guess work and passages of downright fantasy. The dissimulation that surrounded The Jesus Family Tomb and the James Cameron produced documentary on the same subject might have tipped off a more alert reviewer that something was up with Pellegrino - a trip to Pellegrino’s website would have persuaded even the most gullible reader that the man wasn’t completely on the level.
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Pulping the entire print run of The Last Train From Hiroshima is a costly lesson for Henry Holt, but probably a worthwhile one if it makes them and other New York publishing houses a little more circumspect about their popular history lines. Whether The New York Times and Dwight Garner will also issue a mea culpa remains to be seen.