It was a slow-motion tragedy and an author’s greatest nightmare. During an interview on BBC radio, Dr. Matthew Sweet confronted renowned author Naomi Wolf with a glaring error in her book “Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love.” The falsehood was one that weakened her manuscript’s thesis and hurt her credibility. Wolf was caught flat-footed and seemed panicked. While the radio segment wasn’t long, listening to it felt like a painful eternity.
The issue boiled down to Wolf’s misinterpretation of a British legal phrase — “death recorded.” She believed that it denoted an execution. Indeed, this definition seemed so clear that it didn’t merit further examination. However, as Sweet informed Wolf, “[Death recorded] was a category … that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death.” In many cases, it resulted in pardons, not executions. While Wolf should have known better, her mistake is understandable. After all, “death recorded” seems to be a misnomer.
Instead of doubling down on her error, Wolf awkwardly responded, “Well that’s a really important thing to investigate.” She later admitted her fault and even quipped, “Hang on to your copies because [the original version] will be a collectors’ item” once the error is removed in the next printing.
After Wolf was proven wrong, the internet was abuzz with glee. Hosts of articles, comments and tweets flooded the web as people reveled in her public humiliation. Sadly, this form of schadenfreude has become all too common, which speaks volumes about today’s society. Many would rather take joy in people’s greatest mistakes than be constructive or remember their other achievements. While Wolf needed to be corrected, she deserves better than her current treatment.
To be clear, I don’t know Wolf. We have vastly different ideological views, and even our personal interests don’t align. Even so, as an author with one book under my belt, two more on the way, and hundreds of articles published, I can’t help but empathize with her.
It takes courage to put your heart and soul into a creative work, publish it for the world to judge, and open yourself up to a flurry of criticism. And believe me, there’s always criticism. The comments sections of news articles and opinion pieces are generally full of negativity and name-calling, and in my experience and that of fellow colleagues, emails to authors can be even worse — sometimes they include veiled death threats.
Believe it or not, one of the greatest fears of any writer is to publish an error and endure Wolf’s experience. What casual readers likely don’t know is that most books — especially those based on large research projects — have mistakes or inadequacies within them. They are usually minor and rarely noticed, or least not announced on BBC radio. Even though authors know that our projects may never be entirely perfect, we generally try our best and do our due diligence before publishing.
Sure, people will likely counter that so long as Wolf styles herself as an expert, she’s fair game. Maybe that’s true. But even experts are flawed and can’t be expected to know everything within their area of study.
Expert or not, however, Wolf deserves recognition for her handling of a cringe-worthy situation. She admitted her mistake, took responsibility for it, sought to rectify it in future editions, and even tried to make light of the matter with a joke.
One of the sad consequences of this experience is that no matter what Wolf accomplishes in the rest of her career, the public will probably always remember this chapter of her life. And her critics and social media trolls will constantly exploit it in order to disparage her and bask in her embarrassment.
The rest of us can either blindly follow along like so many seem intent to do, or we can take the high road. We can acknowledge that, while Wolf made a mistake, she had the courage to publish something unique (albeit flawed), the strength to take responsibility for her error, and the humility do so with grace. You learn the most about people’s character when they face adversity, and in that light, Wolf has proven herself worthy of another chance.