Naomi Wolf fact-checking
Author and journalist Naomi Wolf (Image: Flickr/Michael Fleshman)

Explosions get a bad rap. Far from chaotic, you need a precise sequence of events to make things go kaboom. To plan a whole sequence? Well, you need to call in the experts.

Like historian Matthew Sweet, who recently interviewed Naomi Wolf on the BBC’s Free ThinkingWolf was there promoting her upcoming book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love, which alleges that Victorian England was so suddenly, virulently homophobic it executed dozens of homosexual men.

The show proceeded like many British radio shows and podcasts do: polite people discuss issues politely. Sweet then proceeded with some basic priming questions so Wolf could present her view of Victorian England. Wolf warmed to it. She let listeners know that she went through the Old Bailey records and the crime tables; she implied her authority and depth of research about these court-ordered executions. Then came a muffled blast: “I don’t think you’re right about this”.

Sweet quietly undid Wolf’s entire argument by pointing out that the phrase “death recorded” did not mean “death sentence” and “sodomy” did not necessarily mean consensual homosexual male sex but could in many cases mean sexual assault. The cases Naomi Wolf referred to were often sexual assaults and, Sweet continued, “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened”.

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To her credit, Wolf seemed to take it well. She does, after all, have a history of recorded mistakes. Her 1990 book The Beauty Myth incorrectly stated that 150,000 women in the United States died from anorexia. Medical researchers refute this, stating “On average, a statistic on anorexia by Naomi Wolf should be divided by eight to get close to the real figure”. Fact-checking reviews of The End of America indicate she got so much wrong she may as well have been sniffing the chemtrails she talks about so much and — look — she didn’t even correctly explain fannies to us in her pudendum opus, Vagina.

Honestly, that Wolf has mistakes in a book isn’t a surprise; the real surprise is that she’s continually able to make them.

In fact, it’s been a bad week for facts all ’round. While promoting his second autobiography, Moby insisted that he had totally dated Natalie Portman. He stood by the claim — even after getting their age difference wrong by two years, even after Portman utterly rejected his version of events.

“I was surprised to hear that he characterised the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school,” she said. Moby doubled down in a series of Instagram posts before issuing an apology that managed to mention his book title three times but not the word “sorry”.

At the heart of all these issues is what Portman identifies as a lack of fact-checking from either Moby or the publisher. The same fact is at play with Wolf’s work, which apparently eluded not only the Oxford University English Department but also her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. HMH have stated they do not use fact-checkers, saying “we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research”. 

It’s a bold choice, given how often authors actually get it wrong.

This shows the tension between readers, authors and publishers. Authors, particularly non-fiction, think they’re selling a grand theory. Facts are chosen and discarded based on whether they help sell the theory. Publishers are selling a book, so their focus and money goes into what they think sells the book — looking good and grabbing attention. But the clock and budget runs out at fact-checking. Readers think they’re buying a mix of all of the above, but really they’re getting little of either.

This was apparent to Anand Giridharadas, who recently eviscerated Jared Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval, in a New York Times review. Where Sweet’s takedown was a polite detonation, Giridharadas used a truckload of Satan’s Mother to fuel his explosion, stating “with a focus on The Framework, facts recede in importance”.

Diamond and Wolf are repeat offenders when it comes to bungling books and yet there they are, soaking up royalties and advances. That Moby was even granted a second autobiography strains credulity given how many good writers don’t get published in the first place.

Giridharadas picks this up in his review.

I know so many younger writers, especially women and people of colour, who are smart, thoughtful, buttoned up and pretty damn accurate who would kill for an opening to publish a book with a serious publisher — and who know in their bones that, if they were ever this sloppy, their career would be over before it had even begun.

Again, the question of what books get published comes back to what’s being sold — beyond the physical aspect in bound, inked pages. Readers shouldn’t have to buy a book that falls apart in their hands or a BBC radio program.