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More on Corsi and publishing

Posted by David Mehegan  August 18, 2008 12:08 PM

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Since last week's New York Times story about "Obama Nation," Jerome Corsi's book about the Illinois senator, which appeared atop yesterday's Times nonfiction bestseller list, the book has not passed without comment.

Much comment so far has focused on Corsi, relatively little on Simon & Schuster's decision to publish the book, which contains misstatements about Obama, and suggests that he has a hidden radical liberal agenda and might have hidden ties to Islamic radicals. S&S has come in for some criticism, however. See L.A. Times writer Tim Rutten's piece here, for example.

So far, the company and Mary Matalin, publisher of Threshold Editions, S&S's conservative imprint, have stood by the book and one assumes that position will hold. (We notice, BTW, that the "news" link on Matalin's website has none about "Obama Nation."

But it does make one wonder what, if anything, would cause a publisher to back away from a book. Fear of copyright infringement litigation, for one thing. Simon & Schuster was/is also the publisher of Doris Kearns Goodwin, and when that author's unattributed borrowings (which she said was inadvertant) from author Lynne McTaggart for her 1987 book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," was brought to the publisher's attention, a quiet financial settlement was made with McTaggart. When in 2002 the settlement became public, S&S withdrew extant paperback copies of the book and later re-released it with new footnotes and a new acknowledgement of the debt to McTaggart. In that case, Simon & Schuster could not simply shrug and say, "We don't guarantee the validity of everything in our books."

When James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," was shown in 2006 to be substantially fabricated, publisher Doubleday inserted a paragraph in new copies, acknowledging that parts of the story were fictionalized. Nan Talese, who published the book with Doubleday, defended herself and her employer in an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, but the defense was mostly practical: that a publisher can never guarantee that everything in a book is factual. Of course, Talese did not and could not say it was OK for Frey to lie or for Doubleday to publish the lies.

In 2000, St. Martin's Press yanked "Fortunate Son," by J.H. Hatfield, a biography which quoted unnamed witnesses to the effect that George W. Bush's alleged youthful cocaine use had been covered up through family connections. When the author was found to be a sketchy character with a criminal past, and his sources to be unreliable, St. Martin's cancelled the contract, recalled 70,000 books, and ate the loss. Hatfield committed suicide a year later.

Will anything like those cases happen with Corsi's book? I'm guessing that the answer is no. No matter how blatant the falsehoods in the Corsi book might be, everybody knows that politics has its own tolerant relationship to truth. We insist that historians and memoirists tell the truth, and we insist that authors not steal from another. But politics is different.

Besides, we know that some people want to be lied to. Is it likely that the conservative buyers of "Obama Nation" will be so angry at its false statements about Obama that they will demand their money back? Not highly.

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About off the shelf News about books, authors, and publishers from The Boston Globe.
Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.

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