Since hubris stalks all people, it is best not to wallow in the latest news about Naomi Wolf. Earlier this week it was announced that her latest book, the publication of which had already been delayed in the US, is now being recalled and pulped. For an author this is the reputational equivalent of hanging-drawing-and-quartering: a situation from which it is hard to emerge with dignity.
Wolf’s fate has been recorded across the broadsheet media. It all started to unravel for her in the worst way possible – in a live on-air radio interview. In May she appeared with the author and BBC radio host Matthew Sweet, and during that polite exchange Sweet pointed out that there was a major error in the book of Wolf’s which they were discussing.
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Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love was based on a PhD thesis that Wolf had written in 2015 and largely centred on the poet John Addington Symonds. It was Wolf’s contention that the gay poet had the risk of execution hanging over his head in Victorian England. To prove this Wolf claimed that she had identified “dozens and dozens” of gay men of the era who had been executed — a punishment which was believed to have ceased for the crime of sodomy many years before.
In their discussion Sweet pointed out that Wolf had made a major if understandable error. The men in whose cases the words “death recorded” was listed were not in fact executed (as Wolf had assumed) but were trials in which the judge had actually abstained from pronouncing a death sentence.
What is more, Wolf appeared to think that charges of “sodomy” related to the modern understanding of the term whereas in the era about which she was writing the term referred also to child abuse. Meaning that one of the cases the author highlighted was not in fact (as she said) that of a 14-year-old executed in 1859 for the crime of sodomy, but a man convicted (and not executed) for performing an indecent act on a six-year-old.
Needless to say, this is the stuff of authorial nightmares. And doubtless there will be some accounting at Wolf’s publishers over how such elementary mistakes were able to slip by unquestioned.
The problem, though, is that Wolf’s error is not a one-off, but part of a pattern of shoddy research in a career spanning nearly three decades. Her first book, The Beauty Myth (1991) was marred by a number of problems. One was the undeniable having-it-both-ways by which Wolf simultaneously lamented the imposition of certain societal norms of attractiveness while not exactly presenting her worst side, nor failing to benefit from that happy chance.
The more serious problem with the book, however, was the shoddy research for which she immediately became known. Wolf infamously claimed that 150,000 women were dying from anorexia-related eating disorders each year in America. As the writer Christina Hoff Sommers subsequently showed (in her 1995 book Who Stole Feminism?), the actual figure had been exaggerated several hundred times over by Wolf, and the actual figure was between 100 and 400.
The strand of slackness soon merged, as it so often does, with the paranoid style. In 2007 she was one of those American writers who honestly seemed to believe that George W Bush was, in his last days in office, not looking forward to retirement and a quieter life but was in fact preparing to govern forever. In a book titled The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot Wolf suggested that the then President and his team were enacting the playbook that dictators had used throughout the twentieth century.
Among Wolf’s claims were that the Bush administration was in the process of coercing not only the media but also American academia to their dastardly plans. As anybody with even the slightest knowledge of either institution would know, if the Bush administration ever had sought to coerce the entirety of the US media and Academy then it was — against some competition — the least successful effort of that administration.
In her book, as well as a long piece in The Guardian summing up that book’s arguments, Wolf made nods to reality, but then hid them as fast as she could. For instance we read: “It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the threat….” Etc etc. But soon even that “of course-ery” became lost. Even though George Bush miraculously stood down and allowed Barack Obama to enter the Oval Office, Wolf’s warnings of an imminent fascist coup in America continued unabated.
By this stage Wolf had tumbled the whole way down the Gore Vidal trail along which so many bright American men and women go as they start to believe that they are living in a proto-fascist state; one that is especially intent on misleading and suppressing figures like themselves at the vanguard of the resistance. As Wolf publicly stumbled along this well-trodden path she even began to engage in that “I’m only asking questions” form of conspiracy theory that vague and lazy people have such a habit of falling into.
In 2012 Wolf threw herself feet first into the Occupy Wall Street Movement, apparently in the hope that here was the way to stop the imminent coup. But the fact that Occupy fell apart was simply more evidence of the fascist nature of the American state. In The Guardian (yet again) she maintained that the US government were conspiring with the American banks to impose a “totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent”.
It got uglier. By 2014 she began suggesting that the carefully packaged beheading videos which the terrorist group ISIS was then releasing on a weekly basis were not what they seemed; indeed Wolf began declaring that these videos were in fact “staged” by the American government.
So far down this Alex Jones-ian path did Wolf go that she even went on shamefully to suggest that both the victims of these terrible acts and their families were in fact actors. In the inevitable criticism elicited by her inhumane comments Wolf fell back on the old conspiracist claim that she was “only asking questions”, because isn’t this what journalists are meant to do and so on.
Perhaps Wolf took the time off to do her PhD at Oxford in the middle of this decade because it had all got a bit too much for her; after all, one must suppose that warning about a fascism that never emerges would take a toll on anyone. And so Wolf went back to university and back to basics. The problem – as the pulping of her latest book shows – is that the basics of Wolf’s work are sloppy and error-ridden while the developed work is not so good, relying merely on paranoia and delusion.
Perhaps at some point the two styles will merge and we will be able to read of how the Bush and Obama administrations deliberately smuggled errors into the archives on John Addington Symonds in order to sabotage their valiant critic. I for one shall look forward to the next book.