Her Book in Limbo, Naomi Wolf Fights Back

When Naomi Wolf appeared at the Strand in Manhattan last month to promote her new book, “Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love,” it might have seemed like your average book-tour event.

There were several dozen people in folding chairs, a softball Q. and A. by a friendly interviewer and mingling over cookies brought by the author. But one thing was missing: the new book.

A week earlier, her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, had abruptly announced it was delaying “Outrages” because of questions about its accuracy, and taken the extreme step of recalling the first printing of 35,000 copies from retailers just five days before the book’s official publication date.

For the Strand event, Ms. Wolf had scrambled to ship in copies of the already-released British edition. And now, with the book still in limbo, she says she remains committed to bringing it to American readers, even if she has to publish it herself.

But at the same time, in interviews and in emails, she has repeatedly stated that Mr. Sweet and others who have challenged her have themselves made serious mistakes. She even briefly demanded that a critical review of “Outrages” be removed from a scholarly website.

Ms. Wolf said she had asked her husband to stop tweeting in support of her, and that she had been unaware of tweets from other accounts associated with his firm, Striker Pierce, including one calling on people to investigate Mr. Sweet’s “obviously false claims & opportunism.”

“This should not have happened,” Dr. Wolf said of those tweets. (Mr. O’Shea, in an email, said his tweets were a protective reaction to the “slew of disproportionately negative and personal articles” about Ms. Wolf, and that he had taken them down at her request.)

As for her own tweet referring to the Old Bailey site and commercial genealogy companies, she said it was meant as a comment on how public records are being commodified, not as a criticism of the Old Bailey site.

“They’ve been really wonderful,” she said of the two scholars who run the site.

(The scholars, Robert Shoemaker and Tim Hitchcock, said Old Bailey Online, which is free to access, gains a “small income” from licensing agreements with various websites, including Findmypast, but that those relationships have “in no way influenced its content.”)

“Outrages,” which grew out of her Oxford dissertation, is framed as a kind of scholarly homecoming for Ms. Wolf. She first attended Oxford in the 1980s as a Rhodes scholar, where she began writing “The Beauty Myth,” the 1991 feminist polemic that made her name.

That book, and some of the seven others she has written since on subjects ranging from female sexuality (“Vagina”) to threats to democracy (“The End of America”), drew criticism for sloppy research and exaggerated claims. Some of the criticism has come from academics, who often have an ambivalent relationship with popular books that bring research to a wide audience, even as they cut interpretive corners.

The early response to “Outrages,” published in Britain by the feminist press Virago, was enthusiastic. The Irish novelist Colm Toibin praised its “intelligence and flair.”

In America, the book got advance raves in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. O: The Oprah Magazine named it one of its “Best Books by Women of Summer 2019.”

Houghton Mifflin initially stood by the book, then announced the delay three weeks later.

“We have reached out to several scholars for independent evaluations of the book, and we will assess their evaluations when they are all in hand,” a spokeswoman said on Monday.

Some scholars who have followed the controversy see a failure of vetting by both her publishers and Oxford. (Her adviser, Stefano-Maria Evangelista, to whom “Outrages” is dedicated, declined to comment.) Dr. Wolf said she had paid three “expert readers” to vet the book manuscript before publication, including Helena Kennedy, a prominent barrister and human rights advocate in England, who, in a June 28 article in The Independent, dismissed the uproar over “death recorded” as a trivial academic spat that needed to be put in its “insignificant place.”

“I am sure there is a high level of sexism in the mix, with a dismissal of female scholarship, and a territorial claim to certain kinds of subject matter,” Ms. Kennedy wrote.

Dr. Wolf herself has pushed back against some negative reviews from specialists.

After the website Public Seminar published a critical review by Emily Rutherford, a graduate student in history at Columbia who is writing a dissertation on Symonds, Ms. Wolf sent the site’s editor a strongly worded email attacking the review’s “serious and even indefensible errors,” and demanding it be taken down until it was “fully corrected.” (The site made one correction, and has also published an article by a defender of Ms. Wolf, with a response from Ms. Wolf herself to come.)

“If this had come to me as a manuscript for peer review,” Mr. Upchurch said in a brief statement, “I would have called for changes to correct what I consider factual and interpretive errors on 46 of its 300 pages.”

Mr. Upchurch, who read the book after having been contacted by Ms. Wolf several weeks ago, declined to discuss these errors, but said he told her he would be willing to share his full report directly with Houghton Mifflin. (Scholarly peer review is typically anonymous, and done via the publisher.)

Ms. Wolf said she was grateful for Mr. Upchurch’s efforts. And she reiterated that the important thing was that the story in “Outrages” be told, and be told accurately.

“I am not important,” she said. “This book being right, and also readable — that delicate balance — is really important. If there’s something that has to be taken on board, I’ll take it on board.”

Source link