“In the course of the nineteenth century, as a consequence of the progress of erudition and of a concern for critical rigor, there happens a reversal which is confirmed in the twentieth century: the solicitations of knowledge win out over aesthetic preoccupations, and history leaves literature in order to become an autonomous discipline.”
—Larousse Encyclopedia, “History and Literature”
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has been a huge success for the author and the publishing company. With 29,000 copies sold in the first two days after publishing and 191,838 copies sold after a massive reprint as of January 14th, the book is on course to outsell Trump’s own book, The Art of the Deal.
This is ironic considering the Trump Administration’s attempts to halt Fire and Fury‘s publishing; an eleven-page cease and desist order was found on Macmillan’s Henry Holt & Co. desk, sent by Trump’s lawyer. The order accused the publisher of defamation by libel; however, despite threats to sue, Trump never followed through, and the backlash sparked even more reader interest than before. It even sparked interest (and possibly confusion) in a previously published book by the same name, which experienced an uptick in sales. In response to the cease and desist order—and perhaps as a way to avoid a lawsuit and make a political statement (a great marketing tactic)—Henry Holt & Co. expedited the book’s pub date to appease salivating readers chomping at the bit to get the inside scoop on the White House.
Trump insists the book’s contents are untruthful, a claim supported by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who says the book is “trash” and filled with “mistake after mistake.” Even the New York Times, a periodical that skews left, called the book “liberal catnip” in a review by Jonathan Martin.
Fact-checking isn’t the publisher’s legal responsibility, however—it’s the author’s. Many publishers only minimally fact-check—unless it’s an imprint of Crown Publishing, the company probably doesn’t have the money or workforce to fact-check and instead makes the author sign contracts saying the contents of the work are true to the best of their knowledge.
I’m not sure whether Wolff is right or Trump is right, but I do wonder whether Henry Holt should be held accountable or not. Publishers used to be the curators of literature for the public, but now with the internet and self-publishing, anyone can make their work available to the public. For free (for now). Instead, publishers now attract authors because of their social capital and their ability to let the books they publish see the light of day through the multitudes of paper and e-ink present in the ether. Although the publisher is not legally held accountable for fact-checking, they are responsible for their own reputation.
Regardless of whether Wolff’s book is libel or an accurate portrait of Trump’s White House (my guess is we won’t know for a while), by expediting the pub-date and moving forward with Fire and Fury, Henry Holt was able to do something that’s becoming harder and harder these days—something that the American Association of Publishers holds in high regard: exercising and protecting our First Amendment rights, the backbone of US democracy. And so what if the driving reason behind publishing was to capitalize on a money-making trend? Henry Holt isn’t alone.
Even with this silver lining, I’m left wondering—surrounded by shouts of “FAKE NEWS” and threats to net neutrality—whether we’re on the brink of experiencing that same mantra that keeps public school history teachers employed. We’re told that we learn history so we can make sure it doesn’t repeat itself. But there’s this tickle in the back of my brain when I read certain words written by Jonathan Martin in his book review:
Then there is the sheer outlandishness of the Trump era: When most anything is plausible it is also printable, but that does not necessarily mean you are getting it right.
I read that, and I scratch my head, feeling a strange sense of Laroussian déjà vu, wondering if the people in these history classrooms fifty years ago were busy daydreaming of money and power instead of paying attention. Publishers, exercise and protect our rights, but let’s also be wary of these traps.