Maybe This Book Shouldn’t Get Published Yet
It’s a creepy premise for a book. A motel owner peeps at a bunch of people in his establishment over several decades. Supposedly, it’s a true story, and it’s creepy that it happened. It’s creepy that an author wants to write a detailed book about it. It’s creepy that a publishing company wants to put this book out there.
The potentially creepy book is The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese. Talese has been a respected writer for a long time. Decades ago, what he wrote (according to this Washington Post article) was considered New Journalism, where the author combines reporting with writing techniques used in fiction. A lot could go wrong when you combine journalism and fiction-writing techniques. I prefer the facts in journalism, and the fiction-writing techniques in fiction.
Now, just before the book’s release, Talese has found out that the primary source for The Voyeur Motel, notes taken by the voyeur himself, might not have been truthful about all the details. I’m not a journalist (and I don’t want my blog to revel in creepiness), so you can read the details here and an update here if you want. Instead of delaying the book and making sure there are no other surprises, the publishers are going ahead with the July 12 publishing date.
It’s probably not a good idea for an author, even a New Journalist, to rely on one source for a story. I’m no reporter, but I always heard that a story was supposed to corroborated by two or three sources.
When I was growing up, a common saying was: “Trust but verify.”
To me, that meant “distrust but verify,” but I understood. You don’t want to act like you’re distrustful. You act like you believe your witness/note writer/interviewee and then go back and check things out. That way it’s non-confrontational.
A few years ago, Rolling Stone magazine got burned by a rape story where the reporter didn’t verify some facts. The reporter lost her credibility, and so did Rolling Stone.
Last decade, news anchor Dan Rather blew his whole reputation on a document that turned out to be forged. If he’d verified instead of just trusting, he might not have damaged his career.
It’s a lot easier today to check facts than it used to be, so I’m puzzled why professionals don’t do it. I can understand why students don’t do it; students are supposed to be lazy. But professionals are getting paid. When money is on the line, you want to get it right… unless there’s a deadline to meet or an agenda to set.
Once a journalist is caught getting sloppy, it’s tough to trust him/her again. The first goal of the journalist should be to get it right. When the journalist gets caught getting sloppy once, it’s natural to wonder how many other times the author got careless but didn’t get caught.
Even if we knew for certain that The Voyeur Motel was 100% accurate, I’m not sure I’d want to read it. This is one of those situations where it’s okay to be aware of the basics that something bad happened but we don’t really want to know the details.
I’m not saying this book shouldn’t ever be published. I’m just suggesting that since it’s so creepy that they’d better make sure it’s accurate.
This is a candidate for my Books Too Embarrassing To Read In Public list. There’s no way I’d want to walk around carrying The Voyeur Motel with me. I don’t want to be the guy who’s seen reading a book about a peeping tom. It’s not as bad as being a peeping tom, but no man wants to be associated with the idea of being a peeping tom.
If I were a publisher, I’d use this controversy as an excuse NOT to publish this book. This book just seems like a bad idea, and now there’s proof that this bad idea has been poorly executed. Sometimes poorly executed bad ideas can work, but usually not if the ideas are creepy, and especially if the facts might be wrong.
What do you think? How accurate should a New Journalist be? How creepy can a book be before you decide not to read it? Would you read The Voyeur’s Motel in public?