Saturday, July 28, 2007

1421 and the duties of a publisher (paca)

Geoff Wade, a professor at the Nat. U. of Singapore, stopped by my blog entry on 1421 and left a comment. He maintains a web site debunking various aspects of the 1421 book, as well as, you know, doing professor stuff. (Dr. Wade, I'm a doctoral student and so I'm just being silly.) He also left a link to an Australian documentary which, well, let's just call it harrowing, about the book.

I'm not going to wade into the debate about the book itself as all I know is from reading the Wikipedia entry and browsing Dr. Wade's web site. However, as a number of authors read this blog, this whole scene raises a lot of difficult questions about the role of a publisher. I can't help but think of the firestorm about Frey's 'memoir' A Million Little Pieces from a few months back where he basically rewrote real life to make a better story and yet persisted in calling it a memoir. Many people criticized Frey's publisher for not checking that Frey wasn't making things up. No matter what you believe on that, I had assumed the publisher then stopped selling it when they discovered parts of it weren't real. However, a few weeks ago, I saw it sitting right there on a table at B&N still. The publisher has added a rather odd prelude about what memoir is and Frey adds a preface about reality and perception in the mind...; i.e., they make up something short to pretend they care about the issue and then go right back to selling the same thing they were before.

In the case of 1421, at a minimum, the publisher didn't care if the history they were publishing was accurate, if the Aussie documentary is to be believed. (I would have been happier if more of the scholars they quote to debunk the book were not participating in the 1421 debunking web site, but that's a separate issue.) Should the publisher care? A lot of questions pop up. First up, this is being sold as history, not as historical fiction; so there is an implicit claim to readers that the facts in here are largely true, or at least decently established according to the methods of the day. But if we accept this as a duty of a historical publisher, what does it mean precisely in practice? An acquisitions manager at a commercial publishing house has no ability to assess the claims. Are we ready to claim that nonfiction publishers must go through the anonymous review process that an academic journal goes through? Text book houses do in fact do this. However, external review for both journals and text book houses is strictly optional. We do it because it lends credibility to the work we publish, but nothing makes us do it. And academia has always used some research that has never been reviewed. Periodically an unpublished manuscript of a researcher circulates for years before it is published. This is actually increasing. In my field of linguistics, there is an archive established for a certain phonological theory that houses papers that are quite widely read, but no one reviews them, and they vary in quality from some notes that the linguist wanted to get thoughts on to extraordinary works of scholarship.

Anyawy, I'm not yet prepared to claim that national law should require external review either for academic journals or for the publisher of 1421. But if we agree that this is the case, what is to stop someone from making up the most outlandish claims just to sell books, as looks likely in this case? Can the market ever stop this from happening? One can imagine that if people who enjoy reading history books learn that one publisher's books are completely untrustworthy, then they might stop buying them. However, only a minority of readers ever check the publisher before purchasing a book. Also, is it the role of a publisher to only provide some semblance of the truth, or are they simply supposed to get stuff out there that people want to buy and then let the customer decide on quality? Part of me chooses the latter, but these fake claims actually do cause harm to people, so....

I don't know. It's all quite interesting and I am afraid my questions wander more than pierce.

As a final note, the 1421 author appears to have some new hypotheses, one of which is that the Maori of New Zealand are descended from Melanesians and perhaps Chinese people (actually the claim wasn't completely clear). As a linguist this seems utterly improbable. The problem is the Maori language. It's quite clearly Polynesian. I don't have the exact percentages on hand, but a majority of the vocabulary is easily seen as connected to Hawaiian. Now, Chinese is a completely different language family. Maori is as close to Chinese as Russian is to Choctaw. There's a little better shot with the mysterious Melanesian inheritance. Most melanesian languages are at least in the same overall family as Polynesian -- they are usually Austronesian languages. (The Austronesian language family seems to have originated in Taiwan several thousand years ago and stretches from Madagascar through parts of Papua New Guinea (that island is actually divided between Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages) into Melanesia, the Phillipines, Micronesia and all the way to Hawaii and Easter Island.) I haven't read the exact cultures and languages that the 1421 author is claiming, but I can't see how there is any timeline in which a non-Polynesian language evolves magically in the same way that the Polynesian languages did.

Well, I don't really know what I am talking about here. I do language acquisition and intonation, not Austronesian historical work. I just have a hunch that the 1421 author didn't even bother to make up a way for the languages to work. But maybe he did. Maybe it's on page 422.



writtenwyrdd said...

I recall reading Donnelly's book on Atlantis, where he says things like, there are similarities between certain words meaning the same thing in the Old World and the New, therefore Atlantis must be the common factor.

I suppose there are a lot of people who read something like that and just accept it instead of scratching their heads at the false logic inherent in the proposition...

I now want to read that 1421 just to laugh... But first, I must find it used.

writtenwyrdd said...

Also, paca, what about the mitochondrial dna work that's being done? I bet that disproves a lot of what the 1421 author discusses.

Geoff Wade said...

Thanks Pacapaca,
You write a lot of sense. Just a small correction. The 1421exposed website is maintained by Michael Ross in New Zealand, and is contributed to by a range of perosns around the world.

Best wishes
Geoff Wade