September 1, 2004 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone provide an example in which an author creates a work that is later shown to have an fairly obvious flaw or factual error, that the author eventually acknowledges? I'm more specifically looking for the author's reaction, reply or excuse when presented with this error. The older, the better.
posted by milovoo to Writing & Language (25 answers total)
Are you thinking of factual scientific examples [such as cold fusion] or works of fiction [such as Star Wars "things in space don't make noise when they explode"] sorts of errors, or maybe something more along the lines of large scale intentional fraud like the Stephen Glass story at the New Republic, which was made into a movie. The DVD has the amazing interview with Glass himself talking about why he completely fabricated stories and events. There are classic examples along the fraud line like Orson Welles' War of the Worlds or Johnathan Swift's fabrications, some of which were thought to be true reporting at the time.
posted by jessamyn at 10:41 AM on September 1, 2004

Not sure if this counts and unfortunately I don't know the author or the title, but a biography came out by a Holocaust survivor that was later proven to be completely fabricated. The edition that's out now has essays on the discovery. Perhaps someone can recall the title? I believe it was a bestseller on initial publication.
posted by dobbs at 10:42 AM on September 1, 2004

Are you thinking of factual scientific examples or works of fiction sorts of errors...

Fiction, or at least not science or religion (Dobbs' biography example is good). Science examples are easy to come by and religious and philosophical examples are too ambiguous, but mainly wondering about the author's reaction at being presented with these errors.
posted by milovoo at 10:50 AM on September 1, 2004

that whole Stephen Spender/David Leavitt thing might fit, but it's not clear whether Leavitt actually lied.
posted by amberglow at 11:08 AM on September 1, 2004

Well, I was going to say the Meditations, but Descartes never admitted the flaws in his logic.
posted by Grod at 11:11 AM on September 1, 2004

The saga of Arming America : the origins of a national gun culture by Michael Bellesiles seems to fit the bill. A summary of the whole sordid affair is here. The author's reaction to an Emory University report investigating his scholarship is here.
posted by initapplette at 11:36 AM on September 1, 2004

* some spoilers for PK Dick's Radio Free Albemuth

Another example comes to mind: Harlan Ellison published a series of books called Dangerous Visions. In one of them was a story by Philip K. Dick. In the intro, Ellison claimed that Dick had written the story while on acid. Dick then claimed that as a result, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were after him. He also denied that he was on acid when he wrote the story and he was mad that Ellison claimed he was. A few years later, Dick wrote a book in which both he and Ellison are characters (though I can't recall with certainty if he named the character Ellison, but the character did exactly what Harlan did). In that book (Radio Free Albemuth), the Ellison character is responsible for a shitstorm of trouble visited upon the Dick character from the authorities. In fact, unless my memory is completely fucked, Ellison's (the character's) actions lead to Dick's execution. Apparently Dick was quite furious about the Dangerous Visions Ordeal and what he insisted was a factual error in a fictional publication.
posted by dobbs at 11:45 AM on September 1, 2004

The book Dobbs refers to is Fragments by a man who called himself Binjamin Wilkomirski.

Also, I worked on the rerelease of the Bellesisles book, and his response pamphlet, so feel free to email me for more on that.

Finally, the New Press will be coming out with a book called Historians in Trouble that includes sections on claims of inaccuracy in historical works and the political ramifications of the fallout.
posted by dame at 12:23 PM on September 1, 2004

On the fiction front: In the Dark Tower series, Stephen King places Co-Op City in Brooklyn when it is, in fact, in the Bronx. He acknowledged this in On Writing and addresses it in the most recent installment of the series.

(Drop me a note if you want to know how, I am reluctant to draw ire by posting what might be a spoiler for someone.)
posted by gnomeloaf at 12:35 PM on September 1, 2004

McNamara's defense, then recantation of same, of war in Vietnam, maybe.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:38 PM on September 1, 2004

dame is correct. Fragments was the book I was thinking of.
posted by dobbs at 1:47 PM on September 1, 2004

Almost entirely not what you were looking for, but I have an older edition of Finnegans Wake which has several pages of errata actually bound into the back of the book.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 2:12 PM on September 1, 2004

I heard a speech by Arthur Golden, about his novel "Memoirs of a Geisha." He mentiomed that somewhere in the novel he described pineapples as "growing on trees." Someone later pointed out to him that pineapples don't grown on trees. His reaction was a sort of coy "oops."

Also, I can't find a reference to this (maybe someone else here can), but there's one Raymond Chandler novel that has such a complex plot (it might be "The Big Sleep") that after it was published, Chandler realized that there was he'd forgotten to explain a corpse.
posted by grumblebee at 3:00 PM on September 1, 2004

the woman whom golden interviewed before writing memoirs accused him of, at least, distorting the truth, if not outright lying. i could only find a couple articles and i remember her criticism being about on par with his having made it all up. i haven't seen any response from golden (other than brief mentions of his being "surprised"), but it's probably out there, somewhere.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:28 PM on September 1, 2004

grumblebee, yeah, it's The Big Sleep that has an unaccounted for corpse.
posted by dobbs at 3:36 PM on September 1, 2004

(it might be "The Big Sleep") that after it was published, Chandler realized that there was he'd forgotten to explain a corpse.

A famous story of the filming: Of the many corpses that turn up in The Big Sleep, one is that of Owen Taylor, a chauffeur, who is found dead in a water-logged Packard, "washing around off Lido Pier". Howard Hawks realized he had no idea of who killed him. The screenwriters couldn't figure it out. Finally, they sent a cable to Raymond Chandler himself, "Who killed Owen Taylor?" Chandler reportedly re-read his own novel, and cabled back, "I don't know." It is never cleared up, and adds to the ambiguity of the movie.

posted by milovoo at 3:46 PM on September 1, 2004

Personally, I loved the Contra Costa County Historical Society's rather acerbic response to Michael Bellesiles' claims that he used certain records from their collection as evidence in his book, when the aforementioned records had actually been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Moral of the story: never piss off a librarian. (Or a historian.)
posted by Asparagirl at 4:34 PM on September 1, 2004

Semi-related: In her autobiography, Agatha Christie rants about an editor who would not let her spell "cocoa" properly in one of her books. The editor insisted it was "coco," and no amount of Christie bringing in dictionaries or getting other opinions would change her. Christie said people came up to her for years and said "Agatha, I know you were never a good speller, but really, coco?"
posted by GaelFC at 5:19 PM on September 1, 2004

I remember there being a bit of a scandal about Farley Mowat's autobiographical book Never Cry Wolf. here's a little about it (about halfway down or so), but I don't really feel like looking up much else. I googled for "Farley Mowat" "Never Cry Wolf" scandal. That should get you started.
posted by ODiV at 7:24 PM on September 1, 2004

There is the famous incident of Margaret Mead and the (purported) Somoan libertines. She didn't get a chance to respond, though, because the debunking occurred a few years after she died. I think the field of anthropology was fairly seriously affected by this, and the reactions of the field in general (who, I think, swallowed the Somoan's claims hook line and sinker, just like Mead) might be the kind of reaction you're interested in.

More at wikipedia, and probably a lot of other places on the web.
posted by advil at 8:30 PM on September 1, 2004

Thanks ODiV, you also reminded me of the Grey Owl controversy,
which I hadn't thought of in this context.

And a lot of other great answers, thanks.
posted by milovoo at 8:31 PM on September 1, 2004

A famous example is William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies. Since Piggy is nearsighted, his glasses are concave and could not be used to light a fire. (This is discussed in John Sutherland's Where was Rebecca Shot? Puzzles, Curiosities and Conundrums in Modern Fiction, which I strongly recommend.) As I recall, Golding acknowledged the error but made no attempt to revise the novel.

Another classic example from detective fiction is Dorothy L. Sayers's Unnatural Death (1927). Several medical experts objected that the criminal's modus operandi (injecting an air bubble into a vein to cause a heart attack) would not work as a reliable and undetectable method of murder. Sayers refused to acknowledge the mistake.

I know a Catholic priest who has written several not-v-good novels under a pseudonym. He has little or no sexual experience, and a mutual friend, who read the manuscript of the first novel, told me that several of the sex scenes, as originally written, were anatomically impossible. The published version still has one female character with "breasts like soup plates" and another with "breasts like ice-cream cones".
posted by verstegan at 2:16 AM on September 2, 2004

In this month's Empire magazine Frank Darabont jokingly ascribes Tim Robbins' character's ability to reattach his poster to the wall after he makes his escape in Shawshank Redemption to "movie magic"
posted by biffa at 4:09 AM on September 2, 2004

Famous mistake in Robinson Carusoe: Carusoe swims out to the wreck to salvage what he can. He is naked but mananges to fill his "pockets." The mind reels.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 2:52 PM on September 2, 2004

The latest edition of To The Finland Station by Edmund Wilson has an author's preface where he admits that he may have been a bit starry eyed about Lenin.
posted by clockwork at 8:28 AM on September 3, 2004

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