Book Review: Naomi Wolf’s Outrages against the world of fact

Naomi Wolf loves suppressed books; she loves them so much that she’s managed to suppress her own. One way of extinguishing a brilliant idea is to smother it under an enormous quantity of misinformation. Another is to discredit the author. In her new book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, Wolf seems to have accomplished both.

Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

The signal error, grabbing headlines immediately upon the book’s release, was her claim that “several dozen” men inVictorian England were executed for sodomy. They were not: the last were hanged in 1835. Wolf’s error was the result of an understandable but embarrassing misreading of the legal arcana: taking “death recorded” to indicate a completed execution rather than the mere documentation of a formal sentence that the judge expected to see commuted. The goof was made known to Wolf in a most public way, in the midst of a BBC interview. This led to the recall of the first British printing and the delayed release of the US edition. Some observers took the opportunity to soak in the schadenfreude, but I suspect a larger number started quietly humming “There but for Fortune.” I know I did.

Wolf’s hypothesis is intriguing and deserving of more serious investigation than it receives in her book. Outrages takes the life of John Addington Symonds as “a lens through which we may see a greater cultural and political struggle.” Building on research for her dissertation at Oxford, Wolf argues that “the defining moment” in official persecution of male-male sex, and with it the forging of homosexuality as an identity, did not arrive with the prosecution of Oscar Wilde in 1895, but “decades earlier.” Outrages depicts the official campaign against sodomy as a scapegoating tactic to divert attention from feminist complaints about the improprieties of straight men; further, it argues that the legal and social concern with homosexuality was partly developed through and then served to facilitate the period’s increasingly censorious attitude toward literature.

If true, this analysis would mark a novel and profound development in our understanding of the sexual politics of the Victorian period, and therefore also in our genealogy of sexuality and the politics surrounding it. Linking the policing of ideas as they are presented in published works to the conceptual consolidation of dissident sexual behaviors into distinct identities would qualify as a remarkable insight. Unfortunately, Wolf’s book, as written, cannot be taken as proving this thesis. It is so error-ridden that after a while one begins to question even its uncontroversial claims.

All writers make mistakes. The broader the sweep of one’s work, the greater the opportunity to brush up against the limits of one’s knowledge. In general, I believe such errors should be allowed some grace provided that they are not the result of dishonesty or bias, are not libelous, and do not affect the author’s underlying argument. Nevertheless, even mercy has its limits. An accumulation of similar errors starts to look less like normal fallibility and more like a reckless indifference to the facts. Hence the outrage over Outrages.

I confess that I read the book quickly and casually, not intending a review. Yet as I went through its pages, I noted numerous errors of varying degrees and types of significance. It is, for instance, absolutely trivial which of Oscar Wilde’s hair styles preceded the other; it is less trivial that is wife died after he was released from prison and not before. In both cases, Wolf reverses the chronology. Neither point is crucial to her argument, but the pattern is disconcerting. It is likewise not essential that the term homosexual was coined by Kertbeny and not “Ketelby,” as Wolf would have it. Likely that is just an unfortunate and embarrassing typo. These things happen, and we probably shouldn’t make too much of them.

More fatal is Wolf’s mistaken assumption that the British law barring “Gross Indecency” between men (introduced in 1885) replaced the prohibition on sodomy, and thus “restricted sentences for sodomy to two years at most,” and “brought to an end an even more catastrophic legal situation: the sentences of ten, fifteen, or twenty years, or even a lifetime, and the executions…” In fact, Gross Indecency, the lesser offense, referred to homosexual acts other than sodomy, and both laws remained in force well into the twentieth century.

As this is a key argument in Outrages, the details are important, and worth getting right: Section 12(1) of Britain’s Sexual Offenses Act of 1956 prohibited “buggery,” replacing Section 61 of the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act. Section 13 of the 1956 law prohibited “gross indecency,” replacing Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. This information is readily available to anyone who looks and is broadly discussed in the literature. It also completely undercuts Wolf’s contention that the prohibition on Gross Indecency represented a reform.

This pattern of error is worse than unfortunate and something closer to tragic, given the remarkable hypothesis that drives Outrages. Responsibility, or irresponsibility, obviously begins with Wolf herself, but it can hardly end there. Writers are only human, after all, whereas universities and publishing houses are institutions with vaster resources and greater duties. That Wolf was granted a doctorate on the strength of such badly flawed research reflects less on her knowledge and abilities than on the advisors and committees whose entire function is to know better.

For decades, the trend in publishing has been to eliminate jobs whenever possible, including those of fact-checkers. These tasks have then fallen, without additional support or compensation, to the very writers whose facts need to be checked.   Risking strict accuracy for the sake of cutting costs follows a kind of market logic, at least in the short-term. However, one might think that after the recall of the first printing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would have subjected the book to a thorough and indeed ruthless examination, delaying publication by months if not years. Instead, as Wolf told an audience in Wales, they altered two pages (71 and 72), removing the most blatant statements about “several dozen” queer corpses. But even this excision was done ineptly, leaving in place at least eight passing references to late-Victorian executions for sodomy.

“In the context of any literary marketplace, whether 150 years ago or today, an abandoned print run is a catastrophe,” Wolf wrote in Outrages, in reference to Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads. In the case of Outrages, however, the greater catastrophe was perhaps to re-release the book too hastily.

Author Bio

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, and the forthcoming Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde.