WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It is that time of year when critics in various fields of intellectual endeavor bestow their awards for "the best." There are the Pulitzers, the Emmys, the Oscars. Perhaps less well-known, but surely more exacting in their standards, are the Cooglers. Critics of a contrarian cast of mind also suffer the urge to solemnize.
Pulitzers, Emmys and Oscars are the awards conferred by conventional critics responding to that mainstream American quest, "Why not the best?" We contrarians sitting on the committee that confers the J. Gordon Coogler Award pursue a different quest, namely, "Why not the worst?" And so we confer Cooglers upon the worst: the worst book, the worst journalism.
I have served on the Coogler panel for years and endured some excruciatingly bad books, both fiction and non-fiction. This year, the Coogler Award for the Worst Book of 2001 breaks new ground. Usually, my colleagues and I have conferred it in recognition of ghastly prose, or imbecilic analyses, or a preposterous thesis, or all of the above. Cognizant, however, of an emerging trend in American intellectual life, we have wanted this year to go beyond mere bad writing and give especial consideration to America's intellectual trend-setters -- the elite intellectuals who are on the cutting-edge of literary technique. That is to say, we have focused on our country's growing number of talented plagiarists and hoaxers.
All sensitive readers of the public prints must know by now that many of the most celebrated writers in the land steal other writers' material and often simply make things up -- for instance, footnotes, archival evidence and even their own biographies (remember Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis' apocryphal revelations of his Vietnam and civil rights exploits). News stories and feature articles in our most prestigious publications have often seemed larded with nonsense, but now many renowned editors are admitting to having published as fact stories that are almost total fiction.
Just last week, The New York Times admitted that one of its prized writers, Michael Finkel, published as factual reporting a story in The New York Times Magazine that was sheer fabrication, a tear-jerker about an impoverished Ivory Coast laborer. Thus the Times joins the ranks of such venerable publications as The New Republic (Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit), the New Yorker (Rodney Rothman) and Slate (Jay Forman) in admitting to having published stories that were humbug -- and, I might add, obvious humbug to any readers haunted by a skeptical mind. The Slate story was a beaut, claiming that in the Florida Keys outdoorsmen cast fishing lines into trees and reeled in shrieking monkeys. That was the on-the-scene report of Forman. Where is he now?
Skeptical readers will also recall the columnists who so often get caught passing off their infantile fantasies as real people ground down by cruel America. Remember Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe, gone from the Globe now but still huffing and puffing on cable television. Recall Michael Daly's resignation from the New York Daily News for passing off a fictional character as real flesh and blood or Patricia Smith's sad departure from the Boston Globe.
As I say, these hoaxers are not necessarily discredited by being exposed. Many go on to higher things, for plagiarism and fraud are becoming marks of genius among some of America's most famous intellectuals. Barnicle survives as a TV sage. Daly went on to New York magazine. Smith, though always dubious, had been nominated for Pulitzers. Then there is the inimitable Michael G. Gartner, who in 1993 resigned as president of NBC News after acknowledging that one of his news teams had broadcast a hoax. He left for a small Iowa newspaper, where four years later the Pulitzer Committee awarded him a Pulitzer for "editorial writing."
An essential technique in this growing intellectual movement seems to be an aptitude for plagiarism. At this very hour, illustrious historians are admitting to repeated acts of plagiarism -- for instance, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin is actually boasting of her plagiarism as the mark of a very hard-working "wife and mother." That is how she put it in a late-January soliloquy in Time. Doubtless she will remain an esteemed figure on the Sunday morning talk shows and on PBS. And so it is that this year, in recognition of this promising trend in our intellectual life, the J. Gordon Coogler Award for 2001 goes to the most gifted of the New Charlatians, Professor Michael Bellesiles, author of "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture."
The book won the Bancroft Award last April -- the most prestigious award in American history -- despite its fabricated sources, misstated historical events and implausible thesis, and its author's inability to defend its integrity. For over a year, ever more of the book's deceptions have been exposed, yet the Bancroft still glitters on Bellesiles' chest. He stands by his story as adamantly as Alger Hiss once stood by his. And his thesis really is implausible.
Bellesiles claims that up through the mid-19th century, guns were relatively rare in America. Apparently, the early American held off angry Indians and secured dinner for his frontier family by resorting to wholesome fisticuffs, perhaps heaving a few stones at the passing fauna and coaxing a nearby war party to calm down. And Bellesiles defends his position by citing documents that no other scholars can find. The book is a nonsense and a fraud. It wins the Coogler for the year 2001.
Let the carpers complain that the book was actually published in the year 2000. To us modernists on the Coogler Committee, it all depends on the meaning of the word year. Besides, "Arming America" came out in paperback in 2001