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16 June 2011

Why do reputable publishers keep printing this stuff?

Every time a publisher produces unsourced dross, such as Annie Jacobsen's Area 51, their reliability

By Guy Walters

Last month, Orion published a book by one Annie Jacobsen called Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base. Normally, books that claim to tell the “uncensored history of America’s top secret military base” are swiftly consigned to the Junk History pile, largely because stories about flying saucers and Roswell aliens are only for credulous rednecks holed up in cabins with a year’s supply of tinned food.

However, at first glance, Jacobsen’s book seems to be somewhat different, and has earned her an interview on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who is normally no friend of bullshitters. Even the once mighty New York Times has found enough space in its books pages to give her a review, declaring the book to be “levelheaded” and “an assertive account, revelatory but also mystifying”. And, in the main, the book seems to be just as the Times reviewer says – “a straightforward investigative book about aviation and military history”.

So far, so good. Great, in fact. How refreshing, how nice to have a book about Area 51 that is free from the normal sci-fi dross. Area 51 does indeed merit serious historical and investigative research, and at last it appears that those of us who aren’t mad can enjoy a book about this most secret squirrel of real-life Batcaves. Full marks, then, to Ms Jacobsen and Orion for seeming to produce a history book. [Note to Orion’s publicists: You’re not allowed to quote from this paragraph.]

But I speak too soon. It was all going so well, right up until page 370, when we are told that that the aircraft which is supposed to have crashed in Roswell was – get this! – a Nazi flying saucer sent over by the Soviets to create a mass panic of alien invasion. But, wait! There’s more. The pilots were in fact “biologically and/or surgically reengineered children” produced on the orders of Joseph Stalin by none other than – ta dah! – Joseph Mengele.

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Ms Jacobsen is adamant that the source for her tall story is completely reliable. “This,” she told CBS News, “is information that came to me from the source, who I absolutely believe (and) stand by. I’ve spoken with him since the book has been published…and what he said was that the child-sized aviators had been the byproduct of this horrific human experimentation program by Stalin, in collaboration with the doctor from Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele.”

Yeah right, Annie. I’m not going to deal with her absurd claims here, which have already been nicely rebutted by Dwayne A Day at The Space Review and Bill Weir on ABC News Nightline. (N.B. key exchange in that interview: Jacobsen: “Bill, you’re taking this way out into left field.” Weir: “I am?”)

What really concerns me is why grown-up publishers such as Orion allow this junk to make it onto the page. What on earth made John Parsley, Jacobsen’s editor at Little, Brown in New York, think that these claims were worth printing? Jacobsen writes in her acknowledgements that “What I learned from John about storytelling is immeasurable”. You’re telling me.

Is the answer really as simple as the need for sales? I suppose it must be. A “straightforward investigative book about aviation and military history” presumably sells less well than a “Mengele Nazi Stalin UFO Area 51 Crash!” book. If this is the case, then publishers like Orion are being remarkably short-termist. Ultimately, the majority of those who read history want it to be accurate and reliable, and every time a publisher produces unsourced dross, their reliability quotient goes down a notch. Believe me, Mr Parsley it does, and that’s why I’m naming you here, because it’s your fault for letting it through.

Editors must realise that as well as being aware of the bottom line, they also have an important cultural duty to ensure what gets printed under the classification of history is true, or likely to be true. They are in a position to help clear up Junk History, and to create an environment in which readers can trust what they read. These things matter, they really do.

Guy Walters is a historian and journalist. He is currently working on his tenth book, a new history of the Great Escape, and is also studying for a PhD at Newcastle University. His website can be found here