My Schadenfreude Phaser is Set to “Meh”
People are (rather gleefully, I suspect) sending me this story about conservative writer Jonah Goldberg getting dinged for the jacket flap bio of his latest book, which incorrectly states that Goldberg has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer. In fact it appears he’s been twice submitted for consideration, which involves no special skill other than filling out an application and sending the $50 fee. When called on it, both Goldberg and his publisher said “whoops, that’s an error” and backtracked on it, both suggesting it was an innocent mistake.
Well, it’s definitely a mistake. I’m not sure it was “innocent” in the sense of “unintentional,” although it might be in the sense of “non-malicious,” since no one gets hurt when Goldberg overinflates his accomplishments. But as publishing sins go, it’s pretty venial. It’s not like plagiarism.
Also, from a certain pathetic point of view, it’s not an actual lie. It’s stupid, and it’s something you can get called on so easily that it’s foolish to do it. But just as Bill Clinton wanted to parse what “is” is, Goldberg appears to have been hanging his hat on what the word “nominated” means.
In this case Goldberg seems to have been using the word “nominated” in the sense of “proposed for consideration,” which if you’re a word dork who hauls out the dictionary every time someone points out you’re using a word in a non-conventional manner, is not incorrect: Goldberg’s publishers did propose him (and/or his work) by filling out the forms and sending along the money. Goldberg’s initial response to being called on his use of the word “nominated” in at least one of his various bios — “Nominated by the Tribune syndicate. Never said I was a finalist. There’s a distinction” — makes it clear that’s why Goldberg went with the wording.
And in his defense, he’s not alone. I’ve had people proudly note to me that they’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (again, by a publisher sending in an application) or for Hugos or Nebulas (by a member of the voting pool offering a recommendation and/or submitting their name or work on the initial nominating ballot) or for other awards. Again, in a strict dictionary sense, they’re not wrong. It’s a nomination — they or their work has been named for consideration.
In the practical, real world sense, however, it’s totally incorrect; the common usage of the “nominated” when in comes to awards is those works that have made a short list prior to the naming of a winner (or, in the case of the Pulitzer and a few other awards, noted as being part of the final selection pool after the award is announced). What’s more, I rather suspect a large number of the people who announce their work is “nominated” in the dictionary sense are well aware that people who see the word in the context of award immediately go to the “short list” meaning of the word. Which is why they use it at all — or at the very least allow it not to be corrected.
This is, incidentally, why it doesn’t pay to be a dictionary dork if you don’t understand that dictionary definitions are descriptive, not prescriptive; you can be literally correct about the definition of a word, but still be contextually wrong and look silly in the real world. I mean, look: I’m pretty certain at least a couple of people nominated Fuzzy Nation for the Best Novel Hugo Award this year. If I went around saying it was nominated for Best Novel because of that, I’d have my ass handed to me. And rightly so, because it’s not correct, even if by the dictionary definition I’ve been nominated. The dictionary is not your friend in situations like these.
Why didn’t Goldberg correct this until he got called on it? You got me. I don’t buy that Goldberg was unaware of the notations. He probably didn’t write his jacket bio copy (I don’t write mine) but he almost certainly got jacket proofs, and it’s incumbent on him to correct errors. This would have been an easy fix. The obvious answer is that he didn’t correct it because he didn’t want to or that he genuinely believed that it wasn’t a big deal to say “nominated” when “submitted for consideration” was more correct. Maybe to his audience it doesn’t matter, or he didn’t believe his audience would know anything about the Pulitzer process. Which may be correct since he was ultimately called on it by another journalist. It was still kind of dumb of him.
My problem is that I can’t work up a real sense of schadenfreude on this because, really, it’s just kind of amateur hour. I’m no fan of Goldberg, who strikes me as a slap-dash researcher and whose political rhetoric runs the gamut from “fatuous” to “shallow,” but the dude’s been in the grown-up publishing world for a couple of decades now and has shipped hundreds of thousands of books. You’ll likely never see me write these words in the context of Goldberg ever again, but he’s better than this sort of penny-ante silliness, or at least he should know better. It’s like watching an NBA player trip over untied shoelaces. It’s not as much fun as it could be.