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.

30 Comments on “My Schadenfreude Phaser is Set to “Meh””

  1. Of all the objectionable things about Jonah Goldberg, that’s sort of the least out of a massive pile of hate and bile.

  2. So… what confuses me then is, why actively mention something as pedestrian as a submittal if there was no intent to pass if off as something more substantial…?

  3. I guess it’s kinda like a writer who says he has a “background in science” when he writes Cliff Notes-like books for lay people and has never actually worked (or seriously studied) the broad discipline.

  4. As the article says “It’s not uncommon for Pulitzer entrants to claim to be nominees.”, I am sure there are many to do it.
    Having said that, I have never heard of this guy. Josh why the lack of tolerance and Goldberg-phobic reaction?

  5. The Hugo FAQ attempts to unambiguously specify that you can’t say you are nominated unless you make the short list.

    See the last question here:

    Of course since there isn’t a submission form where the author promises to abide by the rules of the competition, I don’t suppose the Hugo committee can actually stop you from doing this.

  6. Scorpius:

    Actually, I do have a background in science, having written in the field, successfully, for more than a decade. That does require a substantial amount of research and the ability to understand the field. I don’t claim to have the same depth of knowledge of individual disciplines in the field as professionals, which is why I say I have a “background.” That you don’t appear to want to accept my experience in the field without an academic degree is neither here nor there, especially as it doesn’t appear that you’ve read any of my work in that area (actual scientists have, however; they think it’s pretty good). I don’t have an academic degree in Creative Writing or Film either, and if you want to suggest I don’t have a background in those, I’m just going to sit here and laugh my ass off at you for a good, long time.

    Now, if I said my science writing had been nominated for a Pulitzer because it has been submitted for consideration by my publisher, well, then it would be kind of like what Goldberg did.

  7. There’s a “Pushcart Prize”? Is that the literary version of the Ig Nobel?

    *googles it* Oh, so there is. I apologize to any nominees/recipients of the Pushcart Prize that I might have offended for implying that the similarity between the sound of “pushcart” and the sound of “pulitzer” might make an uninformed reader believe the Pushcart Prize was a satire.

  8. Whether you have a degree or other credentials is neither here nor there. Whether you actively used the scientific method, outside of a classroom, to investigate and explain physical phenomenon in a novel way (replicating someone else’s experiment doesn’t count) where you are held accountable for your methods and reasoning does. Whether you do it professionally or as a hobby doesn’t matter also.

    Edison had no formal training being a dropout but he was still a scientist. You have a background as a science writer.

    There are many people who write about the military who’ve never served, we call these people ” military writers” and laugh our asses off if they say they have a “background in the military”. Or war writers who’ve never been near a background saying they have a “background in war”.

  9. I’d be far more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if this was the first time he claimed such a thing, unfortunately he claimed the same thing at the National Review way back in 2008. Whoops.

  10. Scorpius:

    ” Whether you actively used the scientific method, outside of a classroom, to investigate and explain physical phenomenon in a novel way (replicating someone else’s experiment doesn’t count) where you are held accountable for your methods and reasoning does.”

    So people excavating fossils at a paleontological dig aren’t doing science? What about people parsing data from astronomical observations? How interestingly narrow, your definition of what science is.

    Likewise, your attempt to dismiss any science done in a classroom is transparently stupid and summarily dismissed.

    When you’re trying to stack a deck, Scorpius, try not to be so obvious about it.

    That said, it’s obvious you and I have a fundamental disagreement about what “background” means in this particular context. You’re leaning toward practical experience in the field; I’m leaning toward the ability to follow the research and understand the field. I have little practical experience in the field, although I will note that fossils I have excavated — outside of a classroom, on a weeks-long paleontological field trip — currently reside in a museum. I certainly have been following science all of my life, in rather more than cursory fashion, and that understanding of science — that background, if you will, makes me ideal as a science writer.

    I accept that you don’t find my background in the field sufficient, but, honestly, Scorpius, ask me if I care. I know almost nothing about you, including your own qualifications to accurately assess what constitutes a sufficient “background” in the field. Editors and publishers who publish science books, on the other hand, appear to find it sufficient, and that’s what works for me.

  11. scorpious – as a scientist, I have zero problem with John saying he has a “background in science”. He has studied the topic and produced work that accurately conveys scientific information, and been paid for doing so. He is not making any claim to experience or expertise beyond that to which he is entitled. So, thanks for defending the Walls of Science and all, but really: we’re good here.

  12. Acting in my official capacity as a scientist by degree, training, and trade: I hereby knight John Scalzi as having a “background” in science.
    And in bacon (although my credentials there are sketchier).

  13. Scorpius, as a scientist in training (Ph.D. student) I don’t have a problem with John saying he has a “background in science”. The meaning of this phrase is a bit context dependent and could be made to be misleading, absolutely. The trouble is, I don’t think John’s even used that particular phrase outside of this comment thread, although I could be wrong. When I google “Scalzi ‘Background in Science’ ” the first three links seem to be from posts that YOU have made using the phrase “background in science” on this blog. I’m ok with non-physicists writing popular science books on physics, non-biologists writing popular science books on biology, and so on, as long as information in the book is presented accurately. If there’s some particular statement made in a (non-fiction) book that John wrote that you have issue with, by all means tell us. I don’t see a problem, otherwise.

  14. I think Scorpius is transparently playing political games, as usual, to “punish” OGH for daring to criticize a conservative.

  15. Another difference between “background in science” and “Pulitzer nominated” is that Pulitzer nominated is trying to cash in on the rep of the Pulitzer prize, whereas “background in science” is just descriptive. People are free to make silly claims about what the phrase means and only risk looking foolish.

    But the term “Pulitzer nominee” is defined by the Pulitzer committee. They’ve got rules about who can claim to be one. Not surprisingly, Goldberg doesn’t qualify.

    Oh, and his “the publisher did it” claim rings pretty hollow, considering his bio at the National Review Online made the same untrue claim.

  16. So where do we stand on putting “Six-time winner of the Hugo Award” on the cover of your novel when none of them are for writing.

  17. scorpius really is using a very narrow definition of “science”. By his lights, I wouldn’t count as having a background in science either, despite the degree thingy and several years running a neuropharmacology lab, because I wasn’t in control of what hypotheses were tested or experiments run.

    So I guess he’d object to me using “background in science” on my popular science articles too – if I were to do such a thing. Would I only count as having a background in martial arts if I’ve beaten someone to a pulp in a real fight?

  18. I can’t work up a real sense of schadenfreude on this because, really, it’s just kind of amateur hour.

    Which about sums up my feelings towards Jonah Goldberg in general. I’ve seen papers by first year college students that displayed more academic rigor and a better sense of how to structure a logical argument. It’s hard to get worked up about his thesis when it amounts to, “people whose ideas I disagree with are Holocaust Denying 9/11 pedophiles.”

  19. “Background in science” != “experience as a scientist”. You can be a good science writer without having worked as a scientist, the same way you can be a good political writer without having been a politician. (BTW, I have a PhD in a LaTeX-using discipline.)

  20. Keith Edwards:
    I’m reasonably sure Goldberg’s audience isn’t driven by desire for academic rigor or logical arguments, nor are his employers.

  21. @Kevin Williams – bingo! I was going to jump in here & tell John he was wasting his time because the argument was being made simply because it was a conservative writer. As for little Jonah – trivialities like truth and honesty and accuracy are all easily sacrificed in service of his mission. He is simply another member of the lucky sperm club, born to a mom already on the wingnut welfare.

  22. Scorpius, as a former scientist my opinion is you should go troll elsewhere. Although I do enjoy it when John slices and dices your consistently weak sauce arguments. So. Meh.

  23. @anonydude May 9 4:42 “What prize do they give for pedantry?”

    It’s not really a prize. More of an award.

  24. /slowclap

    @Frankly, in keeping with the theme here, wouldn’t that make him a member of the lucky ovum club? (Or “ova”, I suppose, if you want to describe all potential recipients rather than JG specifically.)

  25. First off, the argument between Scorpious (whom I think is Jonah Goldberg) and John is not as entertaining as it should be either. Kind of like watching a UFC fighter in a middle school wrestling match.

    Second, by the nature of Johah’s definition of nominated, isn’t every single published work nominated? If it is published then it could be considered for a Pulitzer, which would make his suggestion that two of his published works were nominated, also a lie, unless he has only published two works.

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