There was a fine flap about an article in the New Yorker in which the writer was accused of making up some words inside quotation marks. The subject of the interview claims he never said he was an intellectual "gigolo," and this particular remark could not be found on tapes.
Well, I hate to see cases of this kind arise.
The only pleasant aspect of it is that the New Yorker's famous checking system, by which the magazine has people phoning all over the world to verify statements that any writer happens to make in an article, did not work in this case, heh-heh.
There have been occasions in my own misspent life in which my quotations have been challenged. Once was 30 or so years ago at a public meeting when a dismal person said some outrageous hateful things, then was unhappy when they appeared in print. No real problem there.
Another case was only several years ago, in an interview with a Polish cavalryman who spoke of his distress when German bombs fell early one morning. His war was over in half an hour. After that it was just cows and confusion.
"Just cows and confusion after the attack, eh?" I repeated.
"Just cows and confusion," he verified.
Imagine my surprise to read a letter denying he said it.
He said that what he said was "chaos and confusion," giving the word "chaos" an elegant Polish twist.
Well, good grief. Not only does a poor reporter have to get his subject to repeat the words, he has to get him to write them down, I guess.
Any writer who quotes people has a heavy responsibility to get it right. Not because of lawsuits, but because of minimal fairness.
Often people have said, "I don't see how you got all the quotes so perfectly when you didn't take notes."
But that is only because I can't walk and chew gum, or take notes and pay attention to the subject. I rarely write anything down during an interview. For me, note-taking during an interview is my project, a thing I am busy with. Instead of some project of mine, however, I should be focusing all my attention on the person speaking. Far better, for me, to concentrate intently while the fellow is speaking, then to jot key words down afterward.
How can one remember? Well, a writer is supposed to have an attention span of more than two minutes, and if the subject were not interesting you wouldn't be interviewing him in the first place.
But if he spends 20 minutes telling you how he got from London to Zurich, I just say "so he went to Zurich." If I quote him, "Then I got on a streetcar," he may in fact have said, "Then I ran for the streetcar and hopped on just as it pulled off."
A misquote, of course. Big deal.
But I hope the Lord will strike me if I render it as "Then I threw down my bottle of rum and dashed for the streetcar."
In that sentence the wonderful thing is not getting on the streetcar but throwing down the bottle of rum. No reporter would dream of sticking that inside quotation marks if the man didn't say it. Correction: He might dream, but he wouldn't do it, and if he did, he should be boiled in oil at sundown.
Now there are vast numbers of words -- rum, dog, cow, conglobulation, jobbernowl, panties, peristyle, etc. -- that stand out in the average sentence. Such a word should never be used if the subject did not speak it.
Sometimes I have thought of a better word than the subject used, to make his meaning clearer, but would never put the word in his mouth if the word were at all unusual. If he said he was in Athens and "damned near fell over one of them stone beams between columns -- in the ruins like they got," I would never volunteer the word "architrave."
But if he said "architrave," then I'd quote his word, not changing it to something I thought catchier or more common.
Which brings us to the disputed "gigolo" or "intellectual gigolo." What a writer would not give if his subject would only say things like that, words that light up the page and stick in the memory.
No writer of even minimal honesty would dream of summing up the subject's meaning by putting the word "gigolo" in his mouth if he didn't speak it.
It's a flashy word, not at all like "said" or "the" or "go." If you think you hear the subject say "gigolo," you should backtrack a little and use the word yourself, to see his reaction. If he says, "Exactly," you know you have not misunderstood him.
All skyrocket words should be quoted only when you are certain. Even then you can hear wrong.
I often think of cows and confusion. The writer's lot is not a happy one.