The editor of the New York Times Book Review has stressed that the paper does “not issue a verdict on people’s opinions” following the “outrage” that ensued after it ran an interview with Alice Walker, in which she recommended a book by an author who has been accused of antisemitism.
Walker, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Color Purple, cited the controversial British writer David Icke’s And the Truth Shall Set You Free when asked by the New York Times which books were on her nightstand. “In Icke’s books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about,” said Walker. “A curious person’s dream come true.”
The paper came under fire for including the answer; Icke is a conspiracist who expounds the theory that the world is run by a cabal of giant, shape-shifting lizards, and is described as “essentially a hate preacher with a 21st-century spin on a very old antisemitic conspiracy theory” by the Community Security Trust, a charity set up to protect the Jewish community. Tablet magazine’s Yair Rosenberg called the book highlighted by Walker “an unhinged antisemitic conspiracy tract written by one of Britain’s most notorious antisemites”.
In an interview with the paper pegged to the outrage over Walker’s recommendation of Icke, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, said that the interview had been conducted by email, and that the paper never condenses answers or questions contributors on their choices.
“The people’s answers are a reflection of their opinions, tastes and judgment. As with any interview, their words tell us something about them. The intention for By the Book is to be a portrait of someone through his or her reading life. What people choose to read or not read and what books they find to be influential or meaningful say a lot about who they are,” she said. “We’ve also faced criticism when a writer only named white authors, or male authors. My response to that is the same as in this case: Does that answer tell you something about the subject? I think it does, and now readers know it because we’ve informed you.”
Despite the reaction, Paul said she would not have done things differently. “If someone mentioned a favourite novel that we thought was terrible, we wouldn’t include a note saying, ‘Actually, that book is awful.’ Likewise, we would never add that a book is factually inaccurate, or that the author is a serial predator, or any kind of judgment on the work or the writer. We do not issue a verdict on people’s opinions,” she said. “If people espouse beliefs that anyone at The Times finds to be dangerous or immoral, it’s important for readers to be aware that they hold those beliefs. The public deserves to know. That’s news.”
Writing on her website, Walker also responded to the backlash. “I find Icke’s work to be very important to humanity’s conversation, especially at this time. I do not believe he is antisemitic or anti-Jewish. I do believe he is brave enough to ask the questions others fear to ask, and to speak his own understanding of the truth wherever it might lead. Many attempts have been made to censor and silence him. As a woman, and a person of colour, as a writer who has been criticised and banned myself, I support his right to share his own thoughts,” she wrote.