When Gary Taubes’ New York Times Magazine article, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” hit the stands on Sunday, July 7-arguing that mounting evidence shows that a high-fat diet is nutritionally sound-carnivores rejoiced: A New York sirloin topped with a glistening pat of butter is actually good for you? To Peter Luger!
Ten days later, Knopf licked its chops and bought a book based on the article from Mr. Taubes’ agent, Kristine Dahl at I.C.M., for a healthy $700,000. The proposal consisted of the Times Magazine article, an article from Science magazine on dietary fat and heart disease, a five-page pitch and Mr. Taubes’ curriculum vitae .
But since Knopf’s acquisition, a number of critics have loudly attacked the scientific arguments made in the Times Magazine article. Among them are Dr. Dean Ornish, who debated Mr. Taubes on Charlie Rose , and Sally Squires, a staff writer for The Washington Post . Now the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., has taken on Mr. Taubes, and Mr. Taubes is hopping mad. “I am being attacked by sleazebags,” he railed.
CSPI published a damning article in its November Nutrition Action Health Letter that quotes several scientists who were interviewed by Mr. Taubes. Their words, the scientists said, were taken out of context and made to support what they consider a dubious argument. The Times, meanwhile, stands behind Mr. Taubes’ article. We have seen no reason to print a correction,” a spokesman said.
But publishing observers are wondering: Did Knopf vet the author and his claims before handing him a pile of money?
The CSPI newsletter article, “Big Fat Lies” by Bonnie Liebman, calls into question the science behind Mr. Taubes’ article. The writer nipped and tucked his facts, Ms. Liebman concludes, to support a dangerous argument in favor of the Atkins Diet, which recommends eating high-fat foods and avoiding carbs in order to lose weight. She quotes Walter Willett of Harvard University and John Farquhar of Stanford University-both of whom were interviewed and quoted extensively by Mr. Taubes in the Times Magazine piece-as saying they felt betrayed by the article. “I was greatly offended at how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins Diet,” Mr. Farquhar told her.
Mr. Farquhar was quoted in the Times Magazine article as asking, “‘Can we get the low-fat proponents to apologize?'” In the newsletter, the Stanford researcher clarified that statement. His point was not “that low-fat diets would make a person gain weight and become obese,” but rather that a low-fat diet with too many carbohydrates could increase the risk of heart disease.
Likewise, Mr. Willet complained of having his point of view manipulated: “I told Taubes several times that red meat is associated with higher risk of colon and possibly prostate cancer, but he left that out.”
“It’s not clear how Taubes thought he could ignore-or distort-what researchers told him,” wrote Ms. Liebman, who said that she’s drafting a letter to Knopf that will include the signatures of a half-dozen top nutrition experts-including some of the scientists quoted in the story-condemning Mr. Taubes’ alleged distortions.
Contacted last week, Jonathan Segal, the Knopf editor who acquired Mr. Taubes’ book, said he wasn’t concerned that his new author was drawing heavy criticism before the book is even written. Differing opinions, he said, were inevitable: “Come on, let’s get with the real world, man. It’s a free country: First Amendment.”
Mr. Segal said that it wasn’t the New York Times Magazine piece that sold him on the book. The magazine, said Mr. Segal, “chose to put a certain picture on the cover and to use a certain approach to the subject in 5,000 words, but that’s not the book.” Of CSPI’s attempt to discredit Mr. Taubes’ theories, Mr. Segal said, “They are entitled to their opinion. They’re reacting to a magazine piece I had nothing to do with.”
As for due diligence in researching Mr. Taubes’ background, Mr. Segal said that “Gary was mentioned by a couple of writers I admire enormously.” He added that “I went online and got Gary’s pieces in Science magazine.”
The 46-year-old Mr. Taubes is a correspondent for Science and something of a journalism bad boy whose claim to fame is debunking conventional scientific wisdom. He wrote of the dismantling of the cold-fusion theory in a 1993 book, Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion , published by Random House. In 1998, in Science, he challenged the notion that salt is a factor in high blood pressure, claiming there was no connection. (He failed to persuade the establishment, however, and he recently wrote that recent studies to the contrary were indeed “impressive,” but didn’t back down from his theory.)
As far as his ideas about fat are concerned, Mr. Taubes said he was exasperated by CSPI’s campaign against him. “What CSPI is doing is trying to tar and discredit the messenger so they don’t have to discuss the message honestly,” he said.
The message, he explained, was that after health organizations like CSPI have flogged a low-fat, high-carb diet for 30 years, Americans have become fatter; meanwhile, evidence showed, he said, that the Atkins Diet led to weight loss without increasing cholesterol.
Meanwhile, Knopf’s Mr. Segal said the uproar over the Times Magazine article was beside the point in any case-because the book that Knopf bought would not be about the Atkins Diet at all. Downplaying the pro-steak-eating angle, he said Knopf paid Mr. Taubes to write a book about the history of nutrition science in America in the 20th century and the flaws in dietary information over the years. That sexy stuff in the Times article about the benefits of gorging on fat? That’ll take up maybe two chapters, Mr. Segal said. “It’s amazing that people don’t make a distinction between a magazine article and a book for us that’s going to be 120,000 words,” he said.
That distinction, of course, is a chronic challenge for book editors. For every Perfect Storm -the best-seller by journalist Sebastian Junger that grew out of an Outside article-there’s a Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain , the Dial Press book based on the award-winning Harper’s article by Michael Paterniti, which got mixed reviews and was not a mega-seller. Eamon Dolan, the executive editor at Houghton Mifflin who has acquired at least a dozen books based on magazine pieces (including the Rolling Ston e article that lead to Fast Food Nation , another curtain-lifter on American eating habits that became a best-seller), said that Mr. Taubes’ article would need quite a makeover to succeed in book form. “As far as the challenge of scaling up, I saw that right away with this book,” he said. In general, he added, “You don’t necessarily know what the book based on the article is going to say. There’s no one set way to do it. One of the things editors are paid for is the quality of our intuition.” And intuition, he said, is just about all an editor has to vet an author and his arguments before pouncing on a hot property. (Mr. Dolan’s latest article-turned-book, to be published next year, is Absolutely American by David Lipsky, based on another Rolling Stone article.)
But is Knopf now hedging its bet, steering away from the buzzy Times Magazine article after plunking down good money for its ideas? No, said Mr. Segal: “The thing that has interested me is not making great claims about fat,” he said, “but what is the scientific mechanism that guides 250 million Americans in making their decision about health and nutrition?”
Mr. Taubes, however, has a different view of what the book will be. He agreed it would delve into the history of nutritional information, but said he wouldn’t back down from his controversial claims about fat-to which all of that history would invariably lead in his narrative. “Listen, the book is about fat,” he said. “Is fat bad for you? Atkins is a point they should have tested 30 years ago. Could it possibly be carbohydrates [that cause obesity]? That’s what the book’s about.
“Why are these people trying so hard to ruin my credibility?” he continued, talking again about CSPI. “It’s kind of fascinating. I believe that this alternative hypothesis has a lot to say for it.”
And that is the subject most publishing observers assumed Knopf was paying Mr. Taubes to take on. Stripped of the steak-and-butter stuff, the book could turn out to be less Fast Food Nation , more academic-history book. Not unlike, for instance, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at N.Y.U. Her March 2002 book, published by the University of California Press, is about the industry that produces nutrition information. It has sold in the neighborhood of 10,000 copies.
Ms. Nestle-who confessed that she was “screamingly jealous” of Mr. Taubes’ $700,000 book deal-said that Mr. Taubes interviewed her for more than 10 hours over a yearlong period while researching fat. She said she was deeply disappointed by the New York Times Magazine article. “It’s ruined my life,” she said. “I can’t go to a party, I can’t go to a dinner party, I can’t sit on an airplane without being asked about it. I think it’s done incredible damage in confusing the public about nutrition and health.”
Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of CSPI and the co-author of Restaurant Confidential , published by Workman, said Knopf had a responsibility to examine the claims made in CSPI’s newsletter, regardless of the focus of the book. “These very reputable scientists have charged that their views were distorted and taken out of context. That’s a pretty serious charge against an author.
“The publisher wants to sell books,” he continued, “but maybe there should be a little concern about people being quoted accurately, if not about his whole thesis.”
Mr. Segal said the final checking of facts was up to the author.
Over the course of a phone interview, Mr. Taubes seemed to change his mind about his critics. At first, he was sensitive to the concerns of Mr. Farquhar and Mr. Willet, allowing that “they had no idea what they were getting into,” since they didn’t know the article would feature the Atkins Diet so prominently. Mr. Taubes even called their anger “justifiable.”
But as he continued to discuss the situation, he became increasingly incensed at CSPI. “If people really care about this issue, compare what they claim I say in the article with what I actually said. You decide who’s being intellectually honest. For 30 years, CSPI has been hammering on America to eat less fat. If I’m right, they’re wrong.”
Mr. Segal of Knopf was more sanguine about the whole affair. He said that the book would be good for public debate regardless of its controversial nature. Mr. Taubes, he said, would have to become more like a terror-hardened Israeli. “I think there’s two ways of looking at criticism. When you get attacked in the press, it’s like the Scuds coming to Israel, and you can’t respond. You have to develop a thick skin when you’re doing controversial work.”
Behind Booker Winner: Party-Boy Brit or Unsung Yank?
by Sara Nelson
For a clannish industry that hardly lacks for backbiting and Schadenfreude , publishing is still a sucker for A Little Engine That Could. Especially if it’s one whose chief engineer is a charismatic, young Brit like Jamie Byng, director of tiny, independent Edinburgh-based Canongate Books. Thirty-three years old, garrulous and with a curly mop of sandy hair that one journalist called “more Liam Neeson than Stephen King,” Mr. Byng is publishing’s man of the moment. He is, after all, the guy who just released this year’s Man Booker Prize-winner, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi , and who is watching, along with the rest of the bookish world, as another of his titles, Michel Faber’s 850-page neo-Victorian novel, The Crimson Petal and the White , climbs the bestseller lists.
Anybody who’s ever seen Jamie Byng lope across a Manhattan street to greet a book-loving journalist, or who has been stuck in traffic in a cab with him as he enthusiastically and relentlessly pitches his books, knows that he’s a master marketer, the real publishing thing. But what so many don’t know-and what has gone unremarked in all the media coverage of his two unlikely hits-is that they’re both published here by Harcourt executive editor Ann Patty. It was Ms. Patty, in fact, who bought the U.S. rights to Mr. Martel’s novel in the first place-and who gave half of the manuscript to Mr. Byng the next day. “It just took one lunch and I thought, ‘I have to tell this character about Life of Pi ,'” she said.
Clearly, Ms. Patty and Mr. Byng share a literary sensibility. (Or, as one wag put it, “they both make great books; the only difference is, he makes better copy.”) Like Mr. Byng, Ms. Patty has what the agent Molly Friedrich called a “large and scrumptious” personality. Like Mr. Byng, she’s her house’s own best publicist; he had the brilliant idea to serialize Crimson Petal on the Internet, to play on the fact that many Victorian novels were first released as serials; she was handing out 800-plus-page A.R.C.’s of Crimson Petal as early as last May and telling people it was “the best book [she's] ever published.” (For the record, and other Patty authors take note: She has told me that-and meant it, at least at the moment-probably half a dozen times, including in a note attached to the Life of Pi galley.) Like Mr. Byng, who used his wealthy family connections to buy up, and keep independent, a fledgling house, she doesn’t have much truck with “big publishing”; her Simon & Schuster imprint, Poseidon-where she published the works of Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser and critical favorites Patrick McGrath and Mary Gaitskill-was closed in 1993, and her six-year stint at Crown “was not,” according to a friend, “to put it gently, a very welcoming experience.” After a brief, self-imposed “retirement,” in 2000 she joined the relatively small Harcourt, which publishes about 50 hardcovers a year, about half the output of some big-name houses. Known for its high-mindedness-it’s the American publisher of Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago, Gunter Grass and Umberto Eco-Harcourt welcomed Ms. Patty’s blend of literary and commercial taste. “It’s the perfect place for her to be,” said a friend of Ms. Patty’s. “They hired her because she’s a great editor, and she doesn’t have to deal with politics.”
Where Ms. Patty and Mr. Byng diverge is in the way they conduct themselves. “She’s an adult,” one agent said pointedly. Having had her share of bad publicity-a contretemps regarding the works of the Flowers in the Attic franchise author V.C. Andrews while she was at S&S, for example-she doesn’t court it the way Mr. Byng does; he recently gave an interview to The Guardian in which he spoke, openly and, most think, unwisely, about his prodigious partying and his taste for cocaine. Ms. Patty keeps her authors center stage and goes out of her way to credit other editors. She makes a point of telling you, for example, that she inherited Mr. Faber from then-Harcourt editor Robert Dreesen, who had published his critically acclaimed Under the Skin , and to acknowledge that the author was already a Canongate author in the U.K. She also wants you to know that it was another woman, Canongate’s Judy Moir, who did the bulk of the editing on Mr. Faber’s books. “The only thing I take the credit for is being smart enough to take hold of [Harcourt's] option,” she said. Other publishing watchers say she’s just being modest. “That Ann Patty sure can pick ‘em” said Sarah Crichton, who knows from picking winners; as publisher of Little, Brown, she signed up Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the mega-seller The Lovely Bones .
As for Mr. Byng, all this praise-not to mention sales of over 150,000 and a movie deal for Crimson , 80,000 and climbing for Pi -can only mean one thing: The backlash is on its way. In fact, the Byng bashing has already begun; in the Guardian piece, unnamed detractors say Mr. Byng is “unbearably boastful, a posh huckster [and] a nuisance.” But at least for now, whoever Ms. Patty’s critics are, they’re keeping a low profile. “These books just prove what some of us have known all along,” said agent Ira Silverberg. “She has always been a magnificent editor with extraordinary taste and broad range. This success is her revenge for having been screwed by the corporations.”
Sara Nelson, a contributing editor at Glamour , is writing a book about reading for G.P. Putnam’s Sons.