Email exchange with fictional character leads to New York Times correction


Patrick Somerville writes about the weird circumstances that led to a weird correction on Janet Maslin's review of his novel "This Bright River." He was devastated Maslin didn't like the piece, he writes, but upset she'd mixed up a major plot point while reviewing it. Maslin said one of the novel's character's "sustains some kind of head injury in the novel’s prologue." But that character, Ben Hanson, isn't hurt in the book. Six months before, Somerville had set up a real email address (used in the book) for Hanson, and when he checked the account, he was surprised to find an email from Times culture editor Ed Marks.

Dear Mr. Hanson,

Given the vagaries of fictional life, I understand that you might not be able to answer this question, which has come up after one of our readers read the review of “This Bright River” that we published. But – in the prologue, are you the person who is hit on the head?

-Ed Marks, Culture Desk

"This may be the most sadistic moment of belated fact-checking in the history of mankind," Somerville writes. "The New York Times, the paper of record, had written a fictitious character to verify a fact."

Marks and Somerville, writing as Ben Hanson, negotiate a correction. One of Ben's concerns is that the correction doesn't contain a spoiler. Marks is OK with that. "Seems like you have had a bit of a rough life, and the last thing I’d want to do is to make it even rougher by giving it away," he tells the character.

The correction, printed at the bottom of the review, reads:

The Books of the Times review on Monday, about the novel “This Bright River” by Patrick Somerville, misidentified the character in the prologue who is hit on the head. While the identity of the victim is not revealed at that point, he is not Ben Hanson, one of the protagonists. Thus it is not the case, as the review said, that “that knock on the head accounts for some of the vague, so-what nature of Ben’s perceptions about himself and others.” (Mr. Somerville says he intended the victim’s identity to be an open question at that stage of the novel, and he prefers that curious readers learn his identity in the novel itself rather than in this space.)

Somerville is essentially pleased with the transaction: "I don’t want to speak for Ed, but at this point, it is my belief that he and Ben have become friends." Reached by phone, Marks confirms that that's an accurate characterization.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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