The Bell Curve Flattened - 1997-01-18
Charles Murray is a publicity genius, and the publication of his and Richard Herrnstein's book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, in the fall of 1994 was his masterpiece.
Virtually all ambitious trade hardcover books are preceded by an edition of 100 to 200 flimsy "galley proofs." These are sent out to people who might generate buzz for the book: blurbists, bookers for television talk shows, editors, and–most important–book critics. There is an ethos of letting the chips fall where they may about the sending out of galleys: Now the book will begin to receive uncontrolled reaction. (For example, back in 1991, Murray somehow got hold of the galleys of my own last book, and wrote me heatedly denying that he was working on a book about black genetic intellectual inferiority, as I had asserted. I left the passage in, but softened it.)
The Bell Curve was not circulated in galleys before publication. The effect was, first, to increase the allure of the book (There must be something really hot in there!), and second, to ensure that no one inclined to be skeptical would be able to weigh in at the moment of publication. The people who had galley proofs were handpicked by Murray and his publisher. The ordinary routine of neutral reviewers having a month or two to go over the book with care did not occur. Another handpicked group was flown to Washington at the expense of the American Enterprise Institute and given a weekend-long personal briefing on the book's contents by Murray himself (Herrnstein had died very recently), just before publication. The result was what you'd expect: The first wave of publicity was either credulous or angry, but short on evidence, because nobody had had time to digest and evaluate the book carefully.