Bad Power

Elizabeth Goodman (Spin, Rolling Stone, Blender, etc.) is a decent writer with relevant things to say about fame, the state of the music industry, and tortured artists. A Good Woman, Goodman’s new book about Cat Power — the first-ever book about Chan Marshall, I think — is a stunning descent into mental-illness, drug-addiction and the world of juxtaposing musical talent with physical beauty and at least mild psychosis.

The thing is, Goodman’s book gets harder and harder to read because of the mind-numbing annoyance brought on by her betrayal of journalistic ethics.

An interesting thing about A Good Woman is that Goodman did not have Chan Marshall’s blessing; in fact, Marshall went out of her way to tell her record label, her friends, and music industry insiders not to talk to Goodman. It seems Marshall was afraid of being stripped naked emotionally for the world to see, so she tried to cut Goodman off from access to those closest to her. However, Marshall somehow forgot to tell her family about Goodman’s book; thus, the people who’ve been closest to Cat Power her whole life spill their beans in A Good Woman, and the result is troubling and intense.

But ethically, the result of A Good Woman is horrible. Although Goodman wasn’t able to interview Chan Marshall for the book, nearly every page has paragraph-length quotes from the singer-songwriter that begin with “Chan has said” or “Chan once said” or “Chan has remembered” but do not mention who Marshall was talking to or exactly when the statement was made.

In the back of A Good Woman, Goodman lists her sources in alphabetical order but does not say which source corresponds with each of the quotes she used. In any kind of writing, if you use a quote that you did not get yourself, you must say who did the work to get the quote and when they got it. For instance, in an article I wrote about Andrew Bird for the upcoming issue of Boulder Weekly, I was not able to score an interview with Bird but quoted a February, 2009 ABC News interview with him a few times, saying “Andrew Bird told ABC News in February…”

That’s simply how things work and must continue to work. When others put forth the effort to interview someone, we cannot use their quotes without directly and professionally giving them credit for that effort. Hopefully Goodman will hear enough similar criticism in the near future to either have her publisher improve the Cat Power book’s credibility, apologize in a public way, or both.

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