Belle de Jour unmasked?

by Chris Bertram on March 18, 2004

In case anyone has missed the news in today’s Times , Don Foster , the guy who used literary forensics to identify Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors and who confirmed Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber, claims to have outed the anonymous author of Belle de Jour as Sarah Champion, a minor author from Manchester. Belle, naturally, denies the claim .

{ 28 comments }

1

Backword Dave 03.18.04 at 8:34 am

Wow. So good you posted twice.

2

Backword Dave 03.18.04 at 8:37 am

Wow. So good you posted twice.

3

Kieran Healy 03.18.04 at 8:45 am

From the Times article:

There is growing evidence that Belle may be a fictional character who has never been a prostitute.

We need to Release the Weathersons on that sentence.

4

Brian Weatherson 03.18.04 at 9:06 am

Last I checked it was impossible to be both a fictional character and a prostitute, so I’m not sure what the evidence could be that Belle has this impossible pairing.

My best guess is that the author changed his mind about what he wanted to say half-way through the sentence. He started talking about the character described in ‘Belle’, then about the actual author of ‘Belle’. Then he changed his mind again about what he wanted to say. Then, just for kicks, he looked over the sentence to see if it made any sense, realised it didn’t, tried to fix it but did something (God knows what) that only made it worse, and decided he could live with it making no coherent sense at all. Much like this comment in all probability.

5

Peter Briffa 03.18.04 at 9:16 am

I hope Mr. Foster gets on to you next, Chris. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that Chris Bertram was in actual fact the nom de blog of Paul Johnson. We have a right to know.

6

bryan 03.18.04 at 9:49 am

‘Last I checked it was impossible to be both a fictional character and a prostitute’

if we assume fay weldon as the madame:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/1524437.stm

7

Nick 03.18.04 at 10:15 am

It’s Sarah Champion, not Sam Champion, actually.

Reading the article, I remembered that I own a copy of one of the books she’s edited, which also includes an introduction written by her. There’s a similarity between the two, but not enough there to convict on. Still, if you want to read some of it, I’ve got a sample of it here on my blog.

[Oops. Thanks for the correction Nick – post now amended. CB]

8

Chris Lightfoot 03.18.04 at 11:17 am

Was that Times article the first mention of this in the news? I note that the post on Belle de Jour bemoaning her “identification” seems to have been published before it….

9

mike 03.18.04 at 11:22 am

That’s because an anonymous News International employee “outed” Belle as Sarah Champion in a comment box on my blog yesterday afternoon. Having edited the comment to remove the name, I contacted Belle to tip her off, in case the same person was outing her on other blogs. Belle denied being Sarah to me in an e-mail, then made a posting on her site a few minutes later.

10

Chris Lightfoot 03.18.04 at 11:44 am

Ah– thanks. That explains it.

11

jam 03.18.04 at 1:33 pm

The Times article shows a distinctive style of reasoning, what might be called reductio ad non-absurdum. One assumes what is to be proved, argues from it to a non-absurd conclusion and then claims QED. In this case, the Times assumed BdJ was an established writer under a pseudonym, Don Foster showed that if she was, then Sarah Champion was the most likely candidate. Since this clearly isn’t absurd, it must be so.

There’s been a lot of reasoning like this about, lately.

Of course, BdJ may be Sarah Champion. As the Times noted, Champion didn’t deny it. But you can’t prove it this way.

12

Juan 03.18.04 at 1:46 pm

Last I checked it was impossible to be both a fictional character and a prostitute, so I’m not sure what the evidence could be that Belle has this impossible pairing.

Ah, but the question is whether is possible to be a fictional character and not be a prostitute:

There is growing evidence that Belle may be a fictional character who has never been a prostitute.

And notice also that the sentence claims only that there is evidence that this is (epistemically?) possible. There is a way of making sense of that sentence (thought this is clearly not what the author intended to say): for all we know, Belle is a fictional character who is not really a prostitute in the fiction.

13

Carlos 03.18.04 at 2:25 pm

Sam Champion, the NYC ABC weather guy?

I know you corrected the typo, but that’s still hilarious.

C.

14

Noah 03.18.04 at 3:17 pm

I know someone who knows Sarah Champion, and says it’s definitely not her. The rumour I’ve heard is that it is the journalist Lisa Hilton. Personally I believe it to be a fake but not by a journalist, because the writing is too poor (cue joke).

15

Keith M Ellis 03.18.04 at 3:34 pm

I’d be impressed with a good writer able to write poorly without giving the game away. But I don’t doubt that there are a few people able to do this, as well as there being people whose writing resists (consistent) forensic analysis.

I don’t really see the appeal of BdJ and its ilk. It’s not pornographically satisfying, unless you’ve lived a sheltered life. It’s not voyeuristically satisfying because its credibility is deeply questionable. The writing isn’t that enjoyable in itself. I guess that leaves juvenile peurilism sumblimated into ironic detachment. Or something.

16

jamie 03.18.04 at 3:40 pm

Last I ran across Sarah Champion she was running the Chinese Arts Centre here in Manchester. I don’t remember her once referring to “A levels” in ongoing funding discussions with NorthWest Arts and the National Lottery ;-)

17

Matt Weiner 03.18.04 at 4:16 pm

Of course, BdJ may be Sarah Champion. As the Times noted, Champion didn’t deny it.

But if Belle did deny it, isn’t the Times begging the question? Unless Belle’s denials are fictional rather than real denials–then it would seem that Belle isn’t Champion, but a character of Champion’s creation–and you may have noticed that the bicyclist in the Triplets of Belleville was named Champion–are they trying to tell us something? The mind reels.

18

Keith M Ellis 03.18.04 at 7:01 pm

But if Belle did deny it, isn’t the Times begging the question?”—Matt Weiner

Could you explain your intended meaning of that sentence? You’re either misusing “begging the question” or I don’t understand your reasoning.

19

Matt Weiner 03.18.04 at 9:40 pm

If Belle denied it, and Belle is Champion, then Champion denied it.
So for the Times to say that Champion didn’t deny it is to assume that Champion is not Belle–thus begging the question of whether Champion is Belle.
(Of course what they meant is presumably that Champion did not deny it in her own persona–that’s why the post was intended as a joke.)

20

Keith M Ellis 03.18.04 at 10:33 pm

Ah.

If Belle denied it, and Belle is Champion, then Champion denied it.

Not necessarily. It depends upon what your definition of is is (as used in this context). Although we might use the word identity in this context (“Belle’s identity is Champion”) it would not have its mathematical meaning. Belle and Champion are not mathematically identical, if for no other reason than that Belle calls herself “Belle” and Champion calls herself “Champion”. The context makes clear that we must necessarily think of “Belle” as someone distinct from Champion even if they are in fact the same person. Thus, whether or not Belle is Champion, what Belle says Champion does not necessarily say.

21

Keith M Ellis 03.18.04 at 10:53 pm

As a follow-up…I recognize that I should have been aware that you are a philosopher and know exactly what “begging the question” means. I also recognize that my response might be thought to be a little presumptuous.

But there’s something going on here that is an example of something that has baffled me for a long time. My complaint about your observation is that you applied a rigorous analysis at an inappropriate level. A rigorous analysis of such language usage might be appropriate, but it would first require identifying and comprehending all relevant nuances. Much analytical philosophy that I’ve seen strikes me as failing to do this—instead it treats language as an oversimplified formal system version of itself and then, Plato-like, attempts to discover interesting things by subjecting these statements to rigorous logical analysis.

The end result is that I feel like I’m talking to, or reading, an autistic person’s attempt to analyze what people mean when they write and speak.

I say this with a more critical tone than I’d like, but it’s only because I’ve been experiencing a mounting bafflement and frustration about this for some time.

22

Matt Weiner 03.19.04 at 3:08 am

I’ve posted a lengthy exploration of the philosophical issues this raises on my site–which may not be what you’re hoping for.

I’m not unsympathetic to your complaints. One thing that’s clear is that we understand what’s going on when we say “Belle denied it but Champion didn’t,” even if we can’t make it come out of our rigorous analysis. I think part of the goal of much analytic philosophy is to try to capture whatever can be captured in rigorous analysis–literal meanings and the like–as a basis for working on the rest later. And there are tools for trying to explain why some things can be conveyed without being literally asserted. But I worry sometimes that this method is what one of my professors described as “trying to get to the moon by climbing taller and taller trees.”

23

nick c 03.19.04 at 3:01 pm

Are we not losing track of the main point? Is it or isn’t it – no matter what everyone says.

Here is the book review that proved so conclusive for Don Foster. Does it sound like Belle? I’m not so sure.

“Tony Hawks’ debut book, Round Ireland with a Fridge, was an irreverent satire. The topic of the sequel is even more absurd. Like Round Ireland, it supposedly originates from an obscure bet. This time, Hawks bets he can’t track-down the Moldovan football team and beat them all at tennis. The loser must perform the Moldovan national anthem naked on Balham High Road. However, knowledge of tennis and/or football isn’t required to enjoy the book.
Hawks’ Irish trip was characterised by willing accomplices who joined in the fun. In Moldova, Hawks also expects a good laugh. Instead, he discovers a grey, dour people, ground down by decades of poverty. He describes Moldova’s “total lack of anything whatsoever to offer the tourist”. Despite the rarity of visitors, he receives an apathetic welcome as his mission provokes little more than weak smiles. Tracking down the footballers and persuading them to play turns becomes almost impossible.

The book treads a fine line between brilliant and juvenile, between Jeremy Beadle and the genuinely witty. Hawks’ sixth-form joke of presenting a round table to Moldova’s new King Arthur is especially cringe-worthy. His experience as a second-division stand-up leads to innumerable trite quips. Still, overall Playing The Moldovans At Tennis is an entertaining, easy read that will make you chuckle. It provides an interesting view of Eastern Europe’s post-Communist life, while keeping you in suspense: Will he? Won’t he? Suffice to say that, yes, at the end of the book someone does end up naked and singing outside a South London Woolworths. –Sarah Champion”

24

Matt Weiner 03.19.04 at 3:51 pm

Heck, I can’t read Belle’s blog or the Times article. So for me the main point is whether I can make a stupid joke and turn it into a lenghty philosophical musing on identity-ascriptions. You take what you can get.

25

Loobiloo 03.19.04 at 5:20 pm

Belle is not Sarah Champion
Belle is not Lisa Hilton
Belle is not Chris Hart
Belle is not a writer
Belle is, actually, a real person and a call girl.
*taps nose*

26

jam 03.20.04 at 3:19 pm

I think Matt Weiner’s working too hard. Belle is a fictional character. Even if everything she says or does was said or done by the real person who writes the blog, nonetheless she’s a fictional character. Sarah Champion is a real person. Statements by Champion and statements by Belle are not on the same plane.

In the same way, Nick Jenkins is not (was not?) Anthony Powell, though in some of the novels that which Nick is made to experience, say and do is very close to what Powell experienced, said and did.

The confusion stems from the abuse of language whereby we say “Sarah Champion is Belle de Jour” when we mean “Sarah Champion writes Belle de Jour.” Note that were it to be the case that Sarah Champion writes Belle de Jour, it would still be true that Belle is not Champion; it would even be true that Belle is not to be identified with Champion. The one is a whore; the other not, to give one example of a difference between them.

27

Matt Weiner 03.21.04 at 3:59 pm

Agreed with the first sentence, and on my spring break too.

I think the solution you come up with may be the most plausible; if there’s an issue with it, it comes from the fact that Belle is not presented as a fictional character (as Jenkins, I suppose, is). If every word written on Belle’s site turns out to be true, then we would say that Belle is identical with the person who wrote it.

I’m idly curious as to whether you could run a similar case with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, were they real–it seems as though you could say “Dr. Jekyll denied that he and Mr. Hyde were the same person, but Mr. Hyde did not deny it,” and communicate something similar to what gets communicated in this case.

(And go lodge your complaints on my blog, why don’t you? This is the sort of comment I’d love to have.)

28

jam 03.21.04 at 4:51 pm

On the question of what is real and what is fictional, I was trying (possibly failing) to follow Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, especially Chapter 4, Possible Woods.

By the way, Sarah Champion has now explicitly denied, in a piece in today’s Observer, that she is or writes BdJ.

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