March 2009

Sean P. Carroll


An Interview with Paul Maliszewski

Honesty and authenticity are qualities that are highly esteemed in our culture. However, there have always been charlatans who have enchanted the populace, whether it is through mass media or more subversive methods of communication. Once these masqueraders are defrocked they frequently become convenient scapegoats for all stripes of cultural criticism. While the public outrage is vociferous and often legitimate, such screed rarely does justice to the complex factors behind these hoaxes and the personas involved. Paul Maliszewski’s Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, published by The New Press, analyzes hoaxes both contemporary and historical; it also recaps Maliszewski’s own career as a faker and the motivations behind his and others satirical creations.

In addition to Fakers Paul also edited McSweeney’s #8, which was thematically structured around the concepts of fact versus fiction, and the various shades of truth; as well as two issues of The Denver Quarterly dedicated to writing about locales real and speculative. He was a co-creator, along with Amie Barrodale, of The Allen Pearl Files, a satiric literary gossip column and his short fiction and criticism has been published in a wide array of literary journals and magazines.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in mid-February.

Fakers is your first book but you have been writing extensively on the subject of hoaxes and frauds for several years. What was the initial inspiration behind your fascination with these tricksters in our midsts?

I have two answers for you. In 1997, I started submitting satiric letters to the editor at a business newspaper where I worked as a reporter. A year later, I published the first part of my exploits in The Baffler. Around that time, Stephen Glass was discovered faking at The New Republic. I’ve often thought that coincidence, of Glass doing what he was doing and me doing what I was doing, motivated me to keep studying hoaxes and frauds. I wanted to understand the difference between my satires and Glass’s fakes, and yet I also wanted to get at what made our writing credible enough to pass as fact.

The other answer is that when I started to collect all these essays together for my book, I wrote a new piece about Internet hoaxes, which includes a short section I came to think of as my autobiography in pseudonyms. Writing that reminded me I’d really been faking and adopting made-up names much longer than I’d realized. In fact, the earliest episode goes back to when I was in the fifth or sixth grade. I told my brother that a neighbor, a talent scout for the Houston Astros, was so bowled over by my baseball-playing skills that he wrote me a letter to urge me to keep the Astros in mind and look him up when I was a bit older. Of course, I forged that letter.

The opening essay, “I, Faker” details your own satirical creations for an upstate New York business journal while you were employed as a staff writer. Some of your characters such as Carl Grimm and Gary Pike seem to border on the edge of sanity. Did you think that some of their jargon filled statements and stances were a way of subtly indicating that they were in fact fabrications? Did you think that the newspaper readers ever took their suggestions seriously?

It’s funny, one journalist I recently talked with about the book wanted me to understand that while the newspaper I wrote for published my satiric letters and opinion pieces and even two news articles, at his paper, that stuff never would have been accepted. Another journalist, however, who formerly worked as a writer at a trade journal for the insurance industry, said my satires seemed almost reasonable compared to some of the fulminations they regularly published. When you get beneath the radar of the trusted business publications -- the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and so forth -- and you start to get into the smaller venues, you find that businesspeople, some of them, routinely say some crazy things, and they publish them, and what’s more those crazy things pass for thoughtfulness in that world. The foot soldiers of free enterprise and the market economy hold as true and dear some strange ideas, ideas ripe, I thought, for satire.

As for taking the satires seriously, as fact, there’s always, with satire, an audience that’s in on the joke and another group of people who not only don’t get the joke, they don’t even register that they’re in the presence of humor. The joke’s not just on them, the joke, in some sense, is they. And while satirists do sometimes wink to readers and nudge them in the ribs, I didn’t think I needed to indicate or signal much to the people who are in on the joke. What tips them off, really, are their values. If they value, say, people and their labor as something more than a mere commodity, to be priced out as cheaply as it can be found, regardless of the consequences and the toll that philosophy takes on the society, then they’ll see those satires for the jokes they are.

In the same essay you also discuss a more elaborate construction of a fictional company, Teloperators Rex, Inc., that involved all of the accoutrements of an actual business but was in fact a satire on the types of companies that proliferated during the dot com era. The scope of your project caused an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office. Despite the harrowing experience how satisfying was it as a writer to see this creation enter the three dimensional world and the havoc that a fictional entity can cause?

Once I’d managed to publish a number of the letters to the editor, I figured I was ready to try an opinion column, as those seemed more a part of the newspaper. Letters to the editor appear in the paper, but they’re not exactly of the paper, you know; they’re more like voices from outside. I knew I eventually wanted to write a news article. That was the Holy Grail, to get my satires accepted as news.

It was harrowing in the end. I shouldn’t downplay that. It really was not pleasant to be questioned by detectives for several hours, despite the fact I knew -- and was confident -- I’d done nothing wrong. I mean, as they let me go, they told me they were planning to continue their investigation. They also said I shouldn’t leave the state, and that I still might be arrested at a later date. Weeks later, I was still wondering if the other foot was going to fall. When would they scoop me up? Would they come in the early morning or at night? That sort of thing. But yes, over time, it became less harrowing and quite a bit more satisfying.

I wanted all along to create fictions that would, as you say, enter the world. I’ve written about how dissatisfied I was as a reporter, and how my disgruntlement led me to write satires. But at the same time, I was discontented with literary publication. I wanted to write stories about business, but I didn’t want them to be framed as literary artifacts and read exclusively by the literary world. I didn’t see that world as my audience, ultimately. Or, at least, it wasn’t my ideal audience, namely because the vast majority of literary readers are already in on the joke. Most of them share the same political beliefs. So literary publication of these satires would just belike facing the choir and singing a few of their favorite tunes.

There has been much public hand wringing over the revelation of false or “embellished” memoirs such as those by James Frey, Margaret Jones and most recently Herman Rosenblat. Why do you think that the reading public is so drawn to the memoir, a deeply flawed form at best? Does their appetite for the amazing but true contribute to the memoirist’s tendency to exaggerate and fabricate in order to attract and subsequently placate such an audience?

You’re inviting me to generalize, which I try to avoid, and speculate, which I have no talent for, but let me dive in anyway, okay? I think the memoir is an ideal form for our self-help culture. If you had to invent a new type of written expression, one that would best capture the ideas and themes juggled on an average week of Oprah, the memoir would be your vehicle. Memoirs are first-person accounts, which makes them well-suited for both the it’s-all-about-me culture and the woe-is-me culture. Sometimes memoirs are broad-minded and far-seeing enough to offer a look at a nuclear family, but even those tend to be stories about an individual struggling and surviving within the household. And for all their gritty details, these books are still, at heart, uplifting. The memoir itself -- the fact that you can hold in your hands this pile of paper and glue -- testifies to the triumph of the individual. And that’s a comfort to the reader. As Chris Lehmann observed in an article for The Nation about Love and Consequences, the Margaret Jones/Margaret Seltzer production, memoirs provide us with both “extremity in suffering and the quiet grace of self-deliverance.” You get the bad times and, by the end, the good.

You used the word “appetite” to describe the reading public. I can’t say whether readers’ appetites led or motivated any of those writers to fake or embellish their life stories, but I like the word “appetite,” because it draws attention to the role of readers. That is, there are the fakers, whom we hear all about when they’re discovered, and there are the legions of those who are fooled, about whom we learn much less. The fooled aren’t wholly innocent. They’re not accomplices, but they are part of the transaction. Another way of looking at it is to say that there are suppliers of memoirs, some true, some few made-up, and there is, on the other side, great demand for those works. The demand, the appetite -- whatever you want to call it -- cannot be ignored. I tried in my book to look as much at the fakers as the believers.

And if I may add, there are excellent memoirs. I’ve read some. I’m not laying waste to the whole enterprise here.

In the book you discuss historical hoaxes, i.e. The New York Sun’s infamous lunar man-bat story in 1835, as well as the sort of deceptions that have arisen in the digital age. How do hoaxes represent their era of creation and how do they continue to adapt and still be effective tools of satire?

Art historians have a much better grasp on fakes and fakers than journalists. Art historians actually study fakes. One museum I wrote about was fooled by a forger, but later started collecting fakes, because the director believed they were an important tool for teaching students how to look at art. In addition, there have been exhibitions of fakes and catalogs written about infamous fakers. Journalists, by contrast, generally employ the bad-apple defense. They circle their wagons. Maybe they publish a few searching op-eds about the erosion of the public’s trust in newspapers, but they pretty much go about their work exactly as before.

Art historians use fakes to understand how a particular era looked at, say, the medieval period. If you have a fake medieval stein and you determine it was fabricated in the early twentieth-century, it can tell you a lot about how people of that period looked at medieval metalwork, and what they knew then about medieval culture, because presumably the fake must have looked medieval enough to someone.

Every fake contains the fingerprints of the age in which it was created. But those fingerprints can be hard for contemporaries to detect. That museum director I mentioned said the effective lifespan of a forgery is a single generation. After that, our sensibility changes. Our eyes change. What fooled our fathers doesn’t seem remotely plausible to us. Take the moon hoax story you mentioned. How ridiculous it seems to us now, the idea that anyone ever believed life -- man-bats and fire-wielding beavers, among much else -- was discovered on the moon. And yet we are fooled plenty, and often, by other things. We’re certainly not immune to fakes. We’re not even necessarily smarter about detecting them. Anyone who doesn’t think we have blindspots need only recall Herman Rosenblat’s touching Holocaust love story or Misha DeFonseca’s tales of living in the woods during World War II -- as a child, mind you -- and being befriended by wolves. We’re only smarter about a few select things. But at least we’ll never fall for the man-bats again.

As for how fakes adapt and stay effective, I would just say that the fakers are adapting. Fakers are as much a part and product of their time as you and I. But their fakes are flattering creations. Unlike true art, fakes don’t tax or challenge or arrest the eye. They feel comfortable. They fit in with what we already know, maybe they subtly congratulate us for knowing it, maybe they’re just similar to something else we read or saw. Think of Stephen Glass’s fictional articles for The New Republic. For all that was colorful and hilarious in them, at heart they were quite plain, bland even, just repackaged versions of the conventional wisdom.

Journalism has been rife with embellishment and fabrication since the inception of the form. Why do the structures of newspaper and magazine journalism so easily lend themselves to duplicity?

I’m not sure journalism is rife with fabrication. I’ve remained optimistic, even after writing these essays. So I still believe fictionalized articles are the exception; I just happen also to think that those exceptions can tell us something about honest journalism. Much of the fake work that has been discovered is what I’d call narrative journalism. The writers are trying to balance the news-gathering and truth-telling objectives of the journalist with the storyteller’s ambitions to entertain, entrance, amaze, move, and so forth. Now, the storyteller is not necessarily at odds with the journalist; we’ve all read and appreciated great narrative journalism, but those objectives are exceedingly hard to balance. It’s easy to let the storyteller take over. I wonder, too, if the storyteller is so important to us -- if we like stories so well -- what does that mean for subjects that don’t lend themselves to narrative, that don’t, say, have a main character we can follow through some real-life drama?

The essay “Lie, Memory” details the fictions involved in a predominantly autobiographical lecture delivered by Michael Chabon and the subsequent “literary dustup” that ensued. Do you think that the elements of fantasy made the “biographical” portion more concrete and subsequently believable? It sort of reminded me of the three stages, turn, pledge and prestige, of an illusion.

When I interviewed Chabon, he talked quite a bit about magic. He likes the parallels between the magician and the novelist. Both, I suppose, are trying to create the impossible right in front of our eyes. He also likened his lecture to “close-up card-handling” and said, “There’s such a long-standing connection between the idea of the con and the confidence man and the storyteller or the writer.”

I’ve never been comfortable with the old saw that a writer is nothing more than a great liar, except the lies the writer tells somehow get at the truth. I think that’s too tidy. It manages to be both self-effacing (I’m just a liar, folks) and self-congratulatory in that oh-but-what-a-rake-I-am way. I do think there’s a relationship between the clearly fantastic portion of Chabon’s lecture and the part that’s more about his childhood. One does feed and even substantiate the other. Things can appear to readers -- or listeners -- true and real by comparison. What’s more, because the lecture moves back and forth between fantasy and biography (a biography that skates at times on the edge of tragedy), the tragic passages have the feel of someone saying to you, “All right, no more monkeying around now with golems, this part is serious.” People respond to those cues. They listen differently. I do think that’s why everybody I interviewed from the audiences at those lectures believed not just the biography but the parts where Chabon details his supposed brush with a Nazi who is passing himself off as a Holocaust survivor.

You have taught creative writing at George Washington University and have published stories in One Story, Bomb, The Paris Review and The Pushcart Prize anthologies. Will we see a story collection from you in the near future? How has your study of fakers informed your fiction writing? What other projects are you working on?

I’m not sure the study of fakers informed my fiction writing, but those satires I submitted to the business newspaper have. I wrote them at a time when I felt uneasy about traditional stories. It’s hard to explain, but I wanted in those satires not just to tell a story but to make something happen. So instead of relating a story about, say, a machine, I wanted to create the new machine, turn it on, and show everybody. After writing more than a dozen satires though, I either got that out of my system or came to peace with stories that look, well, exactly like stories. They’re not disguised. They’re not pretending to be something else. They’re not appearing somewhere you don’t expect stories to pop up. They’re just stories.

My story collection Prayer and Parable is forthcoming from Fence Books. And my friend Steve Featherstone and I are collaborating on a book about Joseph Mitchell, which will be published by Princeton Architectural Press. Otherwise, I’ve been reading back issues of a 1950s satirical magazine called Humbug, founded by some of the principals behind Mad magazine. This is for a review I’m writing for Harper’s about the problems and challenges of satire, something I think I’ve been writing in my head for a very long time.