"Knowst not, my Lucia, that he/ Who has caparisoned a nun dies/ With his twankydillo at the ready?"
Thus wrote the Australian modernist Ern Malley in The Darkening Ecliptic, a collection of poetry published in 1944 in Angry Penguins, a small but influential literary journal. Malley, a blue collar wanderer who died in Melbourne at 25 of Graves' disease, never shared his work with anyone; his sister found his poems after his death and mailed them to Penguins editor Max Harris, who thought Malley's work compelling enough to print its entirety in a special issue, complete with a portrait of the poet on the cover.
Harris, it seemed, had stumbled on an unknown genius who had toiled, Keats-like, against poverty and disease as he created great art. Unfortunately for Harris' reputation, his discovery was actually two traditionalist Australian poets who based Malley's work in part on mosquito eradication manuals. The poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, conceived of Malley as a way to mock modernists like Dylan Thomas. And yet, in the kind of bizarre twist that seems commonplace in the lives of those who commit satire, Ern Malley's work eventually eclipsed their own and was debated on its poetic merits well into the '60s.
McAuley and Stewart are just a few of the dozens of literary liars, journalistic exaggerators and autobiographical fictionalizers profiled in Fakers, a new book by Washington, D.C., writer Paul Maliszewski.
"I think the fakes can tell us something about what we value in terms of stories," Maliszewski told the Indy. "A lot of this has to do with a deeper value in human nature, something that wants to be entertained, amused, wants to have [its] attention captivated."
The thrust of Maliszewski's book is as plain as it is surprising: The best fraudsters succeed because they provide a story that their audience want to believe, no matter how implausible it may sound in retrospect.
Those expecting a Ripley's Believe It or Not-style compendium of hucksters, though, will be disappointed. Maliszewski, a former Durham resident and two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize for fiction, hones in on those who use media—whether it be newspapers, autobiography or the Internet—to commit fraud, and those who unwittingly enable them. Fakers, a collection of essays that comes mostly from Maliszewski's contributions to Bookforum, Harper's, The Paris Review and other publications, examines not just the counterfeiters themselves, but those who publish, promote and read their work.
Here are tales of Fresh Air host Terry Gross, bestselling author Dave Eggers and The New York Times promoting the dubious work of J.T. LeRoy, a celebrated young author with a severely checkered past who turned out to be a middle-aged woman; a journalist awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her depiction of an 8-year-old heroin addict who, it was later revealed, didn't exist; and an autobiographical lecture by author Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) in which Chabon repeatedly lies about a childhood mentor, claiming falsely that an obscure but real author was actually a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Many of the frauds profiled in Fakers, such as the preposterous reporting of Stephen Glass in The New Republic, were followed by plenty of public hand-wringing and blame-assessing by the newspapers, magazines and publishers of often obviously falsified works (Glass, for example, invented bond traders who literally worshipped a picture of then-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan). But such fraud continues apace, to the degree that several notable ones have been revealed since this book was sent to press, including the Holocaust memoir Angel at the Fence, an Oprah Winfrey selection for her book club. Why?
The problem, Maliszewski writes, is equal parts human nature (everybody loves a good story) and journalistic practice. Editors know readers will respond to stories with a dramatic arc—that is, a beginning, middle, end and plenty of drama in between—and so encourage and accept work that fits this convention. As long as it's easier to write fiction with a dramatic arc than it is to find a real-life, newsworthy story with compelling characters and literary plot devices, Maliszewski says, fraudulent reporting will probably continue.
"Where [media] get into trouble is when they attempt to be entertaining or dramatic," Maliszewski said. "It's not impossible to write honest narrative journalism, but it's easy to abuse. It's easy to confuse your purpose as a journalist with your purpose as constructing an eye-catching story."
And in an era when newspapers are gutting copy-editing and fact-checking departments as ad revenues decline, it may even increase.
Far from being the accuser of all who misrepresent the facts, though, Maliszewski draws a line between blatant falsehood, such as Clifford Irving's claim to be in contact with the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, and satire, as in the poetic invention of Ern Malley. One could say Maliszewski has a selfish interest here: While working as a reporter for a small New York business journal in the '90s, Maliszewski himself developed about a dozen fictional identities who wrote letters to the editor and editorials. He even wrote a story about a fictional business that nearly landed him in jail, as he'd forged a letter from the governor of New York awarding the "business" an economic development grant.
Maliszewski's alter egos provide some of the most hysterical moments of the book. One, a dodgy-sounding consultant named Carl S. Grimm, contributes a thinly veiled assault on the self-serving free market dogma of Wall Street with such zingers as "I once heard that foreign peoples will treat a U.S. dollar with the awe of an alien landing." In another contribution, this time as marketer T. Michael Bodine, Maliszewski used a School of the Americas torture manual as a management guide, simply replacing the word "subject" with "employee."
Maliszewski compares his own satire, at least in spirit, to Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, calling it "dishonesty with a purpose."
"Satire invites us to consider values we may have overlooked," he says. "On one side you have satirists who are using dishonesty to effect some consideration of values; on the other you have con artists who are just using dishonesty to get into your wallet."
Maliszewski reads from Fakers at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham Friday, Jan. 23, at 7 p.m.