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Q&A with Fakers author Paul Maliszewski

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INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You said over e-mail you lived in Durham. Were you in school here?

MALISZEWSKI: I moved there in 2000 after graduate school at Syracuse. A woman I was seeing had a job teaching at Duke. We moved to Washington, D.C. in 2003; my wife works for the House of Representatives.

With that political connection, why didn't you include more about political fakery in the book? You mention a little about spin from the Bush White House, but don't go into much detail.

[Political fraud] almost seemed like a book in itself... It was tempting but it seemed slightly outside my interest.

Is Fakers mostly original, or does it include a number of pre-published essays? Where were they published?

Most of them are pre-published essays. All of have been revised; a number expanded. The second chapter is the only one that hasn't appeared anywhere else. That's the broadest look at the subject I provide. The rest are little case studies. The first essay was the first I wrote in 1999, in The Baffler. I didn't know for quite a while that I was writing a book about [fakery].

As a freelance writer, I'm sure you're well aware that there is a lot of pressure to develop some kind of angle or specialty you can pitch to editors. At what point did you realize you were the hoax specialist?

I'm not sure I really became the hoax specialist. I knew, after the first piece, I was onto something that interested me. I didn't know it interested other people for quite a while. It just happened that the satires [the phony contributions Maliszewski made to a business journal in the late '90s] coincided with [former New Republic writer] Stephen Glass, and it started me thinking.

Since you're asking about my expertise: I wrote a lot of other things. I wrote a lot of fiction. I think my approach is informed a lot by writing fiction; I approach these as stories and the fakers as highly accomplished storytellers. That approach is different from how they're dealt with when a faker is discovered and written about by newspapers.

In your book, you go into detail about how lame the response of papers to their frauds has been. I thought about this yesterday—I came across an article about how David Sedaris has invented a lot of his autobiographical stories. It was written for the New Republic, and that seemed kind of ironic to me.

I'm not sure what the rationale was for printing it. Over the years, they've tried to address and be forthright about their failings, but at the same time, Stephen Glass wasn't their last screw-up. The more recent one was the soldier. [The New Republic was forced to apologize for a number of grisly reports from a U.S. soldier in Iraq after it was discovered that the soldier had mostly invented his stories.]

In Fakers, you spend a lot of time on newspaper hoaxes. In the light of Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and others, do you think this idea of an objective, professional press is a fallacy?

I don't. I think where a lot of these publications get into trouble is not in an attempt to be objective. Where they get into trouble is an attempt to be entertaining or dramatic. Narrative journalism or creative nonfiction, where they're trying to provide all of the bells and whistles and power you get from a novel... 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.

Late in the book, where I get to interviewing [former New York Times Magazine writer] Michael Finkel: His difficulty was not remaining objective, it was to take this complicated story that he found on the ground and neaten it up. To have one character that would create an easier to follow story. The values of storytelling took over. [Finkel, a reporter with an otherwise untarnished record, wrote a story about Mali in which he combined the experiences of several people he interviewed into one composite character.]

Maybe 'objective' wasn't the right word... The New York Times, the New Republic and other big names completely missed fabricated articles that were actually, when you look back at them, pretty easy to identify as fake. What does this indicate about the overall accuracy and professionalism of the media? I mean, if these sensational pieces have slipped through the net, then how many more mundane factual errors are they making? Can we trust the media at all?

Maybe this is optimism on my part, but I still think the majority of what's printed in papers is as honest as it can be. Certainly there are errors, but most are honest mistakes created in the pressure of making something under a deadline. The fakers are something else. They're creating preposterous things that anybody with a little bit of checking would notice. The problem is there isn't a lot of checking. Not many newspapers employ fact-checkers; it's too expensive. At that point what you're dealing with is a writer and editor, and the editor trusts the writer, and that trust can be abused. Where I differ [from the mainstream media in] how all these hoaxes are treated: I tend to look at them as not being bad apples. [In] a lot of the journalism about Stephen Glass, he's treated as this freak. He's eliminated from the profession, and the profession stands tall again. I [think] these fakes and fakers can tell us something about journalism. I draw the comparison to how art history and museums have dealt with fakers. They treat it as an opportunity to learn something. So there have been exhibits of fakes, name museums have shown them, scholars have studied them, and I can't say that there's been any similar attempt made by journalism. I think the fakes can tell us something about what we value in terms of stories, and that can tell us how to avoid these things.

One of the most interesting aspects about this book, for me, was how you lay out the ways the media not only miss, but encourage falsifying information, and how the consumers of media actually encourage this process as well by their reading demands. Do you think this is particular to our culture, or is it just human nature to want to make stories more interesting than they actually are?

Whenever I'm asked how we can put a stop to this, that's what I run with. 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. ... There's something in us that likes a good story. There's something in many of us that likes sappy or sentimental stories.

That guy who was in the news recently,[Angel at the Fence author Herman] Rosenblat, he's a genuine survivor of the Holocaust, and his memoir combines his genuine experience with a fairy tale for adults. [Rosenblat and others like him are] providing something maybe a little cheap, maybe a little comforting, but at times, people want that.

Certainly, there's this very predictable arc we expect from stories that we see played out over and over in movies, television, biographies and the Oprah Winfrey show.

It's very much about the individual experience. What has the individual gone through? What lessons have they learned? It's a three-part structure: "I've been down, found my way up and this is what I can tell you about it." [Phony biographers like] James Frey and Margaret Seltzer, they're all peddling, if not the same story, the same outline. I don't think Oprah created it, but she's spread it far and wide. It's a formula for understanding our lives. It forces stories into a box.

I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical culture, and we called this giving our testimony. You'd go around the room during a service, and everyone would talk about terrible their lives were before they found God. There was this very palpable temptation to tell the most dramatic story: "If you were addicted to alcohol, then I need to have been addicted to crack." It's a very similar thing to these biographies, like [Frey's] A Million Little Pieces.

That whole idea is what underlies a lot of Oprah. You as a listener expect a plainspoken story of a life. "This is how I got here." In its form it promises something genuine and real, but it's prone to abuses.

I thought the most fascinating chapter of your book was the one on JT LeRoy. The most interesting thing about this, I think, is that the book written in LeRoy's name actually doesn't sound like it was very good. But because it had a great back story, it not only sold, but some heavyweights came out in support of it. I think we're programmed to believe people like Oprah, Dave Eggers and Terry Gross are smarter than we are, and we should trust them. What does it say about our system of celebrity and media that these luminaries were not only fooled, but actually jumped on the bandwagon of promoting something of dubious quality because it had an attractive package?

It's a little like I was saying about Oprah's attention to the individual. Instead of asking ourselves, is this a good novel, what people paid attention to was the story behind it. JT Leroy's greatest creation was his life, which was much more elaborately realized than the books themselves. That's what got everyone's attention.

In the book, I say the life was always an intro to the work. "This is a work produced by this person whom I've heard was homeless, a hustler, addicted to drugs." You couldn't encounter a book by JT LeRoy without hearing all about the author's life. Is it part of celebrity culture, or testimony culture? It's all related.

Was the story just so good that it fooled them, or is there something particular to people who succeed in the arts and media, some hyper-sensitivity to the zeitgeist, that makes them seek out false stories because they sound more like something destined to be famous?

Giving them the greatest benefit of the doubt, it may have had something to do with being sympathetic people and hearing a story about someone who deserved sympathy, but at that point wires got crossed and sympathy became boosterism. They must realize that a great deal of the art that's created is created by people who come from comfortable backgrounds ... people who aren't comfortable don't have the time or means to write a novel. When you hear about someone who comes from a background very different from that, the instinct is to say "This thing needs our support." I think JT LeRoy played on sympathies like that. Laura Albert as JT LeRoy would sometimes contact editors and say she wasn't good at grammar. ... No freelance writer would do that! Writers need to turn things in more or less ready to go. LeRoy was playing on deep sympathies and deep guilts by freely admitting weaknesses by that.

I found a lot of condescension in that approach, being from rural Kentucky. It's as if these cultural elites are so stunned when a poor person did something besides digging a ditch, they just completely lose their minds over it.

A lot of times I'd read accounts about JT LeRoy, and a lot of times people would talk about his Southern accent. There's no such thing as that—there are about a dozen different variations of the Southern accent. I heard a recording of LeRoy as LeRoy [giving commentary for a DVD rerelease of the film My Own Private Idaho]. I heard his voice. There was nothing that was really honestly right about that accent. If people had more experience with his background or people who shared his background, it would have rang false a lot sooner. But you're dealing with a community that doesn't have experience with this, so they were ready to accept it. There's an element of condescension. There's a quote about [LeRoy] from the New York Times reporter who interviewed him, about how he ordered so much sushi, and there's a quote like "God forbid someone grow up without sushi."

You don't pull many punches in Fakers. You insinuate that your previous boss was kind of stupid; you call Michael Chabon's "Gollems" lecture dishonest and unoriginal. What did you feel you needed to dissect the fakers, and the people they fool, rather than just relating the hoaxes?

My impression, once I started to write, was that one of the best things I could do to describe the hoaxes accurately—you can read a number of accounts about Glass, but what it comes down to is Glass published 24 fake articles, and those are basically ignored—so I found and printed all the works of Stephen Glass. At some level I really believed I could learn something from looking at all these together. So much of what has been written about them is glossed over. If we're going to understand anything from these hoaxes, it's really called for a case study approach.

Why did you choose literary and media hoaxes?

That's mostly what interested me. The written fakes held my attention the most. To the extent that I have others in there, they're there to provide context.

In the first chapter, you separate your faking from the faking of writers like Stephen Glass. While you don't say it explicitly, you seem to excuse your own dishonesty by suggesting it had a satirical point, whereas Stephen Glass was inexcusable, because what he did was about getting attention rather than making a statement.

I think there is such a thing as intention. That would be the simplest way to say it. I didn't intend to advance my own career. I wrote these things to highlight what I saw as messed-up values that weren't being revealed. Satire invites us to consider values we may have overlooked.

Isn't dishonesty just dishonesty?

What all these things have in common is, 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. They're all using similar techniques, but I do think there's something to be said about intention. There's a long tradition in satire to get at your point; Gulliver's Travels pretends to be a memoir... "A Modest Proposal" pretends to be an essay. They don't say what they are ... their dishonesty is hidden from us at first. Certainly initially they were presented dishonestly. Swift's name was hidden from the first printings—that's highly dishonest. It's dishonesty with a purpose, with a good intention.

So why isn't the work of Stephen Glass satire? I mean, the idea of Wall Street guys worshipping Alan Greenspan sounds pretty satirical to me.

It's just because the ideas that he was encoding into his work—the bond traders worshipping Greenspan—were so conventional that it wasn't challenging anything. He took the conventional wisdom and resold it to people with a brighter package: wild quotations, crazy details. It didn't challenge anyone to rethink what they thought about bond traders. It was just what you might expect. ... There's a cartoonishness to his people.

Reading your satires in the book, I was fairly surprised how intricate they were. I got the sense you put a lot of work into these things.

I guess I would say it took me longer to write a fake thing than a 1,000-word journalistic article. They took time. There were rough drafts involved. There was revision. Every time I wrote one, I thought, this one surely will be the one they reject. I thought they were getting more extreme, more and more likely to be found out. The only one that I remember being rejected was, one of my main characters wrote a poem as a letter to the editor, the editor rejected it because, he said, they didn't publish poetry.

One thing you seem to really shy away from is giving some sort of blanket statement about the characteristics and motivations of fraudsters. The more flagrant fraudsters, like Clifford Irving and Stephen Glass, all seem to have a romanticized view of themselves, a certain self-absorption and an iron belief in their own superior intelligence. Why did you chart away from the psychology of fakers?

I found it hard to penetrate their psychology. You can see which fakers I had access to: I interviewed Clifford Irving by e-mail, but I just didn't get access to a lot of people. I could get to the statements they made on their own behalf. I found their statements hard to trust, in a way. Even when the fakers came out and confessed, they were still hard to trust. Stephen Glass wrote that novel [The Fabulist, a story about a character named "Stephen Glass" who invents fake articles for a magazine] but they're unreliable narrators. They have a difficult time describing what they've done or reflecting on what they've done. I tried to ask Clifford Irving why he did this, his attitude was just to say, "There's no possible way that I can tell you what my motive was. I don't believe a person can define their own motive. There's no such thing as motive." When you're faced with subjects like that, I'd feel a little like Bill Frist diagnosing Terri Schiavo from TV. That's why I moved from being interested in the fakers and the hoaxes to being interested in the other half of the equation, to the people who are taken in.

Is there a particular sort of person or editor that is especially susceptible to fraud?

I tried to be honest, I feel like I'm just as susceptible as anyone. I describe that student hoax [in which a university student claimed he'd been visited by Homeland Security after checking out Mao's Little Red Book from the school library] as one that took me in. I exercise quite a bit of doubt when I read, yet that seemed completely believable to me. I had every reason to doubt it... [but] I thought it was an indication of the time.

What effect do you think the Internet age will have the frequency of literary and media hoaxes?

The Internet is a curious thing. In some ways, it makes it easier for us to disprove things: we have all these libraries and resources available to prove or disprove things. But at the same time, it makes it easier to fake.

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