Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fakers

The writing continues apace. I now have 120 pages of...something. It's a strange sensation: I have never prepared so little to write a book. I took some notes a while back but I don't know where I put them. Everything is coming from the constant cogitation I expend on the project every day. Continuity errors are doubtless piling up, and I dread having to face them later, but I'm having more fun writing than I have in years, which is more than ample compensation.

Anyhow, now that I have gotten over the initial push into "can't give up now" territory, I'll be posting more frequently. Please return to your original regimen of visiting the blog!

Today I want to offer a bit of praise for a friend's book. Paul Maliszewski's Fakers (weird--the dust jacket at that link isn't remotely like the one I have in front of me) is a loosely structured collection of essays about literary frauds, including Stephen Glass, James Frey, and J. T. Leroy. Maliszewski also writes about writers who write about fakes (Peter Carey), the nature of tall tales, and the literary world's meta-appreciation of the specious "spectric school" of poetry. The book opens with one of the writer's own brushes with controversy: Maliszewski, while grudgingly working for a business newspaper in Syracuse in the late nineties, began a psudonomous ironic letter-writing campaign to the paper, and ended up writing parodic editorials under several assumed names, which his editor published in earnest, believing their authors to be real people. The plot unraveled, of course, and Maliszewski ended up being threatened by the FBI. The story is crazy and very funny (and is not even, in my view, the most interesting of Paul's pseudonomous exploits--but you'll have to ask him about that), and sets the tone for what proves to be an intelligent and highly entertaining exploration of frauds and why we fall for them.

One thing that occurs to me reading about these writers--particularly the memoirists "LeRoy" and Frey--is that they have to be admired for their shrewdness. They understood that, by and large, publishers aren't interested in good stories so much as stories that tell people what they want to hear. The world, these writers decided, wants street-smart victim narratives, and so that's what they wrote. The writers are to blame for their frauds, of course. But insofar as they are literary monsters, they're the monsters the publishing industry created, the result of their endless pandering to conventional tastes. Which of course brings me back to one of my hobby horses: the sad misapprehension that publishers can maintain a 12% profit margin while remaining culturally relevant. But you don't need to hear that again.

There's one quite surprising story here, as well, about, of all people, Michael Chabon. Chabon evidently delivers, from time to time, a lecture entitled "Golems I Have Known," in which he relates the (ultimately redemptive) story of his discovery that a favorite writer of his from childhood, a man named Colby, was actually his neighbor--and a discredited Holocaust memoirist, a faker. The lecture itself, it turns out, is almost entirely a fabrication. Chabon doesn't make any particular claims about the lecture's factuality, but he doesn't call it fiction, either, and many of his listeners assume the story to be true. Maliszewski interviewed Chabon for Fakers, and addresses, very effectively I think, the moral pitfalls of the situation. Is Chabon merely doing what he's good at--that is, inventing a story--for a greater good: to convey the power of the imagination, and remind listeners of people's capacity for forgiveness? Or is he snatching for himself a bit of the moral authority that a connection to the Holocaust can confer on a writer? In the end, I don't know, and neither does Maliszewski. Chabon doesn't seem to, either.

Fakes only really work in the cultural moment for which they are created. "We're not likely," Maliszewski writes, "to get fooled by the fakes of our fathers." If you have a good eye, and if you're not invested in the mores of the moment, you can spot them as they happen. Rhian, for instance, saw through Stephen Glass in an instant: she identified his psychic-hotline piece in Harper's as bullshit the moment she read it.

Not me, though. I bought it. What can I say? I wanted to believe.

7 comments:

bloglily said...

I'm thrilled to hear that your friend's written this book. Every time I come across one of these fake memoir stories I wish somebody smart would write about this sort of thing. Now, I can't wait to read it (in fact, I'm going to the link to buy it after I gush all about how interesting this subject is and how incredibly funny the letter writing campaign (to his own employer!) is).

And what terrific news about your writing. It sounds exciting to just sit down and write that way. Good luck with it.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, some of the letters and editorials he wrote are in the book, and they're really hilarious. I mean, in retrospect, they are OBVIOUSLY parody. But you hear what you want to hear.

In fact, I WAS FOOLED by one of Paul's pranks that, with hindsight, was obviously parody. And I know the guy.

Thanks about the writing!

rmellis said...

I'm dying to read about "The Pearl Files," and though Paul didn't write about that episode in his book, he mentions it in this interview with Dennis Loy Johnson:

http://www.mobylives.com/Maliszewski.html

Fascinating stuff.

jrlennon said...

Yep, it was Pearl that fooled me! Those are the "blasphemous emails" in question. I was one of the people who read one paragraph, then unsubscribed, thinking Pearl was genuine.

I've told Paul this before--and I know you're reading this, Paul!--but I want to see him write about the Pearl Files someday. They mocked the very notion of literary celebrity, which rubbed some people the wrong way. Literary celebrities, for instance.

jon said...

The whole Oprah thing with Frey (it was frey I think) made me actually sympathise with him, for all the reasons you give. Sure he's a self-aggrandizing scoundrel. But he's a writer, and all writers are frauds in one way or another. The frauds at least are clever. It's like the story of a con man. If you're the one conned it's humiliating. But from the outside, the con man is the compelling character. I have nothing against Oprah, but the idea that you're going to find some true narrative in any book is a little laughable, since you would not enjoy or like such a book, it would be like reading the diary of an inane bore. Afterall, the best diaries are written for a reader, as are all letters and emails. The theater of the public apology for playing on the desires of readers for hoaky rehab melodramas with redemption just leaves me feeling disgusted, but powerfully tempted to write a false memoir, or try to fob a novel off as a memoir, for crass business reasons.

Paul said...

Some day the full story of Allen Pearl and The Pearl Files will be told. Sorry for the passive voice there. I do mention Pearl in the book, in the section that I thought of as my autobiography in pseudonyms, but I didn't go into much detail, it's true.

The Pearl Files was the work of two writers, me and Amie Barrodale. So I've never felt it was my story alone to tell. Amie and I have talked about it, and we've tried various ways, but as of now, we haven't figured out how, though we did recently write (and then not publish) a new episode of The Files, catching up with Pearl however many years later. Hint: he's living in India.

jrlennon said...

India! I like it. Perhaps you and Amie should, instead of telling the story, merely open a new chapter of it. Start a Drudge-style fake literary gossip site full of photoshopped libelous goodness.

jon, I hear you--I think the reason people demand those horrible apologies is not just that they're embarrassed to have been fooled--they're embarrassed to have wanted to be fed such reassuring truths. It's like being caught sucking your thumb.