There are a few different ways to approach the first chapter of Fakers, which author Paul Maliszewski begins by admitting that he submitted fake stories written under different aliases to the New York business journal where he once worked as a reporter. The generous reading involves trusting Maliszewski as an objective narrator, historian, and critic of hoaxes even though he’s fabricated stories before. The more pragmatic take is to view Maliszewski’s experience as a credential (who better to lead a 12-step program than a cleaned-up junkie?). But perhaps the most satisfying way to ingest Fakers, a casually paced exploration of intellectual bullshitting through the ages, is to attribute Maliszewski’s skill at spotting hoaxes and hoaxers to the fact that he’s madly in love with the idea of finding authenticity in inauthentic places. Maliszewski bounces from the recent past, including recaps of the JT LeRoy and James Frey scandals and an exploration of the phenomenon of untrue chain e-mails, to early 19th-century New York, where the New York Sun’s Richard Adams Locke single-handedly boosted the importance of journalism (at least temporarily) when he wrote a phony scientific discovery of life on the moon. Once Maliszewski establishes that there’s nothing novel about artists passing off artifice as truth, he begins to reveal, perhaps unintentionally, a subtle fraternal intimacy with his subjects. He seems to admire James McAuley and Harold Stewart, Australian poets who objected so strongly to modernism that they created a fake poet, killed him off, and then submitted his oeuvre to one of Australia’s most prominent journals of modernist poetry, which published and praised the collection before it was exposed as a sham. Writing about the hoax decades later, novelist Peter Carey depicted McAuley and Stewart as morally indefensible villains. Maliszewski, after praising Carey’s book for its detail, goes on to call Carey “rigidly moral” and “unsparing with his punishment” while describing fellow author Michael Heyward, who acknowledged McAuley’s and Stewart’s satirical brilliance, as unfailingly “fair and judicious.” Still, Maliszewski tempers his praise of quick-witted tricksters with disgust for men like Stephen Glass, whose real talent, Maliszewski writes, “lay…in his solicitous ability to seize on whatever the conventionally wise were chatting about…and repackage it, selling the palaver right back to them.” His objection to liars who aren’t in it for sport isn’t a reflection of his ethics, which surprisingly rank a boring story reported well above a magical story told with a few embellishments, but rather serves as a ruler across the knuckles of any establishment that claims to be an arbiter of truth and an ode to artists who dare to create their own.
Paul Maliszewski discusses and signs copies of Fakers Saturday, Feb. 7, at 1 p.m. at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.