Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders

Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders

by Paul Maliszewski

Why would two poets invent a fake writer, complete with a fake oeuvre and compelling life story, and then submit their fabrication to a literary magazine? Why might a biographer claim to have interviewed Howard Hughes and collaborated on the reclusive billionaire’s autobiography despite never having met him? Why would a journalist concoct an eight-year-old


Why would two poets invent a fake writer, complete with a fake oeuvre and compelling life story, and then submit their fabrication to a literary magazine? Why might a biographer claim to have interviewed Howard Hughes and collaborated on the reclusive billionaire’s autobiography despite never having met him? Why would a journalist concoct an eight-year-old junkie and then write an article about him, later winning a Pulitzer Prize for her invention? Why might memoirists pretend to be a Holocaust survivor, a gang member, and a recovered addict with a prison record? And why do we believe such wild fictions that masquerade as the truth? Why are we forever getting fooled by frauds?

Paul Maliszewski explores the teeming varieties of fakery, from its historical roots in satire and con artistry to its current boom, starring James Frey and his false memories of drug-addled dissolution and the author formerly known as JT LeRoy with his fake rural tough talk. Journeying into the heart of our fake world, Maliszewski tells tales of the New York Sun’s 1835 moon hoax as well as his own satiric contributions to a newspaper—pieces written, unbeknownst to its editor, while the author worked there as a reporter. For anyone who has ever lied or been lied to, Fakers tells us much about what we believe and why we still get conned.

The essays in Fakers explore:

  • Jayson Blair’s faked New York Times stories, about Jessica Lynch and much else
  • Early American con artists
  • Oscar Hartzell and the longrunning Drake’s fortune scam
  • Internet hoaxes about man-eating bears
  • Han van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers
  • Clifford Irving’s fake autobiography of Howard Hughes
  • Michael Chabon’s fictionalized version of his early years
  • Binjamin Wilkomirski’s fabricated Holocaust memoir
  • In-depth interviews with three fakers: journalist Michael Finkel, painter Sandow Birk, and performance artist Joey Skaggs

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Not only is Fakers beautifully written and fun to read, but it is tremendously useful. It explains clearly and with perfectly chosen examples just what the distinction is between pointed pranks and lazy fabrications, and between satire and malice. And unlike previous efforts on the subject, this one is entirely in favor of the imagination.” — Luc Sante, author of Low Life and Kill All Your Darlings

“Here it is, the one true guide to the world of forgery. Paul Maliszewski shows us how to distinguish the masterpieces from the frauds, the inspired fakes from the merely counterfeit, tossing off along the way a few gemlike examples of the former. This is a perfect book for our pompous, authenticity-grubbing times.” — Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew and What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Publishers Weekly

In this detailed if uneven meditation, Maliszewski explores the complicated world of deception and those who practice it. The book begins with the author defending his own habit of publishing letters to the editor under pseudonyms while working as a reporter in upstate New York. He describes his actions as satire, although his lengthy, sometimes bitter mea culpa drags by the end. However, his analysis of literary and journalistic deception-a sampling that includes Stephen Glass, James Frey and JT LeRoy-finds nuanced differences between the hoaxes, cons and outright lies while connecting them to universal themes. The book abounds with interviews and anecdotes about con men, art forgers and historical fakes, leading Maliszewski to conclude, "Writing, after all, needn't be a mirror in which authors discover only themselves looking back and grinning." The author could stand to take a bit of his own advice, although the book as a whole does provide some interesting insights into the nature of deception. (Jan.)

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Library Journal

Every year, another scandal! The Pentagon fakes the story of captured soldier Jessica Lynch; the New Republic discovers that reporter Stephen Glass made up all or part of 21 stories; Oprah touts and then must repudiate James Frey's falsified memoir. And in author Maliszewski's first book, we learn also of his own faked letters to the editor and advice columns when he was working for an upstate New York financial journal in the 1990s. What he wrote was accepted and published without comment; it reinforced the editor's and readers' prejudices. Maliszewski says he created his own correspondents to highlight the journal's idiocy. He learned a lesson about our vulnerability to falsehood: we accept what we think right, especially if it's presented as story, and not (usually) what we've verified as true. The reader seeking a scholarly study won't find it in this intriguing and engaging book of essays. Rather, Maliszewski tells lively stories about fakers past and present, spiced by his own observations on why faking works. There are interviews with journalist Michael Finkel (he invented Youssouf Male, an African wage slave, for the New York Times), painter Sandow Birk, and performance artist Joey Skaggs. A good book, enlightening but of modest proportions, it is recommended for general collections.
—David Keymer

Kirkus Reviews
No stranger to creative nonfiction, the author comments on some premeditated misrepresentations and the perps who presented them to a gullible public. Maliszewski begins his first book with a confession. In 1997, when he was a hack writer at a business journal in upstate New York, he contributed-under assumed names unknown to his employers-letters to the editor spouting raving inanities in deliberately execrable prose. His paper happily accepted and printed his spoofs, completely missing their satiric intent. Maliszewski depicts them as ironic commentary on society's shoddy standards in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, Hans van Meegeren and Clifford Irving. His survey of other people's artistic flimflams touches on diverse cons, frequently using secondary sources for documentation. (He interviewed some present-day practitioners by e-mail, perhaps not the best way to extract candid, unrehearsed responses.) His main interest is in invented nonfiction. The New York Sun in 1835 reported life on the moon, detected via "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle." (See Matthew Goodman's delightful The Sun and the Moon, 2008, for details.) People believed it, at least for a while. Fakes, posits Maliszewski, have a short shelf life. But how can we be sure that all frauds are detected? The author writes most engagingly on the application of phony journalism, displaying considerable understanding of deceitful writers like Jayson Blair, James Frey and JT LeRoy. He parses the literary dust-up regarding Michael Chabon's fanciful autobiographical lectures. "An erstwhile practitioner of the not-always-completely-true" is perhaps not the most trustworthy guide to most subjects, but in this case,Maliszewski's thoughtful, persuasive text rings, er, true. Some entertaining thoughts on the inventive presentation of stuff that might have been so . . . but wasn't.

Product Details

New Press, The
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 7.66(h) x 0.75(d)

Meet the Author

Paul Maliszewski has published his fiction and essays in Bookforum, Harper’s, Granta, and the Paris Review, and his stories have twice received a Pushcart Prize. Fakers is his first book. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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