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


Fakers are believed—and, at least for a time, celebrated—because they each promise us, screen-gazing and experience-starved, something real and authentic, a view, however fleeting, of a great thing rarely glimpsed. —from Fakers

From James Frey and his fake memories of drug-addled dissolution to Stephen Glass and his fake dispatches from the fringes of politics to the author formerly known as JT LeRoy and his fake rural tough talk, we are beset ...

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Fakers are believed—and, at least for a time, celebrated—because they each promise us, screen-gazing and experience-starved, something real and authentic, a view, however fleeting, of a great thing rarely glimpsed. —from Fakers

From James Frey and his fake memories of drug-addled dissolution to Stephen Glass and his fake dispatches from the fringes of politics to the author formerly known as JT LeRoy and his fake rural tough talk, we are beset by real-seeming fiction masquerading as truth. We are living in the era of the fake.

Fakers is a fascinating exploration of the varieties of faking, from its historical roots in satire and con artistry to its current boom. Paul Maliszewski journeys into the heart of our fake world, telling tales of the New York Sun's 1835 moon hoax, the invented poet Ern Malley (the inspiration for Peter Carey's novel My Life as a Fake), and Maliszewski's own satiric letters to the editor of the Business Journal of Central New York (written, unbeknownst to the editor, while he worked there as a reporter). Through these stories, he explains why fakers almost always find believers and often flourish.

Since 1997, the author has been on the trail of fakers and believers, asking the tricksters why they dissembled and the believers why they were ever fooled. Fakers tells us much about what we believe and want, why we trust, and why we still get duped.

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 long-running 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

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Editorial Reviews

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.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595584229
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 1/5/2009
  • Pages: 245
  • 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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