“I object, your honor! This trial is a travesty. It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.”
— Fielding Melish, Bananas
In an age when the “self” may have infinite online iterations and an “award winning” 16-year old novelist can unapologetically admit to “mixing and matching” by mostly taking the words of a less well-known writer, and still get nominated for a prestigious literary prize, how do we even begin to define “fake”?
Millions of viewers tune in for the wedding a woman famous for nothing. The marriage is over in 72 days, and it’s possible the bridegroom wasn’t in on the joke, yet the celebutante’s ratings and brand do not appear to have suffered.
Still, some fakes are roundly condemned. In 2006, Kaavya Viswanathan wrote How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Viswananthan got a major book deal while a sophomore at Harvard. The novel came out, and so did the accusations that she had stolen chunks from another author’s series. Viswanthan claimed it was unintentional. When the extent of her cribbing made her excuses unlikely, she blamed her photographic memory, saying she must have “internalized” the other texts. Her publisher didn’t see it that way and canceled her contract.
Fitzgerald aside, second acts exist in America., Kaavya went on to Georgetown Law School just like former “journalist” Steven Glass who had been famously fired from The New Republic for passing off fiction as journalism.
There are many infamous cases of straight out plagiarism and other literary fakery over the last ten years — “fake” memoirs like A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. Frey is best known for an oft parodied episode of getting reamed out by an enraged Oprah. There’s Margaret B. Jones, who published a memoir of gang life in South-Central, in which she claimed to have been a part-Native American foster child in South Central. She turned out to be a white surbanite with the last name of Seltzer, who briefly went to a public high school.
Perhaps the condemnation of Frey, Viswanathan, and Jones/Seltzer has to do with their “success” at fooling the self-important. You don’t mess around with Oprah, The New York Times, and big publishers.
I’ll admit to having sympathy for Laura Albert who wrote novels under the name JT LeRoy and even had a relative make public appearances as this persona. She was convicted of fraud for signing legal papers using her pseudonym. While she never claimed that her books were non-fiction, she gave her alter ego a backstory suspiciously similar to that of her characters — a childhood of abuse and neglect, sexual identity issues, prostitution, etc. As Birdie Coonan in All About Eve might have said “What a story. Everything but the blood hounds snapping at her rear end.”
Readers who “believed” in JT LeRoy were very upset to find out that the “author” didn’t exist. Yet, how does that change their relationship to “his” fiction? In an interview with The Paris Review, Albert explained the origin of the JT LeRoy persona. In her version, LeRoy was not invented to fool readers or sell books, but to protect the psyche of a writer who was filtering some difficult material, which in fact came from her own past.
Do we forgive Albert because the writing stands on its own and the motives, at least in the beginning, did not appear to be monetary ones? Or do we condemn her because readers grew emotionally invested in an “author” who was in fact a creation?
Sometimes it’s difficult to spot a motive for fraud. Over the past couple of weeks, The Hacker Hunter has become the talk of the town on Kindle related blogs. This is a techno-thriller/spy novel, self-published in October that amassed 350 favorable reviews. The problem was that none of them were real. The “tells” for fake were abundant, and the numbers impossible. Even Amanda Hocking, the Queen of Kindle doesn’t have anywhere near that many reviews on a single book. Readers complained and almost all the reviews on Amazon US were pulled. As of this writing, they are still up in the UK. The book itself wasn’t just “bad” in a Jacqueline Susann kind-of-way, it was the Springtime for Hitler of books.
Fake reviewers are reportedly paid $10 a pop and the review mills may be paid twice that for setting them up more. That means the author of Hacker could have spent $7k on the fakes. Did he really think this would lead to big sales? A movie deal? Why not just hire a ghostwriter? Or at least a proofreader? Why risk one’s own reputation and maybe even one’s business?
Pondering motives brings me to the curious case of QR Markham, aka Quentin Rowan, whose thriller Assassin of Secrets was published in November by Little Brown (the people who brought you Kaavya Viswanathan). Secrets was getting rave reviews and all kinds of buzz. Within two weeks of publication, readers had noticed the plagiarized passages from a number of other books, and Rowan’s entire oeuvre turned out to have involved a lot of heavy, unattributed borrowing. When caught, Rowan admitted the fraud, even though some bloggers offered a way out, imagining it could have been a brilliant postmodern hoax.
Rowan sat down for a virtual (honest) conversation with a blogger about his “career”. He suggested that it was having a poem anthologized in Best American Poetry when he was nineteen years old that set him on his wayward path. He thought he was “destined” to be a great writer, and when he started writing prose, he just found other people’s words more “clever” than his own and started to “swipe” them. He compares this to other addictive or obsessive behavior that is not rational. There’s something awfully self-pitying about those remarks. “Poor me, if only I hadn’t been ruined by early success and had applied myself to my craft. I could have been somebody. I could have been a contender.” Or as Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine put it, regarding music, “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”
Nietzsche said, “The thought of suicide is a powerful solace: by means of it one gets through many a bad night.” Another cure for insomnia is schadenfreude. Rowan is an investor in a bookstore, Spoonbill and Sugartown in Williamsburg. I blame Williamsburg itself for sealing his destiny. I used to live there once before it became a playground for trustifarians and the tragically hip.
This is a neighborhood about which a young musician recently told me, “It’s not enough to be an artist or a musician, you have to be the right kind.”
Back in the 80’s, when my friends in the East Village referred to Williamsburg as a suburb, when taxi drivers wouldn’t take me there, when it was still a real place, there were writers and artists even then, but they weren’t there because it was a “scene.” They were there because it was affordable. Nowadays, I feel too old, too ugly and too poor to even get off the train at Bedford Avenue, much less set foot in its most chichi of bookstores.
Rowan wasn’t actually trying to be a writer. He was trying to be “the right kind“, the “kind” who gets published in the right places, and owns the coolest shop on the coolest block, in the coolest neighborhood, of the greatest great city in the world — even though it’s a world of appearances that are no more real than shadows cast on the wall of a cave.