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Hocus bogus

From artful fake to hollow fraud, a new book examines the science and success of the scam

By Michael Washburn
January 4, 2009
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FAKERS: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders
By Paul Maliszewski
New Press, 245 pp., $24.95

Effective fabulists - be they satirists, conmen, or merely gifted barroom liars - succeed by being able to predict the content of their mark's imagination. As artists of human expectation they provoke a dream or fear lurking in the mind, beyond doubt, and often beneath belief. A conman leverages greed. Likewise the Ponzi artists and defeated speculators of recent months. And rotten reporters employ a grammar of authenticity concocted of literary device and journalistic convention.

A case in point: Precocious reporter Noah Warren-Mann and businessman Irving T. Fuller, the principal of Telopertors Rex Inc., seemed made for each other. In June 1998, after publishing a series of small pieces in the Business Journal of Central New York, Warren-Mann seized an opportunity and penned a breathless profile of Fuller and his flourishing company, whose avant-garde service was answering phones - for other businesses. The article glorified the businessman's managerial attitude, a brutish, "Darwinian" style that found a receptive audience with both the Business Journal's editors and its readership. The profile impressed Fuller, and he promptly posted excerpts on his company's website and distributed a media kit that included press releases and statements from such notables as George Pataki, then governor of New York.

But every detail of that story was false, though it took some time for the falsehood to be discovered. Warren-Mann and Fuller were companion pseudonyms of Paul Maliszewski, hoaxologist. Maliszewski, a reporter for the Business Journal of Central New York, created them, as he had several other aliases that published satirical letters and columns in the Journal, all unbeknownst to the paper's editors.

Thus we are initiated into Maliszewski's "Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders," an eclectic sampling of the ambitiously false. Maliszewski has spent the better part of a decade exploring - and, in the case of the Business Journal, conducting - hoaxes and cons, all to illuminate how often "belief collaborates with a lie."

In addition to detailing Maliszewski's pseudonymonous moonlighting for the Business Journal, "Fakers" discusses e-mail scams, Vermeer counterfeiter Hans van Meegeren, Howard Hughes impersonator Clifford Irving, and Holocaust deceptions.

The poetry world seems particularly vulnerable to the perils of the fake. Maliszewski details two such hoaxes, one that began in The New Republic and another from the pages of the modernist Australian poetry journal Angry Penguins, which became the historical basis of Peter Carey's novel "My Life As a Fake." Editors of both journals were eager to discover the next poetic movement. So when writers hoping to poke holes in what they took to be modernism's pretense supplied them with sheaves of abstruse poetry and poets with unexpected backstories, the editors bit. In both cases, however, the trick was on the hoaxer. Some of the poems are still anthologized and discussed today. After all, hoax poetry, Maliszewski points out, is still poetry. Once a hoax gets legs, momentum quite often outpaces intention.

Throughout, Maliszewski extrapolates from his tall tales to create a morality of the fake, distinguishing between the artful fake and the hollow fraud. With the exception of a wonderful, concise chapter on The New York Sun's celebrated 19th-century "moon hoax" - the paper officially sanctioned a series of articles announcing and describing life on the moon, complete with descriptions of huge, fire-using beavers and humans with insect-like wings - journalism comes out looking particularly bad.

In fact, Maliszewski's grievances with contemporary journalism as practiced by rogues Jayson Blair, whose handiwork included the mythologizing of Army private Jessica Lynch for The New York Times, and Stephen Glass, whose thicket of contrivances brought disrepute to many major magazines, are the heart of "Fakers."

Maliszewski contends that writers like Blair and Glass succeed, despite an industry that claims the mantle of truth, by becoming masters of conventional journalistic forms and as such are "not so much satiric as sarcastic."

As was the case with Maliszewski's sham writing for the Business Journal, Glass's and Blair's stories were evaluated by editors based on a feeling of authenticity, not evidence of veracity. "Editors didn't judge them good articles because they were well written or moving," Maliszewski argues. They ran the stories because they fulfill the role of a good story, they "told you that what you assumed was, in fact, true . . . and [they] slyly congratulated you on the intelligence of your suspicion."

Glass's articles often made their points by imagining a typically inept nongovernmental organization or nonprofit, which in Glass's world routinely exist in opposition to larger, more traditional forces. The implication was that all minority political opinions are small and stupid. Maliszewski finds these "cartoons of belief" corrosive for politics. True satire, the type that he approves of and practices, niggles at power.

Forgeries and hoaxes, Maliszewski notes, "unwittingly reveal the taste and temper of their times." Ambitious in scope, "Fakers" deftly illuminates this point, but Maliszewski's argument about the political valence of a good hoax is a bit frail, primarily because he fails to directly address the question. Like poetry, a fake political argument is still greeted as a political argument - and an undiscovered lie exists as truth in some minds. Every believer, and we all believe something, has a tin ear for irony.

Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

FAKERS: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders By Paul Maliszewski

New Press, 245 pp., $24.95

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