Strangely Enough

A recent essay raises interesting questions about literary hoaxing.

April 21, 2005

Over the past few days, an essay by Paul Maliszewski in the latest issue of Bookforum has stirred up a discussion that has been sometimes passionate, if seldom particularly well-informed.

In it, Maliszewski, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, takes a close look at a lecture that Michael Chabon has given several times in which the Pulitzer-winning novelist recounts his childhood friendship with C.B. Colby, the author of Strangely Enough! and similar works of paranormal hokum, and also (Chabon says) the author of a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, published under his real name, Joseph Adler. Only that, too, was a pseudonum. In fact, “Adler” was Viktor Fischer – a Nazi journalist who, after the war, concealed his identity, even to the extent of having a concentration-camp serial number tattooed on his arm.

Maliszewski, who heard Chabon give the lecture a few times, reports that the audience listened with fascination and horror. "The only problem was," he writes, "the personal story Chabon was telling, while he may have presented it as an authentic portrait of the artist, just wasn't true. There was no Adler; and no Fischer either, for that matter. Nor does there exist a Holocaust memoir called The Book of Hell, nor an investigation by The Washington Post. There is a young-adult book titled Strangely Enough!, which is pretty much as Chabon describes it; and it is written by a man named Colby -- though he wasn't, it must be said, a Nazi journalist who disguised himself as a Jewish survivor and holed up in the Maryland suburbs, but rather a real author, based in New York City and residing in Westchester County, who served in the US Air Force Auxiliary after World War II. . . .”

While the essay has been in print for a few weeks, only a portion of it is available online.  It provoked little discussion until the appearance, on Monday, of a gossipy and curiously inane New York Times article suggesting that Maliszewsi’s article was itself something of a hoax.

The stakes of the discussion are high: they include the role of the Holocaust in American Jewish identity, the ethical dimension of storytelling, and the fine line between fantasy and the will to believe. But the terms of the argument have degenerated at impressive speed. People who haven’t bothered to read the essay are denouncing Bookforum for irresponsibility in publishing it, and attributing all sorts of interesting motives to Maliszewski. There is a certain vigor of hysteria that goes with confusing uninformed indignation with critical perspective.

The particulars of the case are not up for dispute. Maliszewski demonstrates that Chabon’s lecture is a fiction. A search of relevant databases confirms that no title called The Book of Hell by Joseph Adler exists, nor was there (as Chabon stated) an expose on the author’s true identity  in The Washington Post.

On Tuesday, I spoke by telephone with Eric Banks, the editor of Bookforum, who said, "We did due diligence with the article. There was no intention of scandalmongering. It’s not that kind of piece, in any way, shape, or form. You can argue about the extent to which Chabon drops hints that the lecture is meant to be understood as the product of an unreliable narrator. But our factchecker listened to a recording of Chabon’s lecture at least four times, and we felt like Maliszewski’s account of it is accurate."

The claim that Chabon meant his talk to be interpreted as a "tall tale" has been argued by Matthew Brogan,  the program director of the Jewish literary association Nextbook, which is making one version of Chabon’s lecture available online.

But what has really sent the dispute into the red zone of bitter conflict is Maliszewski’s admission that he has more than a casual interest in the question of hoaxes. In a series of essays for The Baffler, he recounts working as a business reporter during the economic boom of the late 1990s. Writing under a number of pseudonyms, he began submitting letters-to-the editor that mimicked what he found particularly obnoxious about the market-worshipping mentality of The Business Journal of Syracuse, New York, the publication where he worked.

During the Teamsters strike of 1998, for example, one Maliszewski persona wrote in to wonder why it was such a big deal that UPS had been fined $4 million dollars for more than 1600 violations of worker safety. After all, the company was very profitable. And think how much more money it could make if it had twice as many violations. They should just consider the fines an operating expense.

His exercises in crackpot punditry started appearing in print, and Maliszewski entered the ethical grey zone where satire and hoaxery meet. He is now writing a book on the topic, with the essay on Chabon as part of it. (For now, you can read some of his Baffler confessions here.

Given his first-hand experience of perpetrating a hoax, the Times article and parrots in the blogosphere have suggested that Maliszewski is disqualified from ever commenting on the phenomenon. That notion is every bit as rational as demanding that sex research be done by certified virgins.

But there is another, stronger, and even more dubious axiom just beneath the surface of the discussion. It is the implicit belief that (so to speak) all hoaxes are created equal. They are morally and epistemologically identical. In particular, it assumes that Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair provide a sort of key to everything -- that hoaxing is, in effect, just a way of parlaying the time-saving convenience of fabrication into social status and ready money.  

Well, things are not always quite that straightforward. Of course, some literary hoaxes of a purely mercenary inspiration, such as the phony Howard Hughes memoirs of the early 70s or the forged Hitler diaries 10 years later. But it can be a very different matter when the hoax is intended primarily to make a satirical point -- a category that includes the reductio ad absurdum of a pseudonymous letter to the editor suggesting that a company violate more OSHA regulations to increase its profitability.

Then there are the satirical hoaxes that go horribly wrong, as happened with Report From Iron Mountain, published at the height of the Vietnam War. A parody of what C. Wright Mills once called the “crackpot realism” of the Cold War era, the Report pretended to think the unthinkable -- namely, to imagine how society could still get the benefits of war preparations in the unfortunate event of world peace. The document suggested instituting “a modern, sophisticated form of slavery” and “socially oriented blood games,” as well as fabricating “an established and recognized extraterrestrial menace.” (All of this proposed in a near-perfect imitation of social-science and think-tank prose.)

Although prepared as a critique of the military-industrial complex by humor writer Leonard Lewin -- with advice from Nation editor Victor Navasky -- the bogus Report was rediscovered in the 1990s by the militia movement, whose leaders decided that it was the blueprint for the New World Order. It was reprinted by the Free Press in 1996, in an edition intended to debunk the militias' enthusiasm for it by revealing the hoax. It was an occasion for much chuckling at the pathetic yahoos. But during the 1960s and 70s, the hoax had been effective enough to fool at least some academic social scientists.

Finally, there are the hoaxes that seem to defy any simple explanation. A case very much in point (one that Maliszewski cites in his essay on Chabon) is the memoir Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski, in which the author recounts his childhood in a Nazi death camp in Poland. It was published to favorable reviews and became an international best-seller. Researchers have shown that Wilkomirski actually grew up in Switzerland, where he was raised in a secure, middle-class home. But he appears to believe his own story. You can certainly call his book a hoax, though doing so raises far more questions than it answers.

Maliszewski’s essay in Bookforum is alive to such problems -- which is what makes it particularly disgraceful that so few people have bothered to weight its actual argument before denouncing its author. From the commentary, you might suppose that Maliszewski’s purpose is to trash Michael Chabon -- to call him out as a fraud, at best, or perhaps someone with the mental problems implied by Binjamin Wilkomirski’s fantasies of a childhood in hell.

If you take the time to read the essay, though, you find a nuanced and searching analysis of the relationships between author and audience, between memory and fantasy, between story-telling and truth-telling. Maliszewski’s point is less that Chabon intends to trick his audience than that (for a variety of reasons) his listeners want the story to be true.

Nor does the corrosive effect of that desire mitigated by dismissing Chabon’s lecture as a "tall tale." There was actually someone named C.B. Colby who published a book called Strangely Enough! He wasn’t a Holocaust survivor or a secret Nazi – just a volunteer fireman, library-board member, and author of children’s books. "Real life," writes Maliszewski, "apprantely requires exaggerated stakes – a few teaspoons of the Holocaust, say, or some other dramatic supplement to fortify the work’s seriousness."

I’ve been trying to figure out why it doesn’t shock me so much to find this point being made by someone who has himself been on the other side of the process of fabrication. Perhaps it is the realization that there is a pretty good precedent for serving as both hoaxer and debunker.

Edgar Allen Poe perpetrated his share of raids on the public’s gullibility, including a couple of bogus news stories involving balloon flight. But Poe also published essays deducing that a famous 19th century chess-playing robot actually had a midget inside. Either way, there is the same fascination with the mechanisms of the hoax – with the game of revelation and concealment, the careful balance of plausibility and outrageousness.

Perhaps it’s a good thing Poe isn’t around now. The Times would denounce him as a fraud, and the bloggers would go nuts. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that he might turn the whole situation to his own advantage. After all, when enough people feel entitled to form an opinion without the inconvenience of thinking very hard, the hoaxster’s work is already halfway done.

Full disclosure: I do not know Paul Maliszewski very well, but have met him on a couple of occasions, and have read some of his short stories and essays in various literary magazines. From a conversation, it appears that he shares my great fascination with the strange history of Report From Iron Mountain -- a factor which may have biased this column somewhat. His interest in literary hoaxes strikes me as, well, pluperfectly literary.

Be that as it may, it ought to be a prerequisite for any future commentary regarding his essay on Michael Chabon that the discussants have actually read it. It would also be useful to everyone if Chabon himself commented on the matter, which so far he has not done.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


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