We take a look at the fascinating story of Paul Maliszewski, the reporter who faked the news
Writing about author Paul Maliszewski invites a certain amount of editorial caution. After all, his debut essay collection, Fakers, deals with literary and journalistic fabricators, from Stephen Glass, the disgraced US magazine New Republic writer who invented articles, sources and events, to JT LeRoy, the fake transvestite ‘cover’ for American author Laura Albert.
But more to the point, there’s the writer’s own background: Maliszewski, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner whose fiction and essays have appeared in publications including Harper’s and Granta, was once an unrepentant faker himself. While working as an editor at the Business Journal Of Central New York, he published letters and columns written by more than a dozen fictional characters plucked from his very active imagination.
Reached at his home in Washington, DC, the 40-year-old writer is quick to assuage any fears, assuring Time Out that neither the interview nor the book is part of some sort of metahoax. ‘I had to be straight this time,’ says the soft-spoken author. ‘The book wouldn’t have worked if I’d played around like that.’
Fakers is in fact a serious and thoughtful meditation on a variety of hoaxes: subjects include a chain email about a 1,600-pound Alaskan grizzly bear; an 1835 life-on-the-moon story that appeared in The New York Sun; and the debate over the aesthetic merits of poet Ern Malley, invented in 1944 by two conservative Australian poets to satirise modernist poetry and subsequently lauded by a leading magazine editor as one of the craft’s exemplars. Commenting on dupers and the duped, Maliszewski casts little moral judgment, focusing instead on more psychologically complex issues of why people lie, and why readers choose to go ahead and believe what they do.
His experiences at the Business Journal – examined in the book’s incisive and savagely funny essay ‘I, Faker’ – cast the framework for the pieces that follow. Fresh out of a Master of Fine Arts programme at Syracuse University and fed up by his newspaper’s uncritical corporate cheerleading, Maliszewski used his adopted personae to go on the offensive, writing letters and articles that played into his editor’s thirst for editorial that confirmed or encouraged an evidently strident laissez-faire economic ideology.
In an especially damning bit of tomfoolery, Maliszewski tweaked the language of a School of the Americas torture manual to make it read like a managerial tutorial. ‘Detention and a deprivation of sensory stimuli are two methods which on the surface sound draconian, but which can, on second look, be easily adapted for the workplace,’ reads one excerpt.
Maliszewski, who went as far as submitting a fake news article written under an invented name, feels no remorse about his own exercises in deception. ‘I gave them every opportunity to reject the pieces,’ he says of his former employer. ‘They could publish it or they could say “not for us” or “not true”, but they didn’t, so I don’t feel really bad about that.’ (He was never caught.)
Rather than shake his finger at those who perpetrate fraud, Maliszewski holds a mirror to those audiences (and editors) who enable it. His essays on early 20th century confidence tricks and modern-day fake memoirs illustrate, convincingly and provocatively, a pattern of supply meeting demand. ‘The desire for authenticity and a well-told story, for gritty dispatches from little-glimpsed lives unlike our own, and a yarn as traditional in its design as a fairy tale, will forever be at odds,’ he writes.
It is almost fortuitous that just as Fakers was being sent to reviewers, a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor named Herman Rosenblat was recanting the story behind his recently cancelled memoir, Angel At The Fence. In the book, Rosenblat claimed to have met his wife, Roma, while imprisoned at a concentration camp as a child. Roma, as a little girl, sustained Rosenblat by passing him apples each day over a fence, and the two later reunited on a blind date that eventually led to their marriage (though Rosenblat was at a concentration camp, he actually met his future wife much later).
Oprah Winfrey, who selected the since-discredited memoir for her book club and had hosted the Rosenblats twice on her show, declared it ‘the single greatest love story… that we’ve ever told on the air’.
To Maliszewski, the dust-up is further evidence of the dynamic explored in his book, the last two chapters of which deal with Holocaust-related fabrications. ‘Rosenblat’s story is sad and ultimately sentimentalises something that shouldn’t be sentimentalised,’ he says. What really interests Maliszewski is that Rosenblat felt the need to fabricate his past in the first place. ‘The strangest thing of all is that he would take his past and want to change it. He already has a real story to tell.’