| This Weeks Column:
ANATOMY OF A HOAX
An interview with Paul Maliszewski
by Dennis Loy Johnson
25 April 2005 It was one of those stories that seemed, like a bad magician, to be working so obviously to make you look one way that you couldn't help wondering what it is he wanted you to look away from.
The story in question was an 18 April 2005 New York Times report in the Business section entitled "Fiction, Hoax, or Neither? A Literary DustUp." What the story of a "literary dustup" was doing in the business section was never explained. In fact, reporter Alex Mindlin gave only the briefest explanation of what, exactly the "dustup" was about: an article in the April/May issue of Bookforum by Paul Maliszewski that had "suggested" that Michael Chabon, "the Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist, had exceeded the bounds of poetic license in a lecture" in which he had told the story of "a counterfeit Holocaust survivor he'd once met who turns out to be an ex Nazi in hiding."
Mindlin reported that Maliszewski had uncovered that the story was false, and had written that Chabon had thereby "fashioned a Jewish identity for himself that incorporates through an utter fiction the Holocaust."
Maliszewski is not the first person to have questioned Chabon on the issue of Holocaust appropriation (see Marco Roth's recent review of Chabon's novella The Final Solution in the Times Literary Supplement). Nonetheless, the rest of the Times piece the bulk of it, in fact is a fairly scathing personal attack on Maliszewski, starting with the accusations of a spokesperson for the event's sponsor, Matthew Brogan of Nextbook. Mindlin quotes from a letter set to run in Bookforum (and meanwhile being circulated to media by Nextbook) in which Brogan charges that in the lecture, which was entitled "Golems I Have Known," Chabon had "signaled to the audience" that his "narrator is not to be completely trusted." Brogan says Maliszewski "deliberately misread these signs in the hope of stirring up scandal."
This was followed by a testimonial from Dave Eggers, who, although seemingly uninvolved with the story, was revealed to have employed Maliszewski years before as the editor of his McSweeney's Quarterly webzine. Eggers said he had fired Maliszewski for writing "blasphemous emails" that were "full of incredible fabrications."
Mindlin quotes Chabonspeaking, bizarrely, in the third personsaying only that he "prefers to have his work speak for itself."
But, as indicated, character assassination makes for bad sleight of hand what were readers supposed to look away from?
The 7,000 word essay in Bookforum?
The story as detailed there is, of course, considerably more complex than the 384 word New York Times article describes. Among the many significant details the Times leaves out, says Bookforum fiction editor Albert Mobilio, is that the figure at the center of Chabon's "tall tale" is a children's book writer named C.B. Colby a real person. In his lecture, Chabon says that when he was a child, Colby was a neighbor, and that he subsequently turned out to be a Nazi posing as a Holocaust survivor.
Chabon's telling is "so believable," observes Mobilio, "that if the author in question, C. B. Colby, were alive, he could probably sue for slander. The Times reporter might have profitably contacted Colby's family to ask them whether they think mentioning a golem makes the assertion that their father was a Nazi more or less troubling."
Other things that have been overlooked include the fact that Maliszewski interviewed Chabon at length for the piece, and included substantial quotes from those interviews in which Chabon attempts to explain himself. Maliszewski also includes extensive commentary from several Nextbook officials, and several members of the audience, all of whom seemed to think Chabon was telling the truth. (One Nextbook official tells Maliszewski he would be "shocked" to learn Chabon was lying about the Colby story.)
"Paul went to lengths to speak with the people at Nextbook as well as with Michael Chabon," notes Bookforum editor in chief Eric Banks. "Their comments, including those of Mr. Brogan, as reproduced in the article, stand for themselves. At no point were these intended as the 'gotcha' portrayed in the Nextbook letter."
In fact, says Banks, "The main disagreement I have with the letter from Mr. Brogan is that he characterizes the article as 'scandalmongering.'"
Which is also why Banks says he was "quite disappointed by the Times piece . . . I thought it slighted the Bookforum essay in order to foment a very picayune rift between Dave Eggers and Paul."
Banks, who says he spoke to Times reporter Mindlin at length but was nonetheless left out of the subsequent report, says in fact that "the encounter with the Times has been quite dispiriting, and the reporter's decision to cast this as an intraMcSweeney's feud influenced a great bit of the subsequent coverage, particularly by bloggers."
Why did this story take such a bizarre and nasty turn?
Listening to a version of the Chabon lecture (helpfully posted by Nextbook) does not make that any clearer. For that recording, in fact, firmly establishes that Paul Maliszewski is not misreading anything, and in fact only having the same reaction any listener is likely to have. Thus, his questioning of whether or not Michael Chabon is appropriating the Holocaust to fashion his previously banal suburban persona into a more complex Jewish identity is based on solid ground for in fact, Michael Chabon insists early on in his lecture that it is not fiction at all.
"Since this is a memoir," Chabon says quite clearly and deliberately, "I will be truthful."
When the Bookforum article first appeared almost a month ago, MobyLives requested an interview with Maliszewski. He refused, saying he preferred to let his article speak for itself. He changed his mind after the New York Times article appeared. What follows is the results of several telephone conversations followed by an email exchange.
DLJ: What inspired you to attend Nextbook's Michael Chabon lecture in the first place?
PM: I saw the lecture advertised in the Washington City Paper and wanted to go. I'd read some of Chabon's work and liked it. I brought along copies of his books to get them signed.
DLJ: When did you first suspect that what you were hearing in Chabon's lecture was fiction? What tipped you off?
PM: As I write in the Bookforum essay, I didn't start to suspect something might be up until the next day, when I looked around on the Internet and tried to confirm the facts of the story Chabon told about C.B. Colby, who was, remember, a real children's book author, and Joseph Adler and Viktor Fischer, who both turned out to be Chabon's characters.
But even then, part of me thought I must have heard the names wrong, or that I wasn't remembering all the details and so I wasn't even searching for the right keywords. That night, Chabon delivered the lecture again, in D.C., so I went and listened, and it turned out, I hadn't misremembered the names. At that point, I knew for sure that significant parts of the story were made up.
DLJ: In your interview with him, and in any subsequent communications, did Chabon seem in any way contrite about having appropriated the Holocaust like that?
PM: No, but I don't believe he sees this as something that's wrong or that needs to be apologized for. My sense from talking with him is that, for him, the lecture represents how he works as a fiction writer. It's both about his fiction and it is his fiction.
Anyway, when I interviewed him, I wasn't fishing for an apology. I didn't take the 60 Minutes approach here. I wasn't trying to reduce him to tears. I only wanted to understand why he mixed his facts with his fiction and talk to him about the audience's curious reactions.
DLJ: If I read you correctly, you believe Chabon's presentation represents a failure of the imagination.
PM: It seemed to me that buried in the lecture is a story about Chabon's life, and that it got lost. It's a story about his growing up in Columbia, Maryland, about his parents' divorce and his father's embellishments and lies, and about Chabon's attempts to escape that world into alternative universes imagined by mystery, sciencefiction, and fantasy writers. To me, that sounds like a great story. It's a quieter story, for sure, and harder to tell in some ways, more difficult to imagine as a writer, because, in some of its details, it might appear just plain or even average American, but still, I'd love to read it. But that storythat true storyis obscured when Chabon inserts his fictional brush with a fake Holocaust survivor. In fact, letting the Holocaust into the story of his life has the effect of dwarfing everything else.
DLJ: Are you Jewish?
PM: No. I was raised Catholic, but am not religious.
DLJ: Your Bookforum article on the Chabon lecture was the subject of a New York Times report by Alex Mindlin. What did you think of the Times' report?
PM: Well, I was glad to see they spelled my name right. Otherwise, it's bad journalism. I don't want to go through it point by point, because I don't think it deserves the energy, really, but it was just a nasty piece of work.
DLJ: The main focus of Mindlin's report is not the lecture so much as accusations about you and speculation about motive. One of the most surprising elements of the story is the citation of Dave Eggers as a source, although he seems to have nothing to do with the Chabon lecture. His comments also seem the most heated. What is your connection to Eggers?
PM: I used to work for McSweeney's as an editor and a writer, but was fired when it came out that Amie Barrodale, an editor at The Onion, and I were writing and publishing a satirical gossip newsletter called The Pearl Files. Our character, Allen Pearl, went after these clearly madeup stories about literary celebrities, including some of Eggers' friends. Pearl was like a smalltime Matt Drudge, if Drudge was a better writer and even more unreliable. All this happened three or four years ago. It's not relevant to my article about Chabon in Bookforum. But I suppose it came out now as a cheap way to try to undermine me and discredit the article.
DLJ: How do you think Eggers became involved in all this?
PM: I don't know, I'd really be speculating.
DLJ: One of Eggers charges against you is that you are, essentially, jokedeaf. A fair charge?
PM: I think what he said was nobody but me knew the gossip newsletters were a joke. A number of writers contacted me after Amie and I stopped publishing them and said they were funny and how much they liked getting their Pearl Files. It is true though that a number of people didn't understand Pearl. Some people, I think, just saw the email and figured it for spam and asked to be unsubscribed. Pearl was definitely an acquired taste, but then so is The Office or Andy Kaufman or Jonathan Swift, or, really, any comedy more challenging than skits on The Tonight Show.
DLJ: Why didn't you speak to the New York Times for the story?
PM: I heard from Amie that the reporter, Alex Mindlin, had contacted her and was asking about our old gossip newsletter. He didn't know its name and had never seen an issue. He was also asking about how we were fired. He was under the mistaken impression that we were both fired for writing The Pearl Files. In any case, I didn't see how those questions could be germane to writing about my Chabon essay.
The next day, Mindlin called me and wrote. He said my essay was "very good" and that he "loved" it, but something obviously wasn't right. I worried that the article was going to go after me personally, so I just thought it best, perhaps naively, not to participate in something that, from the beginning, was so tainted with bad motives.
DLJ: What about another of the charges leveled against you in the Times story: that you have faked a story in the past. This is something you wrote about yourself, for The Baffler, and in fact you mention these writings in the Bookforum Chabon piece.
PM: I never faked a story. That's a real misunderstanding of what I did. As a reporter, working at The Business Journal of central New York, I made up fictional characters and had them write satiric letters to the editor. Over time, I had other characters submit managerial advice columns and even a couple of news articles. And the editors decided to publish them. But as a journalist all that time, in my actual reporting, I turned in work that was sound and true and accurate. What I did was very different from Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, who handed in work of their own that contained fiction. I was writing satires in order to comment on the Gold Rush that was the business world in the late 1990s. Most readers, thankfully, do get this distinction. But if people are interested, they can take a look at what I wrote for The Baffler. Their website has both essays, "I, Faker" and "Faker's Progress," as well as all the satiric articles.
DLJ: Obviously, though, as you cite these stories yourself, they are relevant. How is it relevant from your perspective?
PM: It's relevant, because it's why I came to write about Chabon's lecture. The satires I wrote while at The Business Journaland how I have written since about cons, hoaxes, fakes, counterfeits, all these different but still somewhat related thingsmake me qualified to write well about the lecture. I'm an interested observer. In my Chabon essay, I described the origin of my fascination with fakes and satires as a way of saying that I'm no stranger to these ideas, that I have some experience, and, most importantly, that I'm not unsympathetic with the artful mixture of fact and fiction. I understand this stuff. I get it. Moreover, I understandand respectthe distinctions between a satire, say, and a hoax, or a satire and a fraud. These distinctions matter to me. I know, for instance, how what Chabon did in his lecture is a world apart from what Binjamin Wilkomirski did in Fragments, a fraudulent memoir of the Holocaust.
DLJ: So it's not a fair assumption, as the Times story seems to indicate, that given your writing about these matters, you might fake a story, or parts of it?
PM: No, that's not a fair assumption. I never faked a story, in part or in whole. As a journalist, my writing was and is completely by the book.
DLJ: Matthew Brogan of Nextbook, the sponsor of the Chabon lectures, has also written a heated response to your article, one that Nextbook has been sending to numerous publications and bloggers in what seems a rather vigorous spin campaign. It will also be appearing in Bookforum as a letter to the editor. What do you think of Brogan's charge that you missed the fact that Chabon's lecture was a "tall tale"?
PM: Brogan argues that Chabon's lecture takes the form of a tall tale, but it remains an inconvenient fact, and one he avoids addressing, that except for him, everyone I spoke to thought that the section of the lecture about Joseph Adler and his fake Holocaust memoir was absolutely true. Even a member of Nextbook's fellows program, who introduced Chabon at both the lectures I attended and ran the Q&A sessions after, thought the story about the Holocaust memoir was real.
These were not simpleminded folk. They don't also believe that golems are real, or that unicorns exist. They detected the clearly fictional. Everyone did. But when it came to the part about the Holocaust, they all assumed they were once again in the realm of fact.
DLJ: Perhaps somewhat contradictory to that, Brogan also writes, "Maliszewski's point seems to be simply this: Michael Chabon promised us a memoir and instead gave us a yarn."
PM: My point was never that simple. I was less interested in the fact of the trick Chabon played on the audiences than its content, namely the way the trick relies on the Holocaust to beef up the seriousness of his lecture and supplement his identity as a Jewish writer. The essay is not about an author committing a bad act, but rather an author creating what I consider bad art.
DLJ: Why do you think Nextbook is defending Chabon so vociferously, instead of examining the questions you raise in your article?
PM: I'd really be speculating, I don't have any way of knowing.
DLJ: Not only the Times article and the Nextbook campaign, but the rather rapid response in the blogging world seems to come down to one essential charge against you: That you did this to create a scandal. Did you do this to create a scandal?
PM: I wrote a serious and fairminded essay about, among other things, the differences between fact and fiction, about the uses of the Holocaust in literature, about telling entertaining stories as opposed to telling true ones, and about the ways that audiences understandor, sometimes, don't getwhat they hear or read. It's absurd and it's sad that I should now have to deny that I was stirring up a scandal, but I will say it: I was not stirring up a scandal. Moreover, I hope it's clear from this that if someone wants a scandal, he needn't go to the trouble of spending almost a year to complete a 7,000word essay. Scandals are easy; all you need to do is plant a squib in the New York Times.
DLJ: Have you heard from Michael Chabon since the article was published?
PM: I haven't heard from Chabon since the article was published.
DLJ: You report that Chabon has delivered this lecture on at least seven occasions. Is he still giving it?
PM: I'm not sure. I have no way of knowing.
Dennis Loy Johnson is the editor of MobyLives.
©2005 Dennis Loy Johnson
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All material not otherwise attributed ©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.