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Hoax Addicts

Author Paul Maliszewski explains how journalistic cravings for good narrative make us so damn gullible.



From disgraced journalists Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass to fabricating memoirist James Frey, history continues to provide no shortage of memorable fakers and confidence men. That's not to mention recent pariah Bernie Madoff, the hedge fund manager who duped investors of $50 billion.

Award-winning author Paul Maliszewski has spent a lot of time pondering why we're so often duped. His new book, “Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and other Great Pretenders” (New Press) explores a variety of fascinating cases, including the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 — a series of New York Sun articles on newly discovered lunar life that captivated the public — as well as the fake “autobiography” of Howard Hughes by Clifford Irving and the bogus lectures of author Michael Chabon.

Maliszewski, who's visiting Richmond this week, spoke with Style Weekly by phone from his home in Washington, D.C.

Style: What do you think recent journalistic forgeries will say to future generations about our times?

Maliszewski: I think what they reveal is this preference for narrative journalism. All the things a novel can deliver, or a good short story, we have come to expect from a lot of journalism. And maybe that's an unfair standard. … The memoir forgeries also reveal what the culture has come to value in terms of self-revelation, confession and authenticity.

What makes me sad are cases like author Herman Rosenblat, an actual survivor of the Holocaust who could write something historically valuable, but who produced a hybrid that was part memoir of his times in camp, and part an absolute fairy tale about a girl delivering him an apple at the gate, who later in life arrives as a blind date and marries him. … That, to me, reveals what readers and editors are valuing: a combination of hellish circumstances told in a classical, often sentimental way.

You mention that Edgar Allan Poe was a fan of the well-done hoax.

He had a lifelong interest in using the language of science to bamboozle people in a way through stories. His own plans to write a hoax about life on the moon were left unfinished, after the actual Moon Hoax happened. Through his letters we know he was following that really closely. He was disappointed in the science of it.

How do we combat these frauds?

With journalistic hoaxes, we're dealing with people who tell good stories, and we can't help at some level liking a good story. There's an age-old appreciation for the good story that transcends our desire to be well-informed or conversant on world events. … I think it would be very difficult to curb — simply for this reason.

Shouldn't we be less gullible in the information-oriented digital age?

With a story like the Moon Hoax, we almost can't help but laugh at the people who believed this hokum. But on the other hand, it's hard for me to say that today we're not fooled by things that are just as fantastic. … In some ways the Internet is a real help to batting down these stories and disproving them. But I think people are also easier to fool online because their guard is down a little. S

Maliszewski will read from his book at Chop Suey Books on Saturday, Jan. 24, at 6 p.m. 2913 W. Cary St. 422-8066.

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