It should come as no surprise that the long literary con of Dan Mallory began with a fake memoir. Fabricating pain for profit is, after all, a time honored publishing tradition.
Mallory, who published his bestselling, Hollywood-optioned first novel The Woman in the Window under the name A.J. Finn, was exposed last week as a serial liar by the New Yorker. He faked his resume, he faked cancer, he faked his brother’s suicide, he faked that his novel about an agoraphobic woman who thinks she possibly witnessed a crime in her neighbor’s apartment wasn’t just a hodgepodge rip-off of better written works like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the Barbara Stanwyck film Sorry Wrong Number, and the Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver 1980s thriller Copycat.
But what got him into publishing in the first place, where he became an editor and from there a novelist, was a faked memoir. His essay on his taking care of his mother as she died of cancer and he himself discovered he had a brain tumor, written while he was a grad student at Oxford, caught the attention of Craig Raine, the editor of Areté literary magazine, who called it an “astonishing” piece of writing. Areté publishes some of the biggest names in British literature, from Julian Barnes to Tom Stoppard to Ian McEwan, and Raine wanted Mallory to join their distinguished company.
The problem was the story wasn’t true. Mallory’s mother did have cancer at one point, but she was certainly not dead, just living on Long Island. Nor was his father dead, although Mallory had committed linguistic patricide on him in the same essay. Nor his brother, who... you get it.
What made the essay remarkable was its authenticity. As Raine explained to the New Yorker, it told a story of harrowing family tragedy — death after death after brain tumor after death — but “it didn’t exaggerate... it was written calmly.” What we don’t know is whether the piece of writing was good outside of its so-called authenticity. If it wasn’t positioned as a true story, if it had been written as fiction, would the tale of a family blighted by disease and misfortune be believable, let alone good?
We don’t have the essay to judge; Mallory rather wisely chose not to publish it, but it did open doors into the literary community for him. He became a contributor to the magazine and, soon after, told the same story of the dead mom and personal brain tumor during an interview with a publishing company and was hired.
If it wasn’t positioned as a true story, if it had been written as fiction, would the tale of a family blighted by disease and misfortune be believable, let alone good?
While Mallory’s story seems remarkable — a con man using a sob story to sashay his way to literary power — it’s actually extremely common. The publishing industry not only attracts but rewards these fraudsters in large numbers. It fetishizes and exploits so-called authentic experience, especially from marginalized populations, but its insularity and homogeneity makes it ill-equipped to detect fakery.
There was a time, not too long ago, when every memoir detailing a miserable, marginalized life turned out to be written by someone from the suburbs. Margaret B. Jones, whose story of being a half-Native inner city gang member was lavished with praise by The New York Times for being “unsentimental” and “humane,” turned out to be a white girl from the suburbs. James Frey wrote a memoir about violence and hardship and a life of addiction, and he turned out just to be some guy from the suburbs. Danny Santiago wrote a supposedly autobiographical novel about a teenage Chicano moving in and out of gang life on the hard streets of Los Angeles, and he turned out to be some white guy from the suburbs. JT LeRoy wrote autobiographical fiction and memoir about his time working as a gas station prostitute, about coming out (and going back in) as trans, about having AIDS, about his abusive relationship with his mother. He turned out just to be some white lady from the suburbs.
Imagining and selling tragedy works. Mallory’s literary career may have been very different had he not captured a gatekeeper’s attention with a fake memoir that followed the template of every other successful hoax. Publishing insists it is a meritocracy, but it is mostly a matter of having the right bylines and knowing the right people. The sob stories of family tragedy and cancer treatment were used to explain work absences, gain sympathy, and make himself noticed, as told in the New Yorker profile.
According to Christopher L. Miller’s Imposters: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity, the key to a successful fraud is to downgrade your societal position, to “cross a boundary from a realm of greater privilege to one of lesser privilege.” In order to successfully mimic authenticity, pretend to be poor if you’re rich. If your family is intact, break them up or kill some of them off. If you’re straight, go gay. If you’re white, try some literary brown or blackface. An authentic experience is an experience of difficulty. The act of writing is then an act of overcoming that difficulty.
The reason these frauds happen is because of the publishing industry’s and the audience’s hunger for authentic voices, particularly voices of suffering. Apologies to Barthes, but the author didn’t die, she became the text. Literature’s job — to articulate the unspeakable, to contextualize the seemingly chaotic and random, to humanize the other — is now handed over to the author rather than the book. If you, like Mallory, write a character who has agoraphobia, you had better have suffered from agoraphobia yourself. It makes the characterization and plot more legitimately authentic. Mallory invented many different parallels between his main character and himself during interviews and events, all in the name of promotion. The personal connection becomes the selling point. It gives the work the shine of authenticity, whether real or stretched or fabricated.
Imagining and selling tragedy works.
So what if nothing of interest has ever happened to you? What if you were basically coddled your whole life, or what if the things you feel were a struggle are deemed prosaic by the rest of the world? What if no one cares about your comfortable childhood in the suburbs? No problem. You can fake it.
The reason why these hoaxes work, however, has a lot to do with the literary world’s lack of diversity. Even hard nonfiction is published without first going through a round of fact-checking, let alone personal stories. Memoir, then, is determined to be publishable if it rings true and if the team finds that it reads as authentic. Publishing is run primarily by well-educated, affluent white women; this remains true even through calls to diversify the industry.
The combination of a growing interest in diverse voices with a lack of diversity in the gatekeepers of those voices leaves a lot of room for fakery and fraud. As Miller writes, “The inquiring majority mind wants to know about the minority, which is construed as different, distant, peculiar, inscrutable, mysterious, and perhaps in need of help.” If the majority’s familiarity with the minority comes primarily through stereotype and simplified narratives, they will find it hard to distinguish between truth and the sheen of authenticity.
The barriers for entry to the literary center for actual marginalized populations are enormous. The lack of racial diversity has been noted, but the class issues are less well documented. Alexis Aceves, who now works at Catapult Press, attended the NYU Summer Publishing Institute in 2014 and asked then-editor of The Paris Review, one of the most prestigious and powerful literary magazines (that also happened to be founded as a front for the CIA), what they looked for in an (unpaid, full-time) intern, and he replied, “an Ivy League education.”
It’s not just the editorial staff that is so expensively educated, it’s the writers. In the past ten years of the National Book Award, nine separate writers won for best novel; all are college graduates and seven come from elite educational backgrounds. These are the writers who are groomed for success. They just happen to go to the same schools and occupy the same socio-economic stratosphere as the agents and editors who run the industry.
The reason why these hoaxes work has a lot to do with the literary world’s lack of diversity.
One could of course argue that of course all of the writers and publishing insiders are well educated: literature is written and appreciated by those like them. But throughout most of the 20th century, this was not the case. The Book of the Month Club, which selected and distributed the best books of the month across America and had an enormous influence over American literary taste, had more than 800,000 subscribers by 1946. The club sent its subscribers books by Hemingway, Nabokov, and Salinger, back when less than 10 percent of the population graduated from college. The educational boundary creates a lack of diversity, not only of race and class, but a lack of diversity of thought and experience. It should not be surprising that so many of the frauds and the publishing employees share the same suburban experience and worldview.
Mary Karr writes in The Art of Memoir that she asks her students to read excerpts from two Holocaust memoirs, one real and one a fraud, to see if they can detect the fake, and “the proven fabricator gets the majority of votes for veracity every time.” But someone who has experienced poverty or marginalization or a terminal illness is better able to detect a bullshit story. As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore said in an interview for the documentary The Cult of JT Leroy, explaining how she knew the story was a fraud years before the investigation in New York Magazine revealed all, “You talk to all these people in San Francisco who are freaks and queers and outsiders, and none of us have ever met this person! And they supposedly lived here!”
There are certainly books by Native writers (Layli Long Soldier, Janet Campbell Hale), sex workers (Charlotte Shane), trans and genderqueer writers (Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, Nathanael), crip writers (Johanna Hedva), Appalachian writers (Ann Pancake), but it is rare for these authors to become the celebrated literary figures that the fakes do, getting large advances and institutional support, showing up on Oprah like Frey and getting the coveted Times reviews like Jones. That is partially because these fakes often tell us what we already assume about marginalized populations: that communities of color are rife with violence, that gay lives are tragic, that drugs make you cool, and so on. People living in their little demographic bubble without actually knowing anyone in these communities expect these stories, and they crave them.
But there is another story these fakes are telling that we want to hear: the story of redemption through the written word. Even if you come from the most hardscrabble of circumstances, even if you have been wiped out by the tidal waves of fate, you can better yourself and your life through literature. It’s the literary version of the American dream, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but in this case, your bootstraps is your manuscript.
Reading JT LeRoy now, now that it has been revealed he was never a prostitute or an abused child or HIV positive or even a he, the work seems sentimental and insubstantial. Its Appalachian stereotypes of the lives of the uneducated and the poor seem offensive. Reading James Frey now, now that it has been revealed he didn’t get high on crack and was so dangerous he had to be taken down by a bunch of cops, the work seems like a document of vain toxic masculinity. Stripped of its so-called authenticity, the writing of these fakers turns out to be hollow.
There is another story these fakes are telling that we want to hear: the story of redemption through the written word.
And Mallory, stripped of the tragic backstory and the excuses of chronic illness, turns out to be just a mediocre writer who isn’t very good at his job. Like many mediocrities, their careers are doing fine. Frey still writes for a major publisher, his latest novel was put out by a Simon & Schuster imprint last year. Mallory’s publisher announced they will proceed with his follow-up novel despite the expose. And all of this is a great marketing opportunity for Mallory — if his next few novels are populated by con men, the New Yorker article just becomes a really long press release.
In the Young Adult market, there are currently wars raging over who gets to tell which stories. A young Chinese-American writer was caught up in a controversy when her fantasy novel’s scene of a slave auction was deemed insufficiently authentic. Never mind the fact that it was only inauthentic of the context of America’s history of slavery — the author Amelie Wen Zhao pointed out she was writing from an Asian perspective, which has its own and very different history of slavery — the controversy took over the conversation of the book, not even yet published. Zhao asked her publisher to halt the release.
Zhao is not the first YA novelist to find herself immersed in such a fight over authenticity and representation, nor the first to find their books pulled from shelves as a result. Miller calls this “the ethics of ethnicity: the unwritten code that says each group should represent itself, perhaps exclusively, perhaps only with permission.”
That Zhao was telling an authentic history, just an unfamiliar one that does not line up with our preconceived assumptions of how that story should go, was overlooked in all of the outrage. But true diversity of storytelling, of voices, of who is allowed to speak and on which subjects, requires the audience, and its gatekeepers, to allow for complication and unfamiliarity. Otherwise, we’ll be listening to the same white people from the suburbs forever.