Monday, March 02, 2009

Fakers by Paul Maliszewski

As my hackwork piled still higher I began to think of journalism not as a series of unique assignments or stories, but as a limited number of ideas and conventions, which each story had somehow to affirm.

Thus begins Paul Maliszewski’s short but colorful career as a hoaxer and satirist. As a young employee of the Business Journal of Central New York Maliszewski conned his own newspaper with letters to the editor from fictitious business “titans” who illustrated and inflated the Journal’s bias to grotesque proportions. His disgust with his work and the shabby standard to which he was held served to inspire ever crazier letters, which, to Maliszewski’s increasing astonishment, were accepted at face value and posted alongside the editorial. The fun didn’t come to a stop until the FBI finally knocked on his door at the behest of a satirically implicated governor.

This experience is the platform from which Maliszewski launches his book, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders (A). Needless to say, Maliszewski’s first impulse when exploring the world of Fakers is often sympathy toward the artists/perpetrators in question. His second impulse is to explore the public mindset that accepts these deceits at face value. Why is a given group of people susceptible to the charms of the most banal fraudulence? Who bears the greater burden of responsibility — the con or the conned? Under what circumstances?

In the course of this short book, Maliszewski looks closely at frauds celebrated and forgotten, exotic and commonplace, and sifts through the conditions that allowed these cons to succeed. He interviews satirists who receive gullible public response which further enlivens and informs the content of their satire. Some of the conclusions Maliszewski reaches might surprise the reader. Maliszewski has a novelist’s eye for the subtle elements of persuasion — the quote at the top of this post is reminiscent of the observations that compel Paul Auster’s characters into (often fraudulent) action. This makes Malizsewski’s histories richly entertaining, but the deeper pleasure lies in the book’s moral discovery. Without giving too much away, I’ll admit I was chiefly onside with Maliszewski’s moral argument, even as I remained skeptical of any claims regarding the efficacy of satire.

As Maliszewski’s examples make abundantly clear, this book is pertinent to any time — but especially ours. Fakers rewards its readers on many levels, offering a value that exceeds its modest price and format. I highly recommend it.

Links: Paul Maliszewski interviewed at Bookslut.

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