Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders by Paul Maliszewski

Posted: June 5, 2009 in Book Reviews
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FakersIt’s only a matter of time before a scam is revealed.  And in recent years, stories revealing the discovery of fraudulent behavior have made some of the biggest headlines, dominating page space in print and online articles, in addition to consuming airtime on news broadcasts.  There was the MySpace Mom who posed as a teenage boy on the social networking site, in an attempt to monitor what a thirteen-year-old girl was saying about her daughter.  Three men from California preserved a gorilla suit in their freezer, claiming it was Bigfoot.  And late last year, Bernie Madoff was arrested and charged for running the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.  The media searched for reasons why these people trick scammed both their neighbors and the public.  Power, vengeance, fame, money.  What compels people to deceive others?

Paul Maliszewski’s insightful first book, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, concentrates on cases of fraud in the worlds of art and media.  Part memoir, part investigative report, Maliszewski explores the reasons fakers do what they do, and why people tend to believe them.  The book opens with a confessional essay titled, “I, Faker.”  While working as a staff writer for the Business Journal of Central New York, Maliszewski felt the stories he covered lacked depth and insight.  The real stories were lost behind facts and figures.  He couldn’t tap into a creative outlet on the job, so he adopted several personas and began writing satirical letters to the editor of this publication.  Right away the reader is aware of his stake in answering the whys of fakery.  This personal investment drives Maliszewski on a thorough quest to make connections to and draw distinctions from other pretenders.

Fakers looks at such recent well-known writers/hoaxers as Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Margaret B. Jones.  The book covers the widely distributed email about the world’s largest man-eating bear and the origins of the Con Man.  It also includes hoaxes that might be lesser known to the general public.  In 1835, the New York Sun ran a series of stories, proclaiming there was life on the moon.  In 2002, the New York Times Magazine fired Michael Finkel for creating a composite character from multiple personal accounts, then passing this character off as a real person.  And in 2004, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Michael Chabon, delivered a speech that contained fictional elements, but presented it as nonfiction.

While the stories profiled contain clear arguments as to why people fake, Maliszewski explores all angles of his subjects to get a better understanding of the people involved.  He shows compassion toward fakers whose intentions weren’t malicious and, at times, comes to their defense.  Passionate about the art of great fakery, Maliszewski wants to make clear the distinction between satire and scam.  He does go after individuals who intentionally twist the truth and soil real people’s reputations for the sake of a good story.

But the underlying message seems to be one of hope.  That’s why Maliszewski wants to separate the satirists from the scammers.  All fakery isn’t created to harm others.  When carried out successfully, satire contains a message behind the hoax.  It’s about pointing out absurdities and revealing truths.  People can miss the emotional truth of a story when they discover that on the surface, it’s not 100% empirically true.  Why do people buy into these hoaxes?  Maliszewski presents several answers for this question.  One being that good writing makes a story more believable—the fakery goes unnoticed when the narrative seems flawless.  But most hoaxes are short lived.  Eventually the faker is exposed.  And what causes uproar in a lot of these cases is another reason why people initially buy into the hoax.  They want to believe the stories are true.  Social issues surrounding a hoax can make people suspend their disbelief or blind them to the possibility that the story could be fabricated.

Maliszewski writes these essays with smooth prose and structures them in a way that creates the kind of dramatic tension found in any good story.  These profiles are both informative and entertaining.  Blending research and interviews with his desire to find answers, Maliszewski avoids dry reporting.  His in-depth analysis of each case, the attention he pays to them, makes the reader want him to succeed on this comprehensive journey.

For an interview with Paul Maliszewski, click here.695.books.x480.opener

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