I was struck by how thin the line is between a literary hoax and a genuine literary work, by which I mean a work of art. It's like quicksilver almost, the way something can flash back and forth across that line, depending on how the author handles the subject and his or her relation to the audience.
I guess my question is this: What drew you to the fakers you report on in the book? Because it does seem that their various enterprises say something about the making of art, whether good or bad.
In 1997, when I started writing the satires that became "I, Faker," the first part of this book, I'd recently finished a graduate program in creative writing and taken a job as a reporter at a business newspaper. In my own obtuse, backwards way I was trying to understand what stories were and how best to tell them. The satires — letters to the editor that I submitted under made-up names as well as news articles and opinion columns — were motivated by my dissatisfaction with the newspaper, with how we were encouraged to write optimistically about business in what was and really still is one of the more economically stagnant regions in the country. But the satires also grew out of my equal dissatisfaction with literary publishing. When I thought about taking what I observed at the paper and, in that time-honored and opportunistic way of all writers, "turning it into a story," something about it felt false and even misguided. I wanted to write these criticisms of the business world that took the form of fiction, but I worried my inventions would seem like thin facsimiles of the real thing I knew. Not a newspaper, you know, a "newspaper." Not a reporter, a character who introduces himself on the page as "the new reporter." Also, I suspected it unlikely that a literary editor would share my vision. What journal of that time would publish satiric business columns by puffed-up captains of industry? And even if, ideally, such a journal existed, what audience would I be addressing? Fellow MFA graduates, English professors, and aspiring writers — people, in other words, who agreed with me. Clearly, I wouldn't be writing to businesspeople. So I decided to take my fiction outside of literary publishing, into the world as it were, and reach a different audience. I didn't just write stories in a realistic mode, fictions that seemed believable as stories go. I wrote satires that were accepted as actual contributions to an actual newspaper.
As for why I wrote about these fakers and not others, I had no fixed criteria, but I was drawn to examples in which the fakers were complicated characters. Fakers though, while fascinating, aren't always knowable. Even when they offer up their mea culpas, as Jayson Blair did with his memoir or Stephen Glass did with his closely autobiographical novel, they aren't the most reliable of narrators. In addition, you're right to point out that not all the fakers in the book are up to anything criminal or wrong. They're all, however, makers of things, fabricators, and they're all using some form of deception. But as I said above, motive matters. You can deceive a passerby in order to relieve him of his money, or you can deceive people in order to invite them to question their values, as the best satire does. So I also liked cases where the deception seemed just impossible to believe and yet believed it was. I mean, can you imagine convincing the people of New York City, in 1835, that tribes of man-bats were observed living on the moon? It's incredible, in every sense of that word, and yet it was, for a time, also accepted as true. Finally, the people who were fooled intrigued me. Why, I wondered, might people have believed in that moon hoax? What was in it for them? And why did so many editors rush to publish Stephen Glass? What was it about the stories these fakers told that made so many people want to believe in the fiction?
I also think of Report from Iron Mountain, although I didn't write about it in my book. In 1967, in the midst of the country's deepening involvement in Vietnam, Dial Press published what seemed like the leaked proceedings from a high-level commission convened by the government to study "the possibility and desirability of peace." What would happen to the United States if there was a period of sustained peace? Was sustained peace even desirable? The study group concluded peace was not in the real interest of the country. This was a satire — still the purest we've seen in years — and nothing about the book gave away its intentions, not the cover or the dust jacket flaps or anything else. The author was Leonard Lewin, who contributed only an introduction to the first edition, to explain how this sinister document came into his possession. Years later, in 1996, when the book was reprinted, it was clearly labeled a satire. The cat was declawed. But in the intervening years, the report enjoyed many odd and unpredictable lives. Some people, for instance, took to publishing bootleg copies of the report. According to one account, the report was widely for sale at gun shows. To the black helicopter crowd, to the militias and the new-world-order paranoiacs, here was all the evidence needed to understand our government's secret plans. Any high-minded claims of the document's supposed literary or satiric nature, they simply chalked up to a later cover-up. The government never wanted people to read such a damaging and revealing report, ergo they had to concoct some story to explain it away.
What interests me in all this — and I'm afraid I've strayed some from your question — is the way that satire requires that authors put work out there in some unlabeled or mislabeled state, but there's a catch, because that means opening the work up to wild misinterpretations. The poets who invented Ern Malley were overjoyed when reporters took an interest in their hoax. What had been a literary event, taking place in the teapot-sized world of literary journals, leapt into the pages of national newspapers. The poets expected, optimistically, that what would follow would be a discussion of the invention on their terms, a discussion, namely, of the merits and demerits of modernism. So they were quite disappointed by the result, which was more about sensationalism than any sensible debate. Sure, their invention became notorious, but nobody was really discussing the finer points of their satire.
On a much humbler scale, I had my own Ern Malley moment. Nobody wrote about what my carefully plotted satire revealed. Nobody compared the flimsy virtual business I concocted with the just as flimsy brick-and-mortar companies that business newspapers routinely extol. And yet, I thought, I'd given them all that they needed to see the truth. So why didn't the scales fall from their eyes? Instead, the hoax was just some kooky story of the day. Local journalists wrote about the weirdness and moved on.
So I agree with you: satirists do try their best to trick their audiences in order to — they hope — make a point, but the audiences get the last word or maybe laugh, as time and again, satirists are left saying, in effect, "Oh, but you're missing my point. It was actually all a joke, don't you see? What I was trying to say was...." And by then, of course, nobody's listening to the satirist. I'm curious to know what you think though. You've written quite a lot of political and current-events humor, much of it satiric, in that you work indirectly, backwards even, giving convincing voice to the opposite of your own beliefs. And, perhaps not surprisingly, you've also had a close brush with people not getting it.
The problem might be that when it's clear you are joking, at least when you are writing the piece, it feels you are somehow giving away any chance to persuade the audience. That can be frustrating if you feel what you're saying is important. During the presidential election campaign I was writing things for 23/6 and The Huffington Post, and I was trying my best to explain why a John McCain presidency would be a continuing disaster for America. And yet I often felt I wasn't making a difference. The pieces might have been entertaining, but they would never persuade anyone. So I think I understand the impulse to trick people. You think it will force them to take you seriously. Then again, maybe the desire comes from wanting to make the satire complete. I mean, Report from Iron Mountain. What a perfect and complete thing to have made.
So a piece of satire that tries its best to fool people probably represents the highest form of the art. But then, as you point out, that kind of satire is also the most dangerous. The closer to reality it is the better it will be, and yet when it gets close to the bone people will get fooled. You're playing with fire, in a sense. This is all compounded by the fact that, as a writer, you always assume the people you are really writing for — your true audience — is one step ahead of you, and therefore what you are doing is harmless. The whole thing is very tricky.
About your last point: Yes, it seems you can always be misunderstood. I wrote a piece about Obama negotiating a treaty with France on his European tour. The idea was that he was over there, and he started talking to Sarkozy, and they found they agreed on so much, and hey, Obama's already in the Senate, he's going to be President in a few months anyway, why not just negotiate a treaty? A right-wing blog posted my piece as proof of Obama's arrogance. "Look at this," they said, "the guy is negotiating treaties before even getting elected."
The close call you refer to involved two agents from the Secret Service waking me up at 6 a.m. to interrogate me about a piece I'd written for 23/6 that joked about Harry Reid offing Hillary Clinton to cut short the Democratic primaries. Their visit was extremely unnerving, almost terrifying. But I also thought: I must not be as funny as I like to think, because if the piece had really been funny these guys would not be here. Of course, I also felt really bad about wasting their time. But on the whole it was just completely bewildering. It could not be happening and yet it was. These guys were the real thing. My little piece of satire was spinning out of my control.