Monday, April 18, 2005

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Why my head hurts right now

Alex Mindlin recounts an apparently real dispute about what constitutes fiction between the writers Michael Chabon and Paul Maliszewski in the New York Times. The highlights:

It was the kind of headline that sells. "Michael Chabon's Holocaust Hoax," read the cover of the April-May issue of Bookforum. Inside, the article, by Paul Maliszewski, suggested that Mr. Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, had exceeded the bounds of poetic license in a lecture that he has given perhaps half a dozen times since 2003.

In the lecture, titled "Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Eldest Son's Name Is Napoleon," Mr. Chabon recounts a version of his childhood, laced with some tall tales (saying, for instance, that he has encountered several golems, the clay monsters of Jewish lore), and tells the story of a counterfeit Holocaust survivor he'd once met who turns out to be an ex-Nazi in hiding.

Mr. Maliszewski pointed out that the Nazi character was entirely fictional, and contended that Mr. Chabon had misled his listeners into believing it was real. He suggested that Mr. Chabon had "fashioned a Jewish identity for himself that incorporates - through an utter fiction - the Holocaust."

The lecture's organizers have said the lecture was clearly advertised as a series of yarns. In a letter that will be printed in the next issue of Bookforum, Matthew Brogan, program director for the Jewish literary nonprofit organization Nextbook, which sponsored some of the performances, wrote that Mr. Chabon had "signaled to the audience at every turn that the narrator is not to be completely trusted." Mr. Maliszewski, he added, had "deliberately misread these signs in the hope of stirring up a scandal."

In the Bookforum article, Mr. Maliszewski admits that, as a reporter at a Syracuse business newspaper, he besieged his own paper with parodic letters to the editor. Later, he became the Web editor of McSweeney's Quarterly, a job that his editor said ended when Mr. Maliszewski sent McSweeney's subscribers an anonymous e-mail newsletter full of invented gossip about other writers.

So if I understand this correctly: A writer that has frequently fudged facts for fun has fingered a fellow fabulist for fictionalizing facts for fortune, even though that fabulist foretold his fictions before his oration. [Now my head hurts--ed. If I'm going down, I'm taking people with me!]

Seriously, it seems like Maliszewski is off his rocker.

posted by Dan on 04.18.05 at 03:55 PM


I think pretending golems are real is a pretty big tipoff that other stuff might not be true, either.

Perhaps, as one sees on book covers, Mr. Chabon should be required to wear a sign that says "A Novelist"?

Sheesh. Is there a corollary of Godwin's Law that says nothing makes people nuttier than working the Holocaust into the conversation?

posted by: Anderson on 04.18.05 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

"A writer that has frequently fudged facts for fun has fingered a fellow fabulist for fictionalizing facts for fortune, even though that fabulist foretold his fictions before his oration."

I can't even read that without getting confused, let alone say it.

posted by: Jim Dandy on 04.18.05 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

The affair has a fulsome whiff of flimflam or even foofaraw.

posted by: Noumenon on 04.18.05 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

No, no, no, no, no. If you read Paul M.'s essay in its entirety -- it isn't available online, but there's an excerpt here -- you'll see that it's ridiculous to suggest, as Matthew Brogan does, that it was written "in the hope of stirring up a scandal."

Maliszewski makes very clear that he doesn't take offense at Chabon's story-telling, per se. (Indeed, he suggests that as a serial hoaxster himself, he was initially impressed by, and attracted to, Chabon's playfulness and trickery here.)

In the end, Maliszewski does criticize Chabon -- in a subtle and relatively gentle way -- for the content of his hoax, which Maliszewski finds sentimental and evasive.

Brogan, and the Times item itself, seem to have badly missed the point of the essay.

posted by: David Glenn on 04.18.05 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

Uh, dude, I think you're the one missing the point, which is for Bookforum to sell more magazines. Your theory sounds all reasonable but doesn't explain the incredibly offensive headlines "Michael Chabon's Holocaust Hoax" and so forth. Check out their ad on Bookslut. It's a clear bid by them and Maliszewski to raise their profiles at Chabon's expense.

And your reading ignores all of Malisz.'s wounded cries of "I was fooled."

posted by: Solus Rex on 04.18.05 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

If you listen to the lecture, it's clear that Chabon called it a memoir, and Maliszewski interviews a lot of people, including a fellow at Nextbook, and all of them except Brogan said they believed the Holocaust story to be true. The fellow even says if it's not true, Chabon should be stopped. You've also manage to overlook, as did the Times, the fact that Chabon has been going around the country telling a supposedly true story that people are believing in which a real man - CB Colby - is identified as a Nazi propagandist in hiding. And, as Chabon admits, that is a lie. Colby was a children's book author who served in the Air Force Auxillary after WW II, and he's dead now, which is lucky for Chabon. Otherwise, he'd likely have a case of defamation on his hands.

posted by: Beth on 04.18.05 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

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