Many people, when they know a subject really well, find newspaper accounts of it misleading or inaccurate, even as to the most elementary facts. And yet the strange thing is that it does not discourage them from continuing to read newspapers and even believe them
I have always felt some affection for the perpetrators of literary fraud: for William Henry Ireland, for example, a young man of limited accomplishment (in his father’s opinion) who at the end of the eighteenth century forged Shakespearean documents to earn his father’s notice and praise. Amazingly enough the forgery was not immediately exposed as such, and Ireland even went so far as to “discover” the manuscript of a Shakespearean tragedy called Vortigern that was actually staged, albeit only for two performances. He made fools of serious scholars—always a delightful spectacle—until he was thoroughly exposed by Edmond Malone, though even afterwards he found learned defenders. Later he wrote a pathetic but sometimes moving memoir of his malfeasance.
I have asked myself why I feel so strange an affinity to forgers and impostors, and have come to the conclusion that it has something to do with my journalistic career. Journalists who are asked, as I used often to be, to write authoritative analyses of complex events that happened only two hours ago and about which they have no more information than that which is publicly available, to be solemnly read the following morning by millions of readers, are nearly always perilously close, at least if they are honest with themselves, to intellectual fraud. It is fellow-feeling, then, that is at the root of my sympathy for literary forgers and impostors.
A newspaper not universally known or appreciated for its attachment to the literal truth used often to call me in the middle of my medical avocations to ask whether I could write a thousand words by four o’clock on some subject or other, and if I protested that I couldn’t because I knew nothing of the subject it would grant me an extension of half an hour, presumably for research, that is to say until four-thirty. In vain did I argue that I could write a much better article if I were given a day or two to prepare it; for the newspaper, whose time horizons were as limited as those of a mayfly, it was always now or never, even if the subject were one of lasting importance. To have a reasonably coherent thousand words in time was always much more important for the newspaper than such minor qualities as depth or accuracy. Also to be eschewed was any kind of nuance. Nuance, said the editor, only confused readers and drove down sales. Readers needed messages neat.
I quickly discovered how little time it took in the age of the internet to appear authoritative, even on subjects to which I had never previously given a moment’s thought or notice. In the kingdom of the ignorant (that the newspaper believes its readers to be), the man with one fact was king. In those days the newspaper was prosperous and paid very well; and it is not everyone who can sound like an expert by four or four-thirty. I never wrote anything that I believed to be untrue, except under very special circumstances, but I had no illusions about the wholeness of the truths I was relaying. When the next day I saw people reading my article on the bus or train, I felt like snatching the newspaper from their hands and telling them not to bother. As Pudd’nhead Wilson said, it’s better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.
I was even sent abroad sometimes to cover major events in small countries whose language I could not speak and whose history I did not know. Foreign correspondents are social birds and flock together in the bar of the country’s one five-star hotel where they sit and originate or absorb rumours, many of them demonstrably false, by the most minimal effort. The other source of my information was taxi-drivers, who were either well-informed or at least impressively self-assured. Many a taxi-driver’s prejudices have been printed in the august journals of distant lands.
Once I was sent to cover the crisis in a country of whose precise location on a map the average foreign minister might hesitate to point out. Such countries are called into a fleeting existence (as far as the rest of the world is concerned) only by dramatic events, after which they subside again into oblivion, and no one ever thinks to ask what the longer-term effects of the crisis on those countries have been. I once arrived in a country in the throes of a crisis—almost a revolution—and on the day of my arrival there was a tremendous riot. But I was very tired from travel and slept through it, waking only when it was over. My dispatch was full of local colour and fine description. The readers must have felt that they had been at the riot themselves.
Bismarck said that one should not ask how sausages or politics are made, and I think that the same goes for newspapers. It is within the experience of many people that when they know a subject really well they find newspaper accounts of it misleading or inaccurate, even as to the most elementary facts. And yet the strange thing is that it does not discourage them from continuing to read newspapers and even from believing what is written in them. I have more reason to be sceptical than most, and yet I am an avid reader of newspapers. I regret their decline (I know no young person who reads one, not even online), for the sensation of opening a pristine or virgin newspaper is incomparable. I find it much harder and less pleasurable to read a newspaper that has already been read—violated—by someone else.
Anyhow, my experience of writing for newspapers must be the source of my fellow-feeling for forgers and literary impostors, having been in very nearly the same boat myself. Moreover, many of the forgers and impostors are wounded or humiliated creatures, their forgeries and impostures being the means by which they seek to overcome their psychic wounds.
Art forgers don’t object to making money, of course, but the attainment of wealth is far from their only motive. The notorious van Meegeren discovered, like other forgers, that there was more to artistic genius than technical facility; he himself was lacking entirely in taste or artistic vision and his own productions were mere kitsch. He desired to take his revenge upon a world that failed to recognise him for what he took himself to be, though how anybody, let alone experts, could have mistaken his forgeries for Vermeer is to me a mystery. But to fool people, especially the learned and the expert, is the delight of the scorned and the disregarded. By exposing the fallibility of the expert’s judgment, his rejection of the forgers’ original work is itself called into question, and the self-conception of the forger as a real but misunderstood artist restored.
Modernism was a gift to forgers and impostors. An art dealer told me of a wonderful scam in the art world, carried out by an art teacher and an experienced, though hitherto unsuccessful, confidence trickster. The art teacher painted convincing Legers, Braques and Picassos (much easier to do than to paint a convincing Velasquez), and the trickster sold them to collectors, galleries and institutions around the world, at substantial, but much below market, prices. This was a perfect way to entrap the buyers in a spiders’ web of deceit: appealing to the buyers’ greed and vanity. They must have known that the paintings were either not genuine or that their provenance was doubtful, but they bought them nonetheless; and those who did would never dare expose the forger or the trickster because they were so clearly complicit in the scheme. Many of these forgeries still hang in the galleries of the world, no one wishing to expose them as such.
My favourite modernist literary fraud is Australian, that of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who brought to life—eternal life—the unknown poet Ern Malley (what a perfect name for a proletarian genius!). In 1943, they composed a series of modernist poems in an afternoon and fooled the young editor of a literary magazine, Max Harris, into publishing them as the work of a hitherto unsung genius, thus exposing the pretentiousness of his modernist faith.
I would have been fooled myself. The poems are full of wonderful lines: “I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything.”
And when it comes down to it, are we not, after all, “The black swan of trespass on alien waters”?
Anthony Daniels’s latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.