Why are frauds so fascinating? The question comes around in journalism and publishing on a disturbingly frequent basis. In 1998, there was the case of Stephen Glass whose contributions to The New Republic were revealed to be based on false quotations and wholesale fabrications (a story later made into the movie Shattered Glass starring Hayden Christensen). The New York Times had its version of this a few years later with the Jayson Blair affair. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces started selling as a memoir until an expose forced the publishers to re-package it as a novel. Such cases of fraud are part of the rich tapestry of publishing life. There’s Johann Hari, Jonah Lehrer – the list goes on.
Now The New Yorker has added another name to this list of authorial shame. Dan Mallory has worked in the publishing world most of his adult life. He has also studied at Oxford. Last year, he published a novel called The Woman in the Window under the pseudonym AJ Finn. It went straight to number one in the New York Times bestsellers list – an extraordinary achievement for a first-time novelist. But as so often when such rockets enter the stratosphere, even minor flaws can them break apart.
On the basis of The New Yorker’s profile, Mallory has more than a few minor flaws. Throughout his professional and personal life, he has developed a taste for making outrageous and untrue claims about himself and those around him. It seems he did it to draw attention and sympathy to himself, but also to get out of situations he didn’t want to be in and to get into positions that he did.
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He claimed his mother had died of cancer, that his brother had recently committed suicide and that he himself had terminal cancer. None of these stories was remotely true. But for years he spun versions of some or all of them –and received serious sympathy and professional leeway in return.
He left some clues along the way. At one point, he decided to change his accent from American to British. He devoted his (eventually stalled) Oxford studies to Patricia Highsmith. Neither of which is a crime. But when reading about his career, it’s hard to shake the idea that Mallory read one of the Ripley novels at an impressionable age and thought – interesting character, let’s see if it can be done
Since Mallory has only written one novel, it won’t be raked over in the same way that the fraudulence committed by Frey, Hari, Lehrer and others was. But as he is a person of some talent, not to say cunning, there’s still a fascination in considering why he did it.
It would probably be hard to find a journalist today who has not thought, however briefly, about ‘improving’ a quote, or slightly exaggerating the amount of risk they were under in covering a story. Equally, most journalists have probably suspected a colleague of doing something similar. At the start of my career, I learned this after a conversation I’d had with a hack was splashed all over the following day’s newspaper with my views attributed to “a source in MI5”. I asked the journalist about this a couple of days later. “Who was the source who told you exactly what I told you between our conversation and the print deadline?” I asked. “Ah, erm, couldn’t possibly comment,” came the response.
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Most journalists don’t go the whole hog though. Among the reasons they wouldn’t – apart from basic ethics – is the knowledge that once you’ve started, it would be hard to stop. How do you resist the temptation to polish up the the next quote or source? And the one after that? Would anybody say anything that wasn’t Dorothy Parker-level in your copy ever again?
Even if you’ve never been near the world of journalism, you’ll know about ‘fish stories’ – stories which are exaggerated in the telling. As the stories grow, you wonder why the person doesn’t stop. It’s the same with Mallory’s life-experience inflation. Most people who have written a CV will have attempted to present the best version of themselves, and an age that admires victimhood over heroism inevitably sees an upsurge in people stressing the obstacles they have had to overcome to get where they have.
But how many times have people been found to have pushed the truth just that little bit further than is wholly defensible? Many people may have exaggerated some aspect of their life at some point. An awful lot must have considered putting something out there to benefit themselves and only refrained because they considered the consequences and their consciences.
How, though, do you go from mild CV inflation, to falsely claiming you have got cancer in order to get ahead in your profession? That is where the fascination for the spectator lies. How could Mallory possibly look a cancer sufferer in the eye once he’d gone that far?
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If I could summon a diagnosis for him (apart from the ‘bipolar’ one that he and a doctor have claimed for him) it would be good old-fashioned narcissism veering towards sociopathy. As the New York based playwright Christopher Shinn wrote, there is a type of person on the narcissist to sociopath spectrum who cannot bear the illness of others and who can only react to it by either trying to trump it themselves or diminishing it in others. Mallory clearly found enormous benefit in using the alleged deaths of relatives and himself from cancer to control other people.
These cases will keep on coming up. Authors and journalists, as with others in the creative industries, are not always known for their meekness and humility. Not all novelists can stop the invention when they turn from from the keyboard. Trying to be the centre of attention, being written about, let alone praised, brings out devils in many people. And that is why we like to fix on people like Mallory. Not because they are a completely different species, but because they are recognisable as a version of what we might become if every decent and restraining instinct were to go missing.