the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 1   --   February, 2001

Facts and Fakes
Considering Eliot Weinberger's Genuine Fakes




       Eliot Weinberger's short piece, Genuine Fakes, most recently published in his collection Karmic Traces (New Directions, 2000), begins:
About ten years after it was published, an energetic young man retyped Jerzy Kosinski's 1965 prize-winning novel, The Painted Bird, gave the manuscript a new title, and submitted it to a dozen American publishers. None of them, including Kosinski's own publisher, recognized the book, and all of them rejected it.
       "It was good joke," Weinberger adds, "and a telling comment on how books get published, but the story does not end there." Indeed not. But the story also begins elsewhere.


       In his piece Weinberger offers a simplified account of the joke: a nameless energetic young man, an unidentified new title, faceless publishers. He even begins with an approximation: "About ten years after it was published ....." The anecdote -- the point -- perhaps does not require more.
       The facts have been well-documented elsewhere. Time magazine brought a little piece on it in 1979. Chuck Ross -- the perpetrator -- published an account of it in New West magazine. And James Park Sloan describes it in his biography of Kosinski (Dutton, 1996). What actually occurred was: in 1975 Chuck Ross typed up some 20 pages of Kosinski's novel and submitted them as a sample chapter to four publishers, including Houghton Mifflin, who were Kosinski's publishers at that time. Rejected by all of them, Ross repeated the experiment in 1978-9, this time submitting the entire manuscript to 14 publishers and 13 literary agents. Again, all of them turned it down, and apparently none of them recognized it.
       Only one aspect of the joke is more precisely identified by Weinberger in his brief summary: the book in question. Weinberger states that it was "Jerzy Kosinski's 1965 prize-winning novel, The Painted Bird". Unfortunately this is also the one piece of information that Weinberger got wrong. The novel in question -- the one Chuck Ross submitted -- was not Kosinski's 1965 novel, The Painted Bird, but his 1968, National Book Award-winning novel, Steps.


       Genuine Fakes was originally a book-review, published in The L.A. Weekly in 1983. It was rewritten for a 1995 issue of Artes de México on forgery. It was then published in Weinberger's collection of "poetics politics polemics", Written Reaction (Marsilio, 1996). It was then published again in Weinberger's collection, Karmic Traces (New Directions, 2000).
       Chuck Ross' stunt may be "a telling comment on how books get published", but Weinberger's misstep is also a telling comment on the state of publishing, editing, -- and reading.
       Four times over the incorrect information was published. Weinberger did not catch it. No editor caught it. And, sadly, no reader seems to have caught it -- or, if one did, to have made the effort to inform the powers that be. Again and again and again the error was repeated.


       Genuine Fakes is a clever, thoughtful little piece. It is no wonder Weinberger chooses to reprint it. In only a few pages he manages to address many of the significant aspects of forgery, and he does so entertainingly and well. He finds the proper balance between his facts and conclusions, where in his other pieces one or the other often dominates too strongly. He concludes that the forger may be "the purest artist (...) who believes only in the work itself and the age to which it is attributed."
       The Kosinski-anecdote is only one of a number of different forgeries Weinberger cites. One reason he uses it is because he can continue the trail of fakery, noting that Kosinski was accused of not really having written The Painted Bird. Claims range from Kosinski having written it in Polish and having gotten someone else to translate it, to his having written only an outline which someone else then puffed up into the novel, to his having based it on an actual Polish manuscript penned by someone else -- to him simply having straight-out plagiarized it.
       Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake -- possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want. (One aspect of the best fakes is the lingering doubt that, possibly, there is some authenticity behind them -- as is the case with Kosinski.) Kosinski famously liked to pretend he was someone he wasn't (as do many of the characters in his books), he occasionally published under a pseudonym, and, apparently, he plagiarized and forged left and right.


       Weinberger's mistake would appear to be a simple, harmless one. The Painted Bird instead of Steps -- what difference does it make ? Surely, the point remains the same, the anecdote just as illuminating.
       In fact, Weinberger's slip is a significant and disturbing one. First: the point is no longer quite the same. Second: Ross' ruse would never have worked with The Painted Bird, completely undermining Weinberger's argument -- but readers, fooled by Weinberger's unsound presumption, are none the wiser. Third: Weinberger -- an author who fills his pieces with clever (but generally undocumented) facts, spinning neat conclusions from them -- undermines his own trustworthiness. If he gets this wrong (and it is more than just getting the title of the book wrong) how can one trust his other contentions and citations ?


       The point is no longer quite the same. Weinberger writes: "The Painted Bird is a classic case of how authorship determines reception", its importance greatest when Kosinski-as-war-victim is the authentic author and then diminishing as it is seen as translated, plagiarized, and finally merely retyped. If the situation were as Weinberger describes it -- if Ross had actually retyped The Painted Bird (rather than Steps) -- his point would be much stronger. The facts suggest that the text does play a more significant role in reception than Weinberger allows:


       Steps is a different beast from The Painted Bird. It won the National Book Award -- controversially, one might add, with many considering it a make-up prize for the previously overlooked The Painted Bird -- and it sold well. It may be of literary merit, it may have won a prestigious prize, many people may have bought it and a considerable number might even have read it, but it made no impression. It is not a bad book, but it is entirely unremarkable. A book the world has remained oblivious to. Fairly, rightly so. It has been reduced to a curious aside, an occasional footnote, a bibliographic entry. It is already among the most-forgotten books of recent years, and it will fade further. And Chuck Ross' clever success rests on this particular quality of the book -- rests entirely on it, one could argue.
       The Painted Bird belongs in another category entirely. It was more widely discussed, and far better known. It made Kosinski's reputation, and it remains the most significant of his texts. A number of his works are still in print, but this is the big one. The magnum opus, the one that's cited when he is mentioned.
       Ross' ruse would never have worked had he submitted The Painted Bird, retyped, in his experiment. Fake or real, it is a unique text. It made its mark. It was widely read, well received. It is a familiar, known novel. It stands out, in whatever guise it exists. Arguably even those that have not read the original would recognize it were it submitted under a different title and a different author's name. Not necessarily as The Painted Bird, but as as an element of our common literary and humanistic experience, a fact which would be remarked upon and followed through until the connection with the original novel was made.
       In part this is due to the subject-matter, but The Painted Bird is also an accomplished and distinctive literary text (as none of Kosinski's other novels are -- though a number are quite interesting). The question of how Kosinski accomplished this -- whether he wrote it himself, had help, or simple stole someone else's book -- is interesting but not central. The Painted Bird continues to exist as a literary text, apart from the many questions about its authorship. As such it seems to weigh against Weinberger's thesis; certainly it can not be said that it "is a classic case of how authorship determines reception".


       Weinberger begins his piece with a wishy-washy account of the facts:
About ten years after it was published, an energetic young man retyped (...) The Painted Bird, gave the manuscript a new title, and submitted it to a dozen American publishers.
       Beside the title "a dozen" is the most precision he offers here -- and he seems to use it to mean "a handful" rather than specifically twelve. Readers are told the young man is energetic, but not what his name was. The time frame is approximate ("about ten years after" a date which itself is not disclosed).
       Certainly, the point of the anecdote is what counts: nobody recognized the retyped work. The details are not that important (except the one that is given -- which is the one that is wrong -- the title of the original book), and many readers will have a vague memory of the episode anyway.
       Weinberger seems, in fact, to be providing just the right level of detail. Gloss over the irrelevant fine points (did Ross submit the manuscript to four publishers, and then ten, or was it four and then fourteen ? in 1977 or 1979 ? etc.), and get to the main point. The passage on Ross' joke resembles much of Weinberger's writing in his entertaining essays: lots of facts plucked from here and there, without too much fussy detail (or too many citations). It is, arguably, one of the greatest strengths of his writing as he cuts to the quick and makes clever connexions.
       With writing such as Weinberger's it is impossible to hunt down every fact and check to see if he got it right. Readers -- a trusting, often gullible lot (if it's printed it's got to be true) -- have little choice here; if they want to read Weinberger they have to take his word for it. It all sounds plausible enough -- but what happens when, as here, it turns out not to be accurate. What to do then when he gets a fairly basic (yet consequential) fact wrong ? Doesn't it call everything into question ?


       Is this much ado about nothing ? Perhaps. Certainly no one seems to much care; public indifference manifests itself in the fact that no one ever seems to have pointed out the mistake (or done anything about it). (No question: literary culture is dead as a doornail.)
       It is hard to get all the facts right in a collection so rich in references as Karmic Traces or Written Reactions, possibly impossible. Some mistakes do not matter much. In the piece Panama: A Palindrome (in Written Reactions), Weinberger writes of George Bush, describing him as "serving for short terms in sensitive or troubled government agencies (the CIA, the UN, the Embassy in China)." When Bush was appointed in 1974 it was to head the U.S. Liaison Office in Peking. Diplomatic relations were not full-fledged yet; there was no American Embassy. But here Weinberger is close enough to the mark.
       Not so in confusing The Painted Bird and Steps in the way he does. He builds an argument -- possibly a valid one -- on this false foundation, and he also calls into question the way he works with and presents facts elsewhere in his writing. That seems far too high a price to pay.


       The literary world, when it preens in its intellectual and essayistic (as opposed to fictional or poetic) guise, though long toppled, ever-shrinking, falling, fading, can not afford such a cavalier attitude towards facts. It must remain true to its strengths if it is to assert itself as worthy of any continuing rôle in society -- and truth is its final and fundamental strength.
       Ours is no longer the age of reason or of belief, it is an age of opinion. Granting this we must at least demand from those expressing opinion to found them in fact. It is the only glimmer of hope.

       Postscript - cri de coeur

       Are there really no editors out there ?
       No fact-checkers ?
       No one who cares ?

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© 2001 the complete review Quarterly
© 2001 the complete review