Episode 58: Fakes, Phonies, and Frauds

On August 31 we took on the topic of fraud. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

The Various Forms of Writer Fraud 

Agenda

  • Feeling like a Fraud
  • Actually being a Fraud
  • Consequences and some famous Fraud Cases
white horse wearing black leather zip up jacket
Photo by Alexas Fotos on Pexels.com

Segment 1

I subscribe to Runner’s World magazine and every now and then the discussion comes around as to when someone can realistically call themselves a runner. If you started a Couch-to-5K program yesterday and haven’t gotten to the running part yet, are you a runner? If you used to run half-marathons but now mostly stroll with your neighbors instead of training for anything serious, are you a runner?

The concept of imposter syndrome is explored at length in discussions ranging from sports newbies (like runners) to female business owners (entrepreneurs). It’s been interesting to me that as I reached the point in my career where I finally have a good amount of experience and expertise, I’m surrounded by people who admit they feel like fakes.

But no place do I see this rash of insecurity as often as I do in the Writing Community. There are dozens of reasons why. Here are just a few:

  1. “Writer” is a broad title for a number of professional roles.
  2. “Writer” could mean any level of experience and education.
  3. Being a “writer” only means you write. It doesn’t have to mean anything else. But it could.
  4. The accolades and distinctions of Writer are not organized into any recognizable path of achievement.

If you’ve been writing, you’re a writer according to Jeff Goins who has made a tidy internet success out of telling people to self-declare their own professionalism. But there are professional writers who want the title to mean more. Like Lance Armstrong is a cyclist, sure, but I rode my bike yesterday, too, and that technically makes me one as well.

While there are national and international awards of distinction and while publication in esteemed journals or by discerning publishers can be badges of your skills, the literary world is highly subjective. For every dozen learned scholars who praise The Great Gatsby, there’s an equal cadre of scholars who loathe the work. How can subjectivity rule a profession? Ask any gymnast with a gold medal.

So what can you do about feeling like a fraud?

Here’s some advice:

  1. End the isolation and surround yourself with writers who know how you feel.
  2. Prepare for failure and success because both can be crippling
  3. Log your victories to reinforce your self esteem
  4. Remember that nobody expects you to be perfect (except maybe you).

One of the best things about being in a creative profession is that creatives expect you to improve, to evolve, to get better as you work.

Segment 2

Actual things that constitute fraud? Here’s a good resource that debunks myths, investigates fraud accusations, and in general suggests Writer Beware. Some things I found there:

  • Notable literary scams including agents embezzling from authors, movie rights gone wrong, etc.
  • A dos and donts list about literary agents who charge fees
  • A thumbs-down and thumbs-up agency list

Fraud is legally defined as the intentional misrepresentation of material as fact by someone who knows the material is false.

So clearly you’re not a fraud if you’ve been writing and working on the craft and then you tell people you’re a writer. But, there’s an argument to be made that if you’re not actually writing anything but claiming to be a writer, you may, in fact, be a fraud.

Some things that legally constitute fraud (from this site):

  • a misrepresentation or omission must also relate to an ‘existing fact’, not a promise to do something in the future, unless the person who made the promise did so without any present intent to perform it or with a positive intent not to perform it. 
  • Promises to do something in the future or a mere expression of opinion cannot be the basis of a claim of fraud unless the person stating the opinion has exclusive or superior knowledge of existing facts which are inconsistent with such opinion. 
  • The false statement or omission must be material, meaning that it was significant to the decision to be made.

So how do those literary scams we mentioned earlier constitute fraud? They accept payment for services that were never rendered, or receive payment based on false claims of influence or authority.

But literary scams aren’t new. And, sadly, we’re not the only creatives who are victims for charlatans. 

This blog talks about the history including compelling similarities between a 1915 scam under the literary magazine name Blue Moon and a 2018 expose in the LA Times about a fraudster named Anna March who organized writer retreats that never happened (absconding with the money) and claimed literary credibility that impressed and made victims of even successful authors.

Segment 3

What about hoaxes like A Million Little Pieces, the memoir of addiction that Oprah Winfrey made a bestseller and then had to have the author on the show to admit he’d made some of it up? There’s some defense called “surrogacy” that says just because the work isn’t 100% true, doesn’t make it untrue. Read more here.

Do we think memoir must be true?

What about biography?

Autobiography?

Non-fiction?

Creative non-fiction?

Why does it matter if the story is completely true? Can a story ever be completely true?

So what’s the appeal of “literary fakes”? And why do people indulge them?

How important is authenticity and can we ever really achieve it?

Jessa Crispin writes:

“The publishing industry not only attracts but rewards these fraudsters in large numbers. It fetishizes and exploits so-called authentic experience, especially from marginalized populations, but its insularity and homogeneity makes it ill-equipped to detect fakery.”

During our film shows we talked about the “based on real events” and “based on a true story” appeals in our current marketplace. Can our sensationalizing of “real” things be a form of defacto credibility?

Crispin makes the case that the fraudulent memoirs all have something in common: a redemption sequence wherein the author has overcome these terrible circumstances to achieve success — at least literary success. She says we’re superficially comforted by the idea that storytelling, writing, can “rescue” someone.

The authors of the fraudulent memoirs she cites are all still working writers, one with an upcoming release from Simon & Schuster. 

Segment 4

Okay, finally in this conversation around “fraud” I want to address our friend Bonnie’s blog talking about counterfeit books sold on Amazon. 

According to the New York Times

“Amazon takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore, never checking the authenticity, much less the quality, of what it sells. It does not oversee the sellers who have flocked to its site in any organized way.

That has resulted in a kind of lawlessness. Publishers, writers and groups such as the Authors Guild said counterfeiting of books on Amazon had surged. The company has been reactive rather than proactive in dealing with the issue, they said, often taking action only when a buyer complains. Many times, they added, there is nowhere to appeal and their only recourse is to integrate even more closely with Amazon.”

Everything from Agatha Christie to recent award winners like Lauren Groff’s Florida and Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winner Less has been summarized and duplicated on Amazon and the platform has no incentive to correct it. The business model for Amazon benefits from sales, even if those sales are of illegitimate product.

So whose job is it to police the quality of the work?

How should authors protect themselves and their work?

We all know writers who get crazy pants about copyright and plagiarism when they haven’t done anything yet. Bringing your work to workshop for feedback does not make you vulnerable to having your work stolen, okay?

Quick link on copyright info for writers. We won’t bore you with it but a ton of bloggers will.

Our pal Jane Friedman took this on in this blog. She says to remember that your ideas, while probably intriguing and unique, are not subject to protection under the law. So yes, if you share them, someone else might use them.

That said, according to Jane, “the chances that an agent, editor, critique partner, or stranger will a) steal your idea, b) execute it better than you, and c) AND be able to sell it are next to zero.”

Hear that? No one’s taking your idea about monkeys enslaved to fire t-shirt cannons at hockey arenas. So get over yourself.

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