I spent a lot of time in the publishing industry in Manhattan. And it always struck me, “How would you con it? How would you pull a scam on this industry?”
In recent years the literary world has been rocked by scandals of personal memoirs that were revealed to be fakes. Memoirs such as James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, which was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club before it exposed as being partly fabricated.
A faked memoir figures in the plot of a new novel—a scathing send-up on the publishing industry—by Bloomington author Adam Langer.
The publishing world is one Langer knows well from his years as an author, editor, and critic. With his wife (a political science professor at IU) and two young daughters, Langer divides his time between the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Bloomington.
Artworks’ Adam Schwartz speaks with Langer about his new book, The Thieves of Manhattan.
Adam Schwartz: Would you give a quick synopsis of the story?
Adam Langer: This is a story about a down on his luck writer who isn’t having much success with his fiction and he meets with an offer he can’t refuse—largely because he doesn’t have any money. A man asks him to put his name to a fake memoir and scam the publishing industry. But it turns out that the fake memoir is actually real.
AS: In the front pages of the book, under the title, it says “a memoir,” but “memoir” is crossed out and “novel” is written over it. What’s that about?
AL: The idea is that it’s both memoir and novel. We’ve had all these scandals about people faking their memoirs, faking their true stories. I thought “What a great way to start a mystery about con artists.”
AS: The narrator in your book describes the publishing world as “a frightened industry more concerned with its own survival than with its legacy.” Is that your opinion of the book business?
AL: Keep in mind that those words come out of the mouth of a con artist. I think there is a lot of fear in the book industry because we see people aren’t buying as many books. People are getting their books on Kindles or they’re downloading them illegally. And there are a lot of people in publishing who are scared and looking for the next best thing. And this is why it’s an easy business to pull a con on, if you want to. Because the editors and publishers out there don’t want to question for fear of ruining a great story when they see an opportunity to publish something that’s really fascinating. But that fear about books going away has been around for 100s of years. André Gide was writing about it a hundred years ago: “This is the end of the book.”
AS: What draws you to stories of con artists?
AL: It’s theater. Growing up in Chicago I saw a lot of cons perpetrated on the street. Some really good ones. I saw a great con involving a Michael Jordan baseball card. There was a great con I saw involving a supposedly valuable stamp. They’re interesting because they’re constructed like a play. Two characters come, they don’t know each other, then a third person comes in—the structure is right there in front of you. All you have to do is put it on stage or put it in a book.
AS: The narrator in your book uses so much publishing industry slang that you include a glossary of it in the back of the book. For example, he calls a glass of whiskey a “faulkner with two ice cubes in it.” What made you decide to include that slang?
AL: There are so many thrillers that have their own slang. There are hard-boiled thrillers, technical thrillers . . . and I thought, “If I’m setting something in the literary world, it’s got to have its own slang too.” And where would the slang come from? Authors and books. He palahniuked all over his desk. There was a woman who walked by who was wearing a golightly. [From the author Chuck Palahniuk and the character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.] This is a heightened, fantastical vision of the publishing world. I don’t sit around with my friends and chatter like this, but I thought it would be fun to create a world where people did.
AS: Do people in the publishing world really talk like that?
AL: No, I just made that all up. I hope they do now.
AL: There’s a British hooligan in my book who speaks in very broken English who says things like, “What you said,” and “How’s that sound like a good idea?” What people don’t know is that slang didn’t develop from British hooligan culture, it developed from my then three-year-old daughter who hadn’t mastered English yet. And when I heard her speak, I thought, “If I repeated that in a different voice, it would sound like excellent British hooligan slang.” I’ve been getting e-mails from people who are talking like that now.
AS: Art has affected life.
AL: Well, it’s affected maybe ten people’s lives.
Learn more about Adam Langer at his Web site.