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March 2024


by Aharon Levy

Faking It

          I got my MFA so long ago that not a single book had yet been written about how creative writing programs were ruining American fiction. I certainly wasn’t ruining American fiction; I wasn’t producing any. I went to writing grad school because, in theory, I liked writing, and was, in practice, tired of being a paralegal. I graduated nearly as unformed as I’d entered, and got a job producing ad copy.

          In my mind, in a month, or a year, I’d produce the Great American Novel. In the meantime, I wrote come-ons for diet ginger ale, moonlighted book reviews for free weeklies, met with a ham-fortune heir who had an idea for a website. Plus, I complained, mostly to fellow recent grads who agreed that the world was stacked against us. It took me six months to finish a five-page story, but I spent shameful amounts of time writing satirical Amazon reviews.

          When my friend Jim asked me to write some marketing materials for a literary press, I saw it as a deserved reward. Like a salmon (in those days I would have spent an hour researching more obscure animals), I’d start in the delta muck of jacket copy and fight my way upstream to the editors. That I had nothing yet to offer editors was irrelevant.

          Jim had been hired by a friend at the press; he was more or less doing her job, which may or may not have been known to the higher-ups there. Anyway, I understood my sub-subcontracted work was to remain a secret. I decided I was up to something subversive and forbidden, a behind-Oz’s-curtain sense deepened by my uncorrected proofs’ typos and pixelated covers. 

          This was the only thrill the work offered; selling literature isn’t so different from selling ginger ale. Was this exclamation-filled novel about confused mathematicians stunning? Groundbreaking? Heartfelt? Dazzling? Was this dull coming-of-age story filled with strained street lingo challenging, brilliant, surprising? Was it just heartfelt and dazzling too? I began to suspect my work wouldn’t lead to an editor any more than working on an assembly line in Shenzhen would lead to Tim Cook.

          I sketched out a short story about someone who writes scathing reviews of the books he hawks in his day job. I imagined literary characters cloaked and choked by marketing phrases: 20% More Protagonist FREE! NEW Symbolism, For You! I’m not proud of much I did back then, but do feel some satisfaction that I at least had the sense to leave these ideas in a drawer.

          Among the tepid literary works, one book stood out. It was energetically bad, filled with crude violence and cruder sex, so short it was barely a novel. Its characters were “lot lizards”—truck-stop prostitutes—and their hangers-on, who get into all sorts of mischief and speechify in a simultaneously over-ornate and over-countrified style. The book gave the general impression of a high school drama with too-emphatic actors who are almost lovably implausible, but still confident they’re doing an excellent job. I was buoyed along for a few pages, then wondered why the press was putting it out. It was clearly too awful to go anywhere.

          Predictably, this book—Sarah—blew up. Its author, JT LeRoy, became a cause célèbre. Was I jealous that LeRoy, who had lived on the streets and had turned tricks , was now so traumatized that he seldom appeared in public? Maybe not. Was I envious that he’d managed to assemble a stable of famous fans—Lou Reed, Mary Gaitskill—and publish at the age of     twenty? Well…

          With Sarah’s success, nothing changed for me. That was because it wasn’t mine. Nobody cares who writes the jacket copy, just as nobody cares about a novel you quit after one hundred pages. Hardly anyone cares even if you finish, either, but finishing is the only way to give yourself a chance. This revelation was so overdue I felt embarrassed the moment I had it.

Soon after Sarah, the press job petered out. Maybe Jim didn’t like my work. Or maybe this was when he fell out with his friend, after pointing out she’d used, for the cover of a high-toned short story collection, a stock photo that already graced another publisher’s foot-fetish anthology.

          These became anecdotes to trot out when, socializing with other sort-of-writers, I was called on to be knowingly literary. Some people had The New Yorker submission tips or dirt on Mary Karr; I had the time I was Kevin-Bacon-close to a hot young author whose name has faded quickly.

          But then LeRoy was back in the news, because he wasn’t really wonder boy LeRoy but a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert who’d created LeRoy, with his irresistible backstory, as an “avatar.” There were handwringing essays on cultural decline, thought pieces about the nature of truth, and the usual confusing flurry of activity that occurs whenever a fiction writer briefly commands attention in the real world.

          I’d be lying if I claimed not to be happy about this downfall. Plus, I thought I had something of my own, finally. I’d faked enthusiastic words someone else (and behind him, another somebody else) pretended to have written for a book by a fake author.

          But what did I really have? What had I learned, or accomplished?

          The window closed quickly on any opportunity, anyway. The world only has room for one literary fraud at a time, and that very quickly became James Frey. His  lie was much bigger and,  maybe more importantly, his faked memoir had sold far more copies than Sarah. He got to apologize     on Oprah.

          The tricky part, as always, is the moral. I still expected one, was still operating as if life had discreet chapters and neat conclusions, even though I’d seen plenty of evidence that even fiction—good fiction, anyway—didn’t work that way. And so, again embarrassingly late, I gave up. I stopped hanging out and gossiping, penning Amazon reviews, and all (or most) of the other ways I’d faked being a writer.

          The old saw about fiction is that characters have to change. Like most such dicta, this has been rightfully challenged, recontextualized, and undermined, but is nevertheless approximately  true. I hadn’t gotten anywhere because I’d been fooling myself, trying to demonstrate my worth by showing how (most) other writers were bad. If I wanted to write anything someone like me would want to read, though—anything, that is, beyond a briefly clever (to me) idea— I’d have to learn what else it took to make a story. Maybe this meant faking it, too, just doing it well enough to fool other people: a wholly different, and far less certain, mission. But I decided to sit at home and see what came .

          The press I briefly worked for—not that the press knew it—is still publishing; someone’s still cranking out exuberant jacket copy he  doesn’t believe a word of. Laura Albert’s still writing too, though not as much. My name means nothing to her, but we’re still connected. When you’re sitting alone at the computer, it’s nice to have company.

Aharon Levy
Brooklyn, New York, USA

Aharon Levy is a stock speculator whose fiction and essays have appeared in many publications. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a novel.

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