Busted: Will fake interviews be the new trend in literary fraud?

April 8, 2010

Okay, so it’s been a while since we covered that befuddling phenomenon known as the fake memoir. And, no, I’m not about to bring you another, althoguh I’m sure I could if I tried. (Maybe I should write one.)

Today we might wish to consider the proverbial next level. That is, the next level in fraud, intellectual myopia, and general stupidity, also known as fake interviews:

Last month, Paola Zanuttini, a journalist from La Repubblica, the progressive Roman newspaper, interviewed Philip Roth about his latest novel, “The Humbling,” which has recently been published in Italian. “We had a lively and intelligent conversation about my fiction,” Roth said. The Q. & A. ran on February 26th, as the cover story of Il VenerdìLa Repubblica‘s Friday magazine—with a fierce-looking closeup portrait of Roth, and the title “Sex and Me.” Zanuttini focussed on the relationships of Roth’s aging protagonists with their much younger inamoratas, the feminist response to them, and his own marriages and romances. “Your descriptions of sex are ruthless,” she asserted. “Ruthless?” he countered. She backed down a little: “They describe things as they are, raw and naked.” “I am pleased by the notion that I can still be scandalous,” he said. “I thought I had lost that magic.”

The real scandal revealed by the interview, however, came at the end, when Zanuttini asked Roth why he was so “disappointed” with Barack Obama. She translated, aloud, remarks attributed to him in an article by a freelance journalist, Tommaso Debenedetti, that was published last November in Libero, a tabloid notably sympathetic to Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy (who is embroiled in his own sex scandals with much younger women). “It appears that you find him nasty, vacillating, and mired in the mechanics of power,” Zanuttini said. “But I have never said anything of the kind!” Roth objected. “It is completely contrary to what I think. Obama, in my opinion, is fantastic.” He had never heard of Debenedetti, or of Libero. The interview, with its bitter judgment of Obama’s banality, failure, and empty rhetoric about hope and change, was a complete fabrication.

According to Judith Thurman, of The New Yorker, Mr. Debenedetti also faked an interview with John Grisham. “The best explanation I can find,” Roth explained, “is that this obscure freelancer had hit upon a way of selling articles by attributing anti-Obama sentiments to famous American writers. It was a good gimmick, and he probably had fun. But I can’t imagine what he’ll do now—surely his career is over.”

Thurman and others also accuse Debenedetti of faking interviews with Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow, and an alleged second interview with Phillip Roth. There are also Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, and Herta Müller.

And still the list goes on. Scott Turow is said to be checking his record, and Debenedetti’s interview history also includes dubious sit-downs with V. S. Naipaul, José Saramago, J. M. Coetze, Wilbur Smith, and others.

Allesandro Mazzena Lona, managing editor of Il Piccolo, called the situation “appalling”, and suggested megalomania as Debenedetti’s motive. But—and here comes the punch line—Tommaso Debenedetti denies having faked any interviews. Thurman explains:

Through Il Piccolo, I finally reached Debenedetti in Rome, on his cell phone. We spoke in Italian—his spoken English, he explained, is not very good, although, he added, “I understand everything, and I can speak well enough to pose questions.”

Debenedetti said he was completely “shocked and saddened” that all these writers would have denied the veracity of his reporting. When I asked him about the interviews with Roth and Grisham, he flatly denied having invented them, and told me that Roth and Grisham were lying for “political” reasons—because their views on Obama would make them unpopular with left-leaning intellectuals. Roth, he added, might have decided that it was impolitic to express hostility toward Obama because it might spoil his chances for the Nobel.

I then read the list of other writers who had denied or questioned his conversations with them. In every case, Debenedetti asserted that he had invented nothing. When I asked if he could produce any recordings or notes from his interviews, he laughed and, admitting that it sounded like a “tired” excuse, told me that he had lost the tapes in some cases, and in others had “thrown them away.”

Debenedetti did, however, want me to tell my readers that he had been paid almost nothing—about twenty euros—for his articles in Il Piccolo. I think one can believe him when he insists that he wasn’t driven by financial considerations.

And I still haven’t milked all the irony out of this one. Hard to do when the story bleeds the stuff. Hemorrhages, some might suggest.

Nonetheless, Tommaso Debenedetti is simply one case. To be certain, he has not been convicted of any crime, and Phillip Roth, for his part, has already said he won’t sue. But given the recent trend in fake memoirs, would it be impolitic to wonder if, maybe, Debenedetti is not the only one about whom such questions will arise?


One comment

  1. It is an amazing trend. Five minutes of fame in exchange of a life time of annonimity.

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