Last week’s issue of the New Yorker contained a sort of ür-New Yorker story: a nearly 12,000-word reported feature on novelist Dan Mallory, one that started off by highlighting Mallory’s fantastic success and fantastic life story before revealing that the latter was the real fantasy, one Mallory constructed by lying to friends and co-workers for years.
As a lover of such New Yorker stories, I found it entrancing. Here is a best-selling author who lied about having cancer, who lied about his parents being dead, who lied about his brother committing suicide (after appearing to impersonate said brother over email for extended periods to multiple people), and then, it is strongly implied by author Ian Parker, who lied about having a serious mental illness to explain all the other lies. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an industry I know little about (publishing), one filled with amusing characters (like the author of mysteries who seems to have written Mallory into her own books). It’s everything a magazine story should be.
That being said: As a reader of novels, I was unsure why, exactly, I should care about any of this.
After all, it’s not as if Mallory is selling a memoir here. This is not a fabulist’s manufactured life story, an “A Million Little Pieces”-style scam perpetrated on the book-reading public. That his life story is less interesting than he made it out to be (or, at least, less riven with cancer and dead family members; one could hardly argue that the life he had been leading was uninteresting after reading Parker’s piece) has no bearing on the fictions he has sold to people.
Similarly, there’s no real suggestion of plagiarism. Sure, Parker goes to great lengths to show that Mallory’s book, “The Woman in the Window,” published under the name A.J. Finn, is derivative of potboilers such as “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” and films such as “Rear Window” and “Copycat." But if bland, mushy sameness were an artistic offense worth ending careers over, bookshelves would be bare and theaters would be bereft of movies to project. Mallory’s stuff sells because consumers aren’t really all that interested in being challenged by difference. (At least, I imagine that’s why it sells; I have not and will not read “The Woman in the Window,” and therefore have no opinion one way or the other on its merits as a literary work.)
If anything, there’s a critique to be leveled here against the book-buying public, the sort of people who care more about an author’s personality than the words they put to paper. And there’s much to be written about the book publishing industry, with its lackadaisical standards and general hand-waving whenever one of its big names gets put on the spot for lifting work without proper attribution. Suckers like good stories, and businesses like making money; no wonder a guy like Mallory could make it work.
But, again: None of this really impacts the actual words Mallory put on the page of his novel. And this may be why the story of Dan Mallory is so fascinating: It feels like the simplest example of the art/artist dichotomy and the ethical dilemma of bringing wealth to bad people by patronizing their artwork.
As someone who has long argued for a work to be considered separately from the moral standing of the artist (or artists) who created said work, this has never really been an issue for me. But I understand the other side of the argument, that the practice of enabling and enriching people of questionable morality is ethically dubious. The Oscar-nominated film “Bohemian Rhapsody” is good or bad* irrespective of director Bryan Singer’s purported misdeeds with young men, though I recognize why someone would feel bad about buying a ticket to see a film that reportedly enriches the accused to the tune of $40 million.
Mallory’s not being accused of any crimes here. He hasn’t used his position in the industry to harm people, aside from making them feel foolish for believing his lies. His fiction cannot harm anyone, really. But if the New Yorker’s report is accepted, he is undoubtedly “bad” in the general moral sense. Buying copies of his book undeniably puts money in his pocket. Is it ethically dubious to reward a man who has gotten ahead by lying to college faculty, publishing magnates and radio hosts? Should the average reader care about his history of fabrications? Should we shy away from further lining the pockets of this man who signed a two-book, seven-figure deal before the novel was even published, a novel that debuted at No. 1 on the bestseller lists and is hitting paperback with a 355,000-copy printing in the United States next month, according to the New Yorker?
The answer to these questions seems rather plainly to be “no.” Dan Mallory may be a creep and a liar. I just can’t quite imagine why it matters — or why it should matter — to his readers.