David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and the Littlest Literary Hoax

July 16th, 2009 § 20 comments

Jay Murray Siskind is Don DeLillo’s only recurring character, having first appeared in DeLillo’s pseudonymous Amazons and later as a kind of Mephistopheles character in White Noise. Now, Siskind has broken out of the realm of fiction and entered the real world.

I am referring to “An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent,” a review of David Foster Wallace’s work that appeared in the prestigious journal Modernism/Modernity, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Found in the Volume 11, Number 4 issue (2004) of Modernism/Modernity, the review focuses on Wallace’s last collection of short stories, Oblivion, and is attributed to a certain Jay Murray Siskind, Department of Popular Culture, Blacksmith College.

Anyone familiar with White Noise should recognize the clues that the supposed reviewer is DeLillo’s character and not some real live scholar with the same name: there’s the fictional Blacksmith College (which, while not the college portrayed in White Noise, is a name of one of the neighboring towns); there are the fake footnotes in the review referring to other characters and details from White Noise, including narrator Jack Gladney and thuggish Alfonse Stompanato); and finally, there are the decidedly non-reviewish interjections by Siskind in the middle of the seemingly serious review:

It is at this point that I must confess to missing something in Wallace, namely the presence of women nearer the center of the narration (setting aside Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, Jr., the protagonist in Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System). I admit that I’ve always been partial to them, i.e. women. I fall apart at the sight of long legs, striding, briskly, as a breeze carries up from the river, on a weekday, in the play of morning light. And what fun it is to talk to an intelligent woman wearing nylon stockings as she crosses her legs. Wallace, I suspect, shares these predilections and could write wonderfully complicated women.

This is pure Siskind as DeLillo imagined him (and for some reason it reminds me of the hilarious scene in White Noise where Siskind pays a prostitute to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him).

I first noticed the fake review in 2005, when one of my students unwittingly cited the review as real research. I had puzzled over it and decided that if I waited long enough, somebody (in Modernism/Modernity circles, in Wallace circles, in DeLillo circles) would come forward and take credit for something I’m sure they thought nobody would be fooled by. Time passed and I forgot about the fake review. Until recently. I’ve done some digging around and discovered that the hoax has gone unnoticed, though the review hasn’t. The review is only ever considered as serious, peer-reviewed research. For example, in addition to my embarrassed student, I’ve found the review cited in several graduate theses, with no acknowledgment that the review is fake. The troubling blindness to contextuality and intertextuality (how could any 20th century Americanist, whether modernist or postmodernist, fail to see the references to perhaps one of the most important novels of the past fifty years) — this troubling blindness on both students and their advisors’ part turns a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.

This isn’t a hoax on the same level as the Alan Sokal/Social Text affair, nor is it obviously parody, as when The Onion attributes a blog to DeLillo. It is somewhere in between, minor, but noteworthy. I am 100 percent certain that DeLillo was not involved and 95 percent certain that Wallace was not involved; DeLillo is much too subtle and Wallace was far too clever. So I wonder on what level was the hoax perpetrated? Who was in on it? Were the editors of Modernism/Modernity aware? Did some sly book review editor slip it in? Did any regular readers of the journal ever even read, really read, the review? At what point will the real writer blink? Or wink? And what can “An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent” teach us about scholarship, publishing, peer-review, and mentoring?

UPDATE (23 July 2009): The editors of Modernism/Modernity have responded.

§ 20 Responses to David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and the Littlest Literary Hoax"

  • Great, Mark. A friend pointed out this review to me circa 2005 as well, and I’d just assumed along the lines that you did that everyone knew about it. You should post a bibliography of works that have included the review in their bibliographies.

  • Thanks very much for posting this. I’d not seen this review, but it seems very interesting. I think Brian’s idea of a bibliography of references would be interesting indeed; I’ve also posted a link to this post to Modernist Studies discussion list. I wonder if anyone on that list has thoughts about how this review was received.

  • Matt Hart says:

    I read Mod/mod (Hi, Mark!) but only skim the review section.  Since I’ve never been much for Foster Wallace, I didn’t know about the bogus review.
     
    Mark’s analysis is wonderful, as usual.  But having published a review in Mod/mod, I can only say that the hoax teaches us nothing about peer review, since the review section at Mod/mod (like most journals) isn’t subjection to peer assessment.  As far as I know, my review was quality-controlled only by the book review editor at York University.  It would be nice if this wasn’t the case, but I know from my own editorial work how hard it can be to find two scholars to do the unpaid labor of reviewing a full-length article.  Absent some major injection of funds, requiring the same process for multiple short book reviews would slow the publication process to a standstill.
     
     

  • @Matt Hart;
    Re: Peer review of book-reviews; I  basically agree, though it is perhaps worth noting that the review in question is not one M/M’s short reviews, but a longer “review essay.”
    Moreover, one needs neither peer review, nor a team of fact checkers, to see that the review is authored by a someone claiming to be from a University that doesn’t seem to exist. Even for a review, there must be some of signed publication agreement to grant publication rights, et cetera.Where did they send it? (Was it faxed?)
    I’m unsure what to conclude. It doesn’t seem impossible, though, that the hoax was a piece of “performative criticism,” published as such with the knowledge of the journal.

  • Mark says:

    Everyone, thanks for the thoughtful comments. @Matt, I’m using “peer review” in the loosest sense of the phrase, meaning somebody with authority had to have read the submitted review before it was published, and if there were any concerns about the review, the book review editor might have bumped it up to one of the journal editors for feedback.

    But I also mean peer review in a sense we’re not accustomed to in the blind review process, which is having our peers read our work after it has been published. Really, so much of our scholarship is just shouting into a void, and any scholarly conversation that does go on, goes on very slowly, often with strategic misinterpretations thrown into the mix.

    The fact that Modernism/Modernity doesn’t concern itself with someone like Wallace (or DeLillo for that matter) makes me think the hoax was what @Chris calls “performative criticism” — perhaps trying to turn that shout into the void into a big fat raspberry. But still, because of the absence of any dialogue, any chance for readers to comment upon the piece (it is, after all, very funny), any chance to carry out a post facto peer review/exposure/confession/etc. within the journal’s pages, it’s a highly unsatisfactory performance.

    Just consider how this blog post has received more comments than an entire journal issue may receive and it becomes clear that the scholarly publishing system is broken.

  • Curt says:

    Mark – thanks for this great item – makes me now wonder if “Jack Gladney” has published anything lately…  I’ll have to add something on my DeLillo site about this!

  • @Mark: A shout in the void seems exactly right.
    I spent a little more time hunting around and while, as you note in your original post, there are a couple graduate theses that list the review in their bibliographies, I’m not sure that anyone mistook this review for a “real” review. So, as you suggest, the real point is not that peer review somehow failed, but that existing conventions don’t always enable the sort of on-going discussion that this piece merits.
    It is a fascinating review. In addition to what you note, the review features references in the endnotes to works by Hal Incandenza (from Infinite Jest) and J. A. K. Gladney & Alfonse Stompanato (from White Noise). All of which seem to solicit further comment. Clearly the review asks us to think through the relationship of Wallace to DeLillo as two key figures in contemporary American fiction.
    It is an interesting question, but one thwarted by the time-scale at which academic discussions in scholarly journals normally occur. An academic journal enables scholarly discussion at one scale (the multi-year, indeed generational, periodiciy of “critical conversations”), but does not allow quick conversation and analysis on shorter time scales, or for interesting but comparatively small issues (like this review).
    A blog, as you note (when it is working properly), is in some ways the antithesis of this model. But it is worth noting that print models exist as well. The letters section of NYRB, for instance, does (IMO) a fairly good job of  conversations to play out in response to reviews. Many folks will know that Kathleen Fitzpatrick, at http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/, is working on a book about many of these questions.
    Thanks again for this fascinating post.

  • KF says:

    @Chris: thanks for the shoutout!
    @Mark: you know, I included the Siskin “review” on my DFW syllabus in the spring, but on the days we discussed Oblivion we got so caught up in the primary text that it never came up in our discussion.  I was then quite surprised to see it pop up as a secondary source in a couple of student papers; it honestly never occurred to me that anyone would take the review as anything other than outright parody.  That apparently some number of graduate students — ostensibly students of late-20th c. literature — have is mind-boggling. My assumption was always that the piece was by one of the Modernism/Modernity editors, and was thus less a hoax than an in-joke, but the danger of the in-joke of course is how it’s received by those not on the in…

  • Mark says:

    @Kathleen, thanks for visiting! And perfect timing too: I knew you had the Siskind review listed on your syllabus and I was planning to email you for your thoughts. It sounds like we’ve had similar experiences with our students. What my graduate student who cited the review was most embarrassed by was that we had actually read White Noise earlier that semester. Apparently Hitler’s mother and cereal box studies are less memorable than you would think!

    An in-joke among several (if not all) the editors of Modernism/Modernity is the most plausible explanation, but it makes me wonder, since the pages in print journals aren’t free and they are published with extremely limited budgets, at what poor, legitimate reviewer’s expense did those three pages come from?

    I keep going back to the two things the bogus review highlights: something in the way expert readers easily parse authentic scholarly conversation is not translating to even our smartest students; and something is wrong with the academic publishing system.

  • Mark says:

    A friend wondered via Facebook if I had contacted the editors of Modernism/Modernity to ask them about the bogus review. I have not, for two reasons. The half-serious answer is that I would hate to hear a straight-forward explanation for this mystery — because the simmering is more enjoyable than the boil. The half-joking answer is that Modernism/Modernity, like many academic journals, simply seems unapproachable, an inscrutable monolith that can’t be bothered with nagging ragged vagabond late postmodernists like myself.

    This brings me to a question that’s been floating around the margins. Whether it’s an in-joke and true hoax, why pick on David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo? Was the writer trying to pick the most iconic postmodernists out there, to make a jarring contrast with the journal’s own focus? Johnny Truant reviewing Kathy Acker might have been better choices. Wallace’s sincerity (wrongly) disqualifies him from what many critics would call postmodernism, while Don DeLillo is more appropriately characterized as a modernist writing about a postmodern world.

  • Commenting more than twice times on a single blog post seems to violate some unwritten rule of good taste (the “I am not a troll” rule I believe it is sometimes called).
    Nevertheless: I am fascinated by the review for the reasons you note; why DeLillo, why DFW? I wonder though if your characterization of the journal as being “an inscrutable monolith that can’t be bothered with nagging ragged vagabond late postmodernists” is entirely fair. Earlier you note that “Modernism/Modernity doesn’t concern itself with someone like Wallace (or DeLillo for that matter).”
    While the journal’s historical focus seems to place DeLillo & Wallace outside the late 19th/early 20th century focus of the journal, it did make note of DFW’s recent passing  (including a brief rememberance by blog commenter @Kathleen), in the Jan. 2009 issue (vol. 16, no. 1). And DeLillo’s name manages to crop up not infrequently, even if only by way of passing reference. Which is to say I’m not sure the journal is exactly the monolith you describe, nor is it as hostile to postmodernism per se.
    The review is interesting; but I’m not entirely convinced that its provocation lies in some tension between mandarin “modernism” and vagabond “postmodernism.” Indeed, it is often this very binarism that contributions to the journal work against.

  • Brendan Beirne says:

    I actually wrote to the editors of M/m a few years ago while working on a paper about this very topic.  As I expected, they wouldn’t give up the goods.  For me, the most interesting thing about the review was that, in my opinion, it didn’t serve the reader very well.  I kind of think a book review should be more about the book under consideration than about the (putative) author. I suppose that interpreting Wallace through the eyes of a Delillo character could have produced some interesting results, but this just felt flat to me.

    From
    Modernism/Modernity <engl500@york.ac.uk>

    Sent
    Tuesday, May 23, 2006 8:07 am

    To
    bjb279@nyu.edu

    Cc

    Bcc

    Subject
    Authorship attribution question

    Dear Brendan,

    Thanks for your inquiry.  The name used for the reviewer was indeed
    fictitious (as you pointed out, from a DeLillo novel), but I’m afraid I
    can’t disclose the name of the actual reviewer.  I can tell you however that
    your two guesses were incorrect. Thanks, Matthew.

    Matthew Gaughan,
    Book Review and Managing Editor,
    Modernism/Modernity,
    Department of English,
    University of York,
    York,
    YO10 5DD.

  • Mark says:

    @Brendan, Good detective work! You’re more the gumshoe than I am. I’m not sure whether the book review editor’s coy response makes me think that the journal is more of an inscrutable monolith or less of one. Still, it does indicate that the editors were in on the joke. The question is, what were they trying to achieve?

    And @chris, no, you’re definitely not a comment troll. Repeat visitors are always welcome. Your points are well taken about the false modernism/postmodernism dichotomy (I think the work of Wallace and DeLillo proves the binary is illusionary time and time again). Like you though, I’m wondering why these two and why in this journal? Even if it’s entirely unintentional, there seems to be some fallout regarding the status of Wallace and DeLillo. I’m wondering, who is more the victim (for lack of a better word): DeLillo, whose character was usurped from him; or Wallace, who is (it is implied) not worthy of a real review?

  • Mark says:

    UPDATE: For an explanation of the Siskind review by the editor of Modernism/Modernity, read The Truth behind Jay Murray Siskind’s Review of David Foster Wallace.

  • Eric Smith says:

    Your question–”why these two?”–may have its start in Infinite Jest. In the excellent Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum Contemporaries, 2003), Stephen Burn nails down the Subsidized Time debate with the help of two endtnotes in IJ that refer to the M.I.T. Language Riots. These riots are also found in Delillo’s Ratner’s Star. Burn calls the reference “a subtle intertextual joke.”  Perhaps this review is the joke v.2.0.

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