The truth behind Jay Murray Siskind’s review of David Foster Wallace

And finally, the wink and nod I’ve been looking for. Laurence Rainey, the editor of Modernism/Modernity, and Nicole Devarenne, the former managing editor of Modernism/Modernity, sent me this open letter today:

An Open Letter to Mark Sample,

We appreciate your recent remarks concerning a review essay about David Foster Wallace, one that appeared in late 2004 in the pages of Modernism/Modernity and was assigned to one Jay Murray Siskind, also the name of a character in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. It is saddening indeed to see the review being cited with po-faced earnestness, and surely you are right that this turns “a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.” All too plainly, the time has come to set the record straight.

As the journal’s book review editors at the time, we were at first disconcerted to receive an email from Jay Murray Siskind. Our suspicions were heightened when we noted that his email address read “blacksmith.edu,” rather than the better known College-on-the-Hill, where Murray was last seen working. But research soon revealed that his change in academic affiliation was the result of a bitter tenure decision fight, in which Alfonse Stompanato had played an especially unsavoury role. Still, Murray’s homepage is available to anyone who wishes to imagine it. And his competence in popular culture is amply documented by his essays in publications such as the American Transvestite and Ufology, not to mention Brüno. Who were we to reject the offer of a review from a respected and even popular colleague?  Who but a fictional character could be better qualified to review . . . well, new fiction? Isn’t that the very essence of peer reviewing? It should also have come as no surprise to anyone that Jay Murray Siskind’s writing should have sounded like Jay Murray Siskind’s writing, in much the same way we might expect that the writing of Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote, to sound much like Don Quijote. Of course we took seriously our role as editors. We toned down a fawning reference (“the most important study since Das Kapital”) to the book that Murray co-authored with J.A.K. Gladney, Adolph and Elvis: Two Twentieth-Century Men and Their Mothers. We also removed a plainly vengeful mention of Alphonse Stompanato’s book, Crunching Granola: The Semiotics of the Cereal Box (“drivel that positively drivels”). But apart from that, the essay stands as Murray wrote it–perhaps the impish product of an impish mood that relieved the tedium of editing the turgid, academic prose that appears in Ufology, where he serves on the Advisory Board.

Yes, we agree that further investigation is urgently required to clarify the entire affair. Perhaps help can be sought from Daniel Quinn, the noted employee of the Auster Detective Agency. If so, he should get to work, or Max Work, immediately. If not, the affair will remain shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.

Finally, in one of the posts to your piece, you highlighted “the fact that Modernism/Modernity doesn’t concern itself with someone like Wallace.” Alas, M/M was the first academic journal anywhere to publish an extended tribute to Wallace after his untimely death, which included pieces by Dave Eggers, Michael North, and Marshall Boswell. (See Modernism/Modernity 16.1, January 2009: 1-24.) The alleged rupture between modernism and postmodernism is one urged only by the simple-, not to be confused with the Sample-, minded.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence Rainey, Editor of Modernism/Modernity

Nicole Devarenne, former Managing Editor of Modernism/Modernity

And here is a copy of the actual letter:

[scribd id=17482549 key=key-1u543771oh25lc02uw0a]

Obviously, then, the whole review was written with — and continues to generate — a sense of humor, something that is sadly lacking from most academic publishing venues. “Hoax” was probably too strong of a word to use to describe the bogus review — until, that is, inexpert readers began taking it seriously.

Here is my response to Professor Rainey:

Dear Professor Rainey,

I appreciate the insider’s perspective, as well as the full details of Siskind’s rocky tenure process. I had heard Stompanato was difficult to work with, but I had no idea. And of course, I’m pleased to see Siskind branching out beyond the stagnant confines of Ufology. When Siskind left Manhattan for College-on-the-Hill, we lost a wonderful sportswriter, but gained a marvelous intellect. And his beard. What an incredibly important beard.

All the best,

Mark Sample

I have to rethink my characterization of the journal as an inscrutable monolith (I just love the phrase, though). In the meantime, if we can only get unsuspecting undergraduate and graduate students to distinguish between serious scholarly conversations and playful ones. (Or even better, is there a way that we can all learn better to mix the two, and use both at once?)

An Open Letter to Mark Sample,

We appreciate your recent remarks concerning a review essay about David Foster Wallace, one that appeared in late 2004 in the pages of Modernism/Modernity and was assigned to one Jay Murray Siskind, also the name of a character in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. It is saddening indeed to see the review being cited with po-faced earnestness, and surely you are right that this turns “a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.” All too plainly, the time has come to set the record straight.

As the journal’s book review editors at the time, we were at first disconcerted to receive an email from Jay Murray Siskind. Our suspicions were heightened when we noted that his email address read “blacksmith.edu,” rather than the better known College-on-the-Hill, where Murray was last seen working. But research soon revealed that his change in academic affiliation was the result of a bitter tenure decision fight, in which Alfonse Stompanato had played an especially unsavoury role. Still, Murray’s homepage is available to anyone who wishes to imagine it. And his competence in popular culture is amply documented by his essays in publications such as the American Transvestite and Ufology, not to mention Brüno. Who were we to reject the offer of a review from a respected and even popular colleague? Who but a fictional character could be better qualified to review . . . well, new fiction? Isn’t that the very essence of peer reviewing? It should also have come as no surprise to anyone that Jay Murray Siskind’s writing should have sounded like Jay Murray Siskind’s writing, in much the same way we might expect that the writing of Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote, to sound much like Don Quijote. Of course we took seriously our role as editors. We toned down a fawning reference (“the most important study since Das Kapital”) to the book that Murray co-authored with J.A.K. Gladney, Adolph and Elvis: Two Twentieth-Century Men and Their Mothers. We also removed a plainly vengeful mention of Alphonse Stompanato’s book, Crunching Granola: The Semiotics of the Cereal Box (“drivel that positively drivels”). But apart from that, the essay stands as Murray wrote it–perhaps the impish product of an impish mood that relieved the tedium of editing the turgid, academic prose that appears in Ufology, where he serves on the Advisory Board.

Yes, we agree that further investigation is urgently required to clarify the entire affair. Perhaps help can be sought from Daniel Quinn, the noted employee of the Auster Detective Agency. If so, he should get to work, or Max Work, immediately. If not, the affair will remain shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.

Finally, in one of the posts to your piece, you highlighted “the fact that Modernism/Modernity doesn’t concern itself with someone like Wallace.” Alas, M/M was the first academic journal anywhere to publish an extended tribute to Wallace after his untimely death, which included pieces by Dave Eggers, Michael North, and Marshall Boswell. (See Modernism/Modernity 16.1, January 2009: 1-24.) The alleged rupture between modernism and postmodernism is one urged only by the simple-, not to be confused with the Sample-, minded.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence Rainey, Editor of Modernism/Modernity

Nicole Devarenne, former Managing Editor of Modernism/Modernity

5 thoughts on “The truth behind Jay Murray Siskind’s review of David Foster Wallace

  1. In the past week, I’ve gone from being the mere managing editor of an academic journal to a coy member of an inscrutable monolith. It’s been an enjoyable, if bewildering, transition.

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  4. How is this funny?  Publication in Modernism / Modernity can often make a difference in terms of both hiring and tenure decisions w/in the field of modernism.  While the editors of the journal may feel that it’s okay to waste publication space that could have been devoted to someone who needs the CV boost of an M/M publication on an off-topic, unfunny lark, it doesn’t seem so funny to someone who may be trying to get a real article published in their pages or someone who is constantly told that the best way to make it in modernist studies is by publication in the pages of M/M.  The whole incident (and the editors continuing practice of treating the editing of an “important” journal as a gigantic joke) bespeaks the entire lack of professionalism that I’ve seen throughout modernism, as a field.  It seems that professors Rainey and Devarenne have forgotten that publishing a scholarly journal is not the same thing as publishing a fun literary magazine or some kind of blog: journals like Modernism/Modernity are supposed to serve an important professional function, which is esp. the case w/ a journal that is as widely discussed as being make-or-break as M/M.

  5. I hope that the editors of Modernism/Modernity found space for Jay Murray Siskind’s essay instead of made space at a real scholar’s expense.

    That said, the Paul Auster joke in the response letter was amazing. I am glad only my roommate was around to witness my ridiculous laugh (and because he also appreciated the “get to work, Max Work, immediately” line, being an Auster fan himself).

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