huhSingle and capable, Dan Mallory seemed to be the new golden boy of American literature. He had a brilliant resume, worked for prestigious publishing houses in London and New York and wrote a psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, which was a huge bestseller and was adapted into a Netflix film.
He also polished his public personality with falsehoods. One of the most egregious was that his mother – still alive – had died of cancer, his brother – still alive – had committed suicide, and Mallory himself – still lying – had a brain tumor. He added a fake PhD from the University of Oxford for good measure.
It’s a juicy yarn that first made headlines in 2019 and was often compared to Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s also worth a second look and a natural topic for Missing Pages, a new podcast series that’s about “re-opening literary cold cases” and looking back at “some of the most iconic, breathtaking and just really bizarre book scandals to shape the publishing world”.
The podcast is hosted by Bethanne Patrick, who has reviewed books for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe newspapers, as well as National Public Radio (NPR). Her Twitter account, @TheBookMaven, has over 200,000 followers. But she does not claim to be a publishing insider or investigative journalist.
“Everyone is gossiping and we all have different ways of gossiping,” Patrick says via Zoom from home, with stacks of books exposed, of course, in McLean, Virginia. “I’m not against gossip or for gossip, but if I’m going to tell these stories, and if I’m going to dive into these stories that people will think ‘ooh! Ah! what?’, then I want to go as deep as possible.
“Neither Am I Nor Andrew Wylie” [a leading literary agent] nor am I the great Ian Parker [whose 2019 profile exposed Mallory’s falsehoods] at the New Yorker. I’m a bit in between with this podcast, but I wanted to do my best and talk to a lot of people about these stories. We try very hard to provide a 360-degree look at these publishing scams and scandals.”
The first episode of eight in season one tells the story of Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year-old child prodigy who landed a six-figure book deal but was accused of plagiarism and ended up on a national TV apology tour. Missing Pages is re-examining the case with interviewees, including Abraham Riesman, author of The Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, and Viswanathan himself.
In the Mallory episode, Patrick speaks to Camila Osorio, who had the unenviable task of checking out the groundbreaking 10,000-word New Yorker. profile, critic and memoirist Jessa Crispin, author Luis Alberto Urrea (who, unlike Mallory, had to work his way up) and two psychiatrists, Jose Apud and Gerald Perman.
One of their observations is that even though Mallory was really diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, people were most annoyed by his willingness to scapegoat the condition as an explanation for his selfish behavior.
Patrick, 58, explains: “We wanted to talk to psychiatrists because being bipolar is not the same as being a pathological liar. Camila [the New Yorker factchecker] was genuinely troubled by Mallory’s claims, “I can’t help lying because I’m bipolar.” I thought, this affects people, even in their professional capacities.”
The host was also taken aback by Mallory’s unfounded claim that his brother suffered from cystic fibrosis. “I thought that the people affected by cystic fibrosis, the families, the victims of the people who suffer from this disease, are very close. They do many things as a community. They are raising money for research. And to have someone lie specifically about a disease is just really awful.”
She asks, “Is Dan Mallory a sociopath? I don’t know. I do know that he must have felt the need to stay on the path of glory.”
Mallory’s unfinished postgraduate research centered on Highsmith and he has spoken of his fascination with her charming fantasist Tom Ripley. Unlike Ripley, the podcast notes, Mallory was not a class fighter. But his web of deceit did spin a romantic origin story of triumph over adversity.
It was perhaps a warning that good writing in the 21st century is no longer enough. Authors should also play the celebrity game and have a story of their own to tell interviewers, profilers and audiences. And the more traumatic, the better.
Crispin. founder of BookSlut.com, tells the podcast, “I would blame trauma entertainment on Oprah’s [Winfrey] feet. I think that kind of material definitely trained us to expect these tales of woe, to expect these tales of trauma, and told us how to phrase them.
It has long been said that the “Oprah Effect” has changed publishing. But is it for good or for bad? Patrick notes, “Oprah Winfrey has done great things for books, especially books by authors who are underrepresented – women, black, bipoc, trans, LGBTQ.
“But like anyone in high power, I don’t think Oprah always realizes the effect she will have. How can she? You can’t predict that and so for a while I think Oprah really loved books about pain and suffering. Maybe that was part of the zeitgeist, maybe that was something that helped her back then. We can’t count that.”
Patrick has had the chance to look past celebrities and get to know authors personally during interviews or backstage at literary festivals. She holds a custom ‘ideal bookshelf’ print in front of the Zoom camera, themed around authors she has had drinks with. It includes Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco and David Mitchell.
She fondly recalls: “David Mitchell: Definitely my favorite. Someone who is really human, a family life, a great artist, interested in everything and everyone. He seemed like someone who really fits in the world and it’s wonderful to be with someone like that.
“I’ll also say Margaret Atwood, who I’ve known for nearly twenty years now. She’s so cunning and clever and unexpected. People might say, ‘Sure, she wrote this and she wrote that.’ Yeah, but sometimes they’re great writers, but they don’t bring that into their personal conversation. She’s always humor and charm and intellectual fireworks and I love that.”
Another drinking companion was Salman Rushdie, who is now in hospital recovering from a multiple stab attack at a recent literary event at the normally quiet Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. Hadi Matar, 24, pleaded not guilty to second-degree attempted murder and assault.
Patrick, who has moderated many such events, was as stunned and horrified as anyone. “Salman Rushdie is one who has contributed timeless books to our culture and has been incredibly generous to other writers and artists and people who support our culture. So this is just horrific; it’s not what should happen.
“One of the things we might talk about for a future podcast episode is what happens to these live events that we all love and attend so often? We live in a country where guns are out of control and now we know for sure that knives are out of control either. It’s going to change and I hate the fact that maybe we should have a national book festival where everyone’s bags are searched.”
The attack on Rushdie came 33 years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on Muslims to kill him a few months after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Some Muslims considered passages about the prophet Muhammad to be blasphemous.
Patrick was married to a retired army officer and lived in Berlin before the wall came down, so he appreciates the fragility and preciousness of writers’ freedom of speech. She notes: “We know what it’s like to live in a place where you are monitored and watched. In America, one of the things that is both beautiful and surprising about the way we look at writers and authors is that our writers and authors have been free in so many aspects of their lives for so long.
“For example, we forget that Pen International and other groups are still working to get writers free to write, to get out of prisons, to get out of the thumbs of oppressors. The fact that I can’t remember anything like this in recent history in the United States just testifies to our incredible privileges that we sadly take for granted.”
She adds: “I don’t think we need to learn a lesson; I don’t want knives on Chautauqua’s stage. But I do think we need to be very aware and aware about what happens next for artists, especially because it’s so important for us to bring artists from other countries. It’s not just Covid: it’s restrictions, it’s visas, it’s conflict, it’s everything.”
What impact has Patrick seen on US publications from the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements? “There is such a long way to go. I am happy to say that some change has occurred. I am happy to see some women of color taking up senior positions in publishing, such as Lisa Lucas at Pantheon.
“But we have yet to go that far, not only in reading and accepting and acquiring and publishing books by people of color – men, women, people of different genders and sexual orientations – but we also need to learn how to talk about them. I’m writing a review this morning by an African British writer and I said something about colonialism and I thought I should check my language here. I have to be very careful.
“We need to stop using words that allow us to hide, that allow us to pigeonhole ourselves, and this is really hard for the wordsmiths of the world, isn’t it? I was raised to learn all the words, to use them , and now I’m thinking about what words separate me from other people, that’s one of the things that publishers have to deal with.”
While Mallory was a white man with the “correct credentials,” proof that East Coast elites and patriarchy hold sway, Patrick witnesses a new generation of diverse writers emerging.
“I see different communities – black, Latinx, transgender – stepping up to support writers in their ranks and help them gain attention. I’ve really tried my best, and I’ve even gotten into a few minor fights with white male colleagues on Twitter about the fact that when I choose what to write reviews about, I get more books by authors of color and authors who are queer and trans. to be.”
She adds: “I don’t think that means I’m ignoring white men. I have read the works of white men for most of my life and some of them are fantastic. I’ll never get over Tristram Shandy – what an experimental novel, that’s the best! But that doesn’t mean I can’t decide now, in the 21st century, to turn around. We need to look a little further intellectually when it comes to different types of writers.”