Self-Publishing Hoaxes: Fictional Blogs

A pretty huge self-publishing story was revealed  yesterday regarding the blog “A Gay Girl from Damascus” – a blog about the Arab uprising from the perspective of a gay woman in Damascus, Syria.  Last week she went missing – reportedly kidnapped.  A picture was reported along with the story who turned out to be a non-Syrian woman in London, who was understandably troubled.

And finally it was revealed that the gay girl in Damascus is actually a married guy in Scotland.  And it also turns out to be a significant self-publishing story with implications for how blogs are read and written online.  He confesses:

It started innocently enough without any intention whatsoever of creating a massive hoax or duping the world. Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to write fiction but, when my first attempts met with universal rejection, I took a more serious look at my own work and I realized that I could not write conversation in a natural way nor could I convincingly write characters who weren’t me. I tried to get better and did various exercises (such as simply copying overheard conversations). Eventually, I would set up a number of profiles on dating sites with identities that were not my own as ways of interacting with real people in conversation but with a different personality than my own….

I’m also an argumentative sort and a bit of a nerd. I was involved with numerous online science-fiction/alternate-history discussion lists and, as a part of that process, I saw lots of incredibly ignorant and stupid positions repeated on the Middle East. I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East, the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc. I wondered idly whether the same ideas presented by someone with a distinctly Arab and female identity would have the same reaction.

So, I invented her. First, she was just a name. Amina Arraf. She commented on blogs and talkbacks on news-sites. Eventually, I set up an email for her. She joined the same lists I was already on and posted responses in her name. And, almost immediately, friendly and solicitous comments on mine appeared. It was intriguing. That likely would have been the end of it; I’d just keep her as a nearly anonymous handle for commenting on issues that mattered to me but …

Amina came alive. I could hear her ‘voice’ and that voice and personality were clear and strong. Amina was funny and smart and equal parts infuriating and flirtatious. She struggled with her religious beliefs and sexuality, wondered about living in America as an Arab; she wanted to find a way to balance her religion and her sexuality, her desire to be both a patriotic American and a patriotic Arab. Amina was clever and fun and had a story and a voice and I started writing it, almost as though she were dictating to me. Some of her details were mine, some were those of a dozen other friends borrowed liberally, others were purely ‘her’ from the get go.

And I did something really, really stupid at that point. I should have left the original ‘brief experiment in nerd psychology’ go and, if I continued to ‘hear’ the Amina voice, I should just use it in a novel.

Anyone who’s been rejected may have a bit of empathy for this. An impulse behind self-publishing is to get your work out there by any means necessary.  A fictional blog is another medium in the new media environment.

Before going any further, I have to say: I did this.

In fact, I did the exact same thing.  My first foray into self-publishing was posting a novel I’d written in the first person from the point of view of a female porn star named Shirley Shave.  Frustrated as I was with agents and rejection, I put the novel online for similar reasons. I’d spent three, fairly miserable years writing the book, got an agent, got rejected, got depressed.  I thought if Shirley Shave by Henry Baum wasn’t reaching anyone, maybe Shirley Shave herself could.  Blogging was new at this time (2004) and if anything goes well together it’s the web and porn.  So I put up the blog – each chapter was more or less a blog post.  The irony is that if I’d known about Lulu at the time, I might have never have done this – I thought this was the best free way to publish fiction.  Soon after, I’d discover Lulu and self-publish “traditionally.”

On the one hand posting a fictional blog is enormously fun and fulfilling.  I would do searches for her name and see people discussing on forums, “What porn star do you think this is?” (Shirley Shave was supposed to be an alias).  The blog went viral and it was getting thousands of hits a day – a few hundred thousand in the year of this experiment.  Every post was filled with thoughtful comments – she had a lot of fans.  As a writer who was struggling to find readers, there is no way this could not be attractive.  The point of the book was to write a kind of “underground woman” and give a voice  in something approaching literature to someone who normally doesn’t get that kind of treatment.  And the blog got exactly the response I was hoping for.

As an aside, my most recent novel is also meta-fiction (novel inside a novel) so the blog wasn’t just a function of desperation to be read, but it was also a literary experiment – use the new medium in a new way.  It was like being a writer crossed with an actor.

Where I crossed the line was that I corresponded with people from a Shirley Shave email address.  This is how the site first got readers – “Hey, check out my blog…”  As the blog went on, I started getting correspondence from people saying how they were moved by SS’s story.  Some people got very personal.  I realized I was betraying their confidence.  And I also did this – I accepted publication in a collection of non-fiction.  The editor of this book was understandably pissed.

All this said, I think (or at least would like to think) that the Shirley Shave story is a bit more harmless than the Damascus blog.  For one, he was writing in real time – so when Amina disappeared, people were immediately worried about her safety – whereas Shirley Shave was reporting on things from her past.  And MacMaster’s blog was dealing with real life and death issues: democratic protests, terrorism, total volatility.  He was potentially putting people’s life in danger.  This became far more than a literary experiment.  A blogger writes:

To Mr. MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us. Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure. Really… Shame on you!!!

So there is a line that was crossed.  Perhaps I crossed it as well.  I don’t, however, think that fictional blogs should be outlawed.  But at the same time there is no way to continue with a fictional blog without betraying your audience.  In a “mockumentary” the audience knows it’s fake.  Youtube is full of trolling.  I guess the question is what’s the line between trolling and art.  Or is this a line that should never be crossed?  As technology expands, the methods of getting your story out to an audience are going to expand as well. CGI is going to get to the point where you’ll never know what’s computer-generated and what’s real.   Just as people have to get used to the slush pile ending up on Amazon, they have to get used to these new methods of expression.  Some of it will be “bad” and some of it will be good.

Maybe a gender-swapping fictional blog that fools thousands of people can never be good – it’s always a fraud, not art.  This is just James Frey online – fiction passing itself off as non-fiction.  There’s a difference between fiction and a lie.  Anyone could self-publish a memoir of someone who never existed, which isn’t a great development.  I actually toyed with the idea of publishing the book as Shirley Shave with Henry Baum – as a way to play with convention, rather than trying to put something over on people.  Given that the final third of the book (which was never posted) ends up with the porn star ending up in a world-famous (but fictional) religious cult, it would have been obvious I was playing with convention, as the cult is obviously false.

Generally I don’t frown on new methods that “play with convention” or offer free expression, which is why I’m a staunch self-publishing advocate.  Still, there are limits.  Someone could self-publish a book of recipes that make people sick.  Plainly, non-fiction must have much higher standards than fiction because so much can go wrong.  But the web’s a different animal.  It’s a living, breathing virtual reality, in which many people are performing and behaving in ways that they wouldn’t necessarily do in real life. The web’s also somewhat self-correcting in that trolls are usually revealed.  If the Amina blog shows anything, it’s that the truth will out.  In the new media climate, there is also an increased element of “buyer beware.”  Basically, you can’t trust what you see or read online.  Unfortunately, this also means not being able to trust legitimate outlets and bloggers.  But that’s one of the casualties of free expression – it’s not always a pretty process.

That says nothing about the initial impulse of the writer, and the impulse to fake people out might not be the greatest one.  But if the impulse as a writer is to move people – make them sympathetic, angry, or whatever else – then a fictional blog can be fulfilling to both readers and the writer.  A fictional blog might be two things at once – both fraudulent and also a legitimate form of self-expression.  When it crosses the line into putting people’s lives in jeopardy then there are real problems.  Until that point, you could say it’s just another medium.

Or, shorter blog post: maybe I’ve just outed myself as a fraud.

  • Henry, I can’t see where your Shirley Shave adventure actually harmed anybody except maybe the editor of the book your writing appeared in. On the other hand, isn’t “nonfiction sex writing” somewhat oxymoronic anyway? I never saw your Shirley Shave blog, but if I had, I would’ve assumed, from the way you describe it, that it wasn’t meant to be the truth. The “gay girl in Damascus” is another matter. People could’ve been — or were — killed as a result of what that impostor wrote.