Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of our Age, by Jonathon Keats

fakes-keatsAs a literary forger of sorts, I enjoy reading about forgeries and forgers’ lives. There is a tendency in such books to repeat stereotypes – the forger as the injured and overlooked, the forger as the masterful yet unoriginal technician etc. What is refreshing about Keats’ book is the way that it avoids the usual moralising that shores up consensus so that he can get to deeper understandings raised by specific forgeries.

There isn’t a strong argument that builds through the book to justify the title. It’s more like a set of mini-biographies that explore what are usually unexplored positive aspects to forgeries.

The book starts with a story from the renaissance, as recounted by Vasari, which illustrates something surprising about forgery. The concept has different meanings at different times and in different places. During the renaissance, an undetectable copy of a master work showed equal skill, and placed the copyist alongside the master. By the 20th century, the skill to a forgery had become irrelevant: criminalisation had seen to that.

Beneath our current orthodoxy, argues Keats, is an anxiety that means ‘No authentic modern masterpiece is as provocative as a great forgery. Forgers are the foremost artists of our age.’ What a forgery shows at any given time in any given place is what’s valued and why. Forgery is even revealing about the things that it ignores. Keats  elaborates on these notions in his introduction. He works through examples of forgery throughout the ages. From each it’s possible to see how different copies are used for different reasons. Holy relics, for example, had since the middle ages been subdivided and distributed to keep up with the demand to venerate them. Within this, forged relics appeared, yet their worth was something they earned. So long as they could perform miracles, they remained (or became) genuine.

There’s also good attention given to the 20th century. The story of Elmyr de Hory is particularly colourful. He not only forged modern masters, but also made a forgery of himself by presenting himself as a collector selling the works. His biography was written by Clifford Irving, who went on to be a forger himself: Irving attempting to fake the dictated biography of billionaire recluse, Howard Hughes. There was, incidentally, a book about that forgery too – Hoax – and I shall post about it in good time.

Keats also recounts the life of Tom Keating, who towards the end of his life, was offered a TV series on Channel 4 in the UK. It was something that hooked me as a teenager who’d taken to oil painting. Luckily, someone has uploaded it!

What Keats’ book achieves is to explain why forgeries are an integral part of any cultural system. They lurk within markets. They fool experts. Yet these uncertainties offer a challenge to what we value and why. It’s simply a cop-out to avoid this challenge by targeting the character of forgers and dividing the world into a comforting binary between a good real and its bad copy.

Posted in Art, Keats, Jonathon, Non-Fiction, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Following on from my last post about reading books discovered in the blogosphere, there was a spate of posts about Alone in Berlin some time ago, which made its cover instantly recognisable to me. In short, I’m glad to have had the introduction. It’s a novel about a German father who loses his son at the front during WWII. Being part of the silent and silenced population, his response is to break that silence by leaving anti-Nazi propagandist notes lying around in public places. This act of resistance, this breaking of a silence, is anonymous; it’s therefore still a silence, only one that’s in a form of his choosing under conditions of minimal choice. I was particularly attracted to this book because, at the time, I was busy with my publishing experiment with academic plagiarism and obscurantism, something also undertaken anonymously. It was interesting to read such different motivations for leaving subversive notes lying around. This is the most effective side to the novel.


My civilised start to reading the novel had a distinctly European flavour. Rather apt, in that reading this novel in a cafe gives an acute sense of peacetime comfort.

The overwhelming experience that it presents is how the German people under Nazi rule were far from being of one mind. The responses to their predicament varied as much a people do. This is so even if they are inevitably divided into only two minds by a decision. There was the dominant question, for example, of whether to join the Nazi party or not. The characters often illustrate this dualism through being contrasted with alternative versions of themselves. Two working-class collaborators differ from each other in their self-centred motivations and reactions to authority. Two Gestapo inspectors have completely different methods for detection and the temperaments to match.

Where the characterisations fail is in Fallada’s authorial interventions. He sometimes draws his characters with character judgements. This closes the characters down with the very condemnatory dehumanisation that Fallada was so intent on exposing about Nazism. The reason for this is perhaps the context in which the novel was written. The typical moan about the book is that it was commissioned by the East German state, hence the last third of the book caricatures a perception of decadence vs socialism as cure.

Yet these flaws evince strengths that are easily overlooked. The dual-mindedness to people’s responses to totalitarian rule earlier in the book are an indication of the struggles that Fallada would have had to deal with when finishing Alone in Berlin according to the strictures of another totalitarian dogma. This political context makes the book a peculiar historical document. How enriching, amid alternative narratives about Nazism, to have a Communist-endorsed version of events that arose from the Cold War that followed.

But what I liked most, as a questioning dropper of anonymous notes myself, is something seldom discussed.

The idea that anyone would avoid taking the credit for their messages is a bizarre one in our age of hyper-visibility. And the dangers in any smug comparison are there for anyone sensitive to them. It would be easy to run away with the idea that we enjoy freedoms that were fought for in the 20th century, and that there are no longer any ideologies or puppet-masters influencing the popular desire to be heard above the throng.

I’d like to add that Alone in Berlin was published in 1947 – watch out for the 1947 club, running between 10-16 October. Have a look at the post on Stuck in a Book for details. Thanks to Kaggsy for drawing my attention to this.

Posted in Authors, Fallada, Hans, Fiction, Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Recommended by Book Bloggers: Quirky Books about Books

Alone in Berlin was instantly recognisable to me from the numerous reviews in the blogosphere.

Alone in Berlin was instantly recognisable to me from the numerous reviews in the blogosphere.

I have a confession to make. I keep copies of bloggers’ book reviews in a database. This enables me to click on my ‘Books to Acquire’ folder to remind myself of possible purchases. It’s so much more visual than merely bookmarking. Here then are the titles in my folder that are about books themselves. They’re all linked to the blog reviews that inspired my interest. Enjoy!

  • How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. Recommended by Letizia at Reading Interrupted in response to my review of How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening. From Eriks Bredovskis’ review: ‘Bayard argues that we shouldn’t think of books as existing within a vaccum. Rather, we should approach “books as a system,” where books exist in relation to each other. […] Avoid this book if: You don’t like French academics.’
  • Dodge Rose by Jack Cox. A labyrinthine novel whose subject is, to an extent, how novels are made and from what. This appeals to me as someone who programs code to generate editable text. From the review on Vertigo: ‘The real joy of this book is its narration. In the first half the narrator is Maxine, and what a character she is. She tends to uses language aggressively (the “thrashed cement” of a building’s architecture, for example), employing a vocabulary that will have readers scrambling for a dictionary. (“Paul might have yelled if his blasted thropple hadn’t amphigoried such a natural reflex into something resembling a distant trill.”) Random, disconnected thoughts – often in Latin, French, German, or Italian – frequently bubble up into her narrative flow, forcing comprehensibility to unravel on a regular basis. Does young Maxine really speak all of these languages? At one point she blurts out: “Who the hell gave me this extravagant education”?’
  • The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavić. A book about unfinished work that, now I re-read the review at roughghosts, still reminds me of the more lucid end of OuLiPo: ‘Together they encounter a room filled with books that remain unwritten because their authors lost faith in them, and he is shown a collection of the books that lost their way or were talked out of existence before they had a chance to be realized. They pass through a room containing books that were destroyed, stop at a shelf of books that comes into being by evocation of the proper author’s name (any guesses?) and, finally, enter a room of floating, ghostly, ethereal books – those that presented themselves to their would-be writers in dreams.’
  • The Anatomy Of Bibliomania by Holbrook Jackson. This book was recommended by a friend on Facebook in response to one of my WP posts. From the publisher’s website: ‘Jackson inspects the allure of books, their curative and restorative properties, and the passion for them that leads to bibliomania (“a genial mania, less harmful than the sanity of the sane”). With deliciously understated wit, he comments on why we read, where we read–on journeys, at mealtimes, on the toilet (this has “a long but mostly unrecorded history”), in bed, and in prison–and what happens to us when we read.’
  • The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard. A mix of fiction and authorial interruption on Chevillard’s relationship with it. From the review at, again, roughghosts: ‘… the tale, or rather tales and other sundry comments exist on two levels: in what might be considered the primary text and in an extensive series of footnotes, which at one point digress into a 40 page story called The Ant. And linking it all is the character’s (and possibly the author’s) explicit loathing for cauliflower gratin.’

It’s been satisfying to acknowledge reviews that have roused my interest! Book blogging does influence what people read. It would be great to see more posts that show the reviews that have lead to either reading or adding to lists for future reading.

My next review will be of Alone in Berlin, the reviews of which made it instantly recognisable to me during a charity bookshop visit. Next month I shall post about books with a European flavour that bloggers have interested me in.

Posted in Books, Editorial, Fiction, Literature, Non-Fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Plagiarism as an Art Form

Have you in the last year or so looked for free essays to plagiarise? Have you adapted what seemed to be attractive material into your essay or dissertation without properly checking or referencing it? Then you may have come across one of these books:

Most of them are free to download. All of them are are billed as books that can be applied to a range of arts, humanities and social sciences subjects. They contain arguments and references that are typical of standard academic textbooks. They’re purportedly the work of an overlooked theorist. Her theories are explained in long introductions by the translator. This is helpful because her writing is, like so much theory, difficult. This, in turn, is unsurprising, because the reason for this difficulty is that her work is computer-generated. Peer-reviewed books and journal articles were cut into new text by my artificial intelligence code and then edited by myself. The books sound right; however, they’re somewhat wonky.

One characteristic of the source material was helpful. I exploited a tendency in academic writing that is sometimes referred to as ‘metatwaddle’. Metatwaddle is a shorthand for wordy prose that sounds impressive but leaves you mystified as to its meaning.

Any experienced reader, presumably, would never get taken in by computer-generated pseudo-theory, and would hit the Back button immediately. However, anyone who doesn’t read – which shouldn’t be the case for students – could be swayed by anything that looks the part. I have limited stats – the theory books are now available from sources all over the web – but the downloads peak as the deadline panic sets in at the end of terms and semesters.

Plagiarism – passing off somebody else’s work as your own, whether by paraphrasing it or simply copying and pasting it wholesale – is becoming a major problem for colleges and universities. At the beginning of 2016, The Times of London published its investigation into 129 universities. Mobile phones are one of the new threats to exams. Copying or adapting material (such as that in my books) is declining as anti-plagiarism software gets better. However, essay mills, websites where you can buy customised essays, are on the rise.


Attracting plagiarists and anyone looking to quote something without checking or attributing it was a motivation for me. However, it was the fun to making my forgeries that made me continue. It didn’t come from nowhere either. I’d previously published a small collection of computer-generated stories. This book sold, and still does. What if, I wondered, I simulated ‘theory’? What if I framed it with a translator’s introduction? Would anyone go beyond a preview?

Well, they did. And once I’d started, the ruse was hard to stop. In a strange form of Stockholm Syndrome, I began to admire plagiarism for its artfulness and skill. I even had my theorist’s translator question the relevance of essays. There was ample opportunity to raise mischievous points that didn’t have to reflect my own views – playing the Devil’s Advocate by proxy, as it were. The temptation was always to add another layer to the author’s oeuvre and biography. The possibilities to simulating artworks to illustrate these led to the Essays on Modern Art series. And in the end, those possibilities vastly outweighed the time available for them. I work full-time, so each book was a colossal undertaking, especially when writing the straight, lengthy, and sometimes preposterous introductions.


A plagiarising technique – paraphrasing without attribution – was used in the introductions.

The finished project – 5 e-books in all – only scratches the surface. The relationship between plagiarism and technology is even more sprawling and complex than my unrealised ideas. Just describing it is beyond anything I can say in a blog post. The many articles I collected while developing the ruse attest to surprising and multiple dimensions. There’s the (mostly secret) struggle academic staff have in getting students to read. There’s the revolutionary politics that underlies a lot of opaque writing in the academy. There’s the growing use of artificial intelligence in papers submitted for conferences, and, absurdly, in detecting them (and, most startlingly of all, in the sciences more than anywhere).

Quite how technology is transforming education is a story being written today. Anyone about to start or resume study will soon be tomorrow’s authors. Or will they?


Many thanks to Ste J for volunteering to write a review of the first book. He’s a non-graduate who’s better read than most of the undergrads I’ve met. Thanks go to Eric for arguing at length in my review as well as being one of several people whose discussions were very helpful in developing the ideas for this elaborate ruse. Eric’s piece on Robert Ryman was highly influential in starting the Essays on Modern Art series. Thanks are also due to Alexei for offering detailed comments on several introductory chapters right at the point where I’d lost the plot. And Sarah at Hard Book Habit provided feedback in the early days that really helped me to gauge what might persuade and what might smell fishy. Thanks most of all to the above and several other people for keeping shtum for this 18 months.

Posted in Art, Computers, Culture, Editorial, Non-Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Merger Enhances Possibly the Largest Secondhand Bookshop in the UK

Bookcase, possibly the largest and most serious-minded secondhand bookstore in the UK has now absorbed its sibling, Bookends, which is a shop for new books. The resulting megastore gives Carlisle a one-stop shop that makes the city an obvious weekend break for anyone into books. This is especially so for historians: the proximity to Hadrian’s Wall makes Carlisle a major destination for readers of Classics and the Ancient world. Nice cafe too. Here’s a gallery to show the changes the merger has brought. Click the Bookcase link above for an extensive gallery of the shop and more information on Carlisle and its bookshops. Also, more here about Cake & Ale, the in-shop cafe. Drool away.

Posted in Secondhand Bookshops | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Niches, and 5 Reasons to Blog About What You Read

PlagueQuestions come to mind as I finally get around to saying something about Plague: Black Death & Pestilence in Europe. I’ve already read and reviewed a book on the same subject, so I don’t know what another review adds. In fact, my more recent experiments in format (comic ‘how-to’s and digests) came about through a feeling that reviewing is rather formal, an industry tool that’s arguably unnecessary for a blogger (unless you’re paid by the publishing industry).

So I read Plague while wondering what I could say about it that would be of any help to other people? Personally, I’ve always had a fascination with an apocalyptic reality that, being biological, is always potentially there. Naphy & Spicer’s particular offering on it adds two social and political angles:

  • The reluctance of authorities to institute measures against the plague
  • The resistance of populations to following any measures that were instituted.

As a temporary civil-servant, I found the matter of how officials dealt with mass death something that’s both obvious to explore and hitherto overshadowed by the body count figures that are usually entailed. Naphy & Spicer are therefore to be commended for keeping their attention unswerved from practicalities and the role of emotion.

But few people will share my fascination with one of the greatest historical catastrophes. This may be why getting around to writing about this book has taken many months. The delay has been productive though. It’s made me consider what the purposes are to writing about a book in a blog. Here are 5 reasons I came up with:

  1. Writing about a book gets you to process your ragbag of otherwise idle thoughts. Putting them together into a whole gives a mental picture that is otherwise fuzzier and quickly lost.
  2. The above parks that book in your mind. You manifest what you got from the read and where this leaves you.
  3. You get a sense, over time, of the categories of things in the world that interest you. This can reveal a diversity to yourself that can surprise and might have gone unnoticed.
  4. Responding to comments is an opportunity to confirm or reconsider your views. I notice how many readers who seldom discuss their views on books can end up either viewless or rabidly immoderate.
  5. There is a sense of where to take a read next. Going over a read doesn’t conclude that read: it poses questions about where to take it or not. And comments to your blog post can help you stay open. This though, as posts about TBRs attest, is as much a curse as a liberation!

What I wonder is how these and other aspects to writing about reading might inform what is written about so that it can make a niche more accessible to anyone less interested? I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s for another post? I’m just aware that the more niche a book is, the harder it is for anyone to comment on it. It’s an inevitable consequence of the way that reading is a niche pursuit for many. Can an awareness of what writing about it is for help that writing along in its cause?

Posted in Authors, Editorial, History, Naphy, William, and Andrew Spicer, Non-Fiction | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Which is the Best Cover Image?

Click on covers to enlarge.

Please do not click on Like and then not express a view!

Posted in Book Covers | Tagged , , | 19 Comments