May 21, 2009

posted & written by Caroline Picard

The Smut Hoax
from The Philadelphia Wxxkly
March 2003 issue
“Disguised Mediocrity: The Smut Hoax”

OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS, readers around the country have relished the work of local celebrity author, Fletcher MacMahon. While his nom de plum, Johnny Tangiers, is a well-known ruse, no one thought to consider the latent meaning concealed in the books themselves. As avid fan Connie Devrise says, “People who read smut want pleasure not intellectualism. We want candy.” In other words MacMahon’s average reader is not likely to host a seminar to discuss one or another of his books. It’s a little like expecting the audience of Led Zepplin to play a record backwards. Yet, the audience was nevertheless rapt. “He writes good candy,” Devrise said with a shrug.
Tangiers describes in vivid detail the sometimes sordid, sometimes sentimental sexual encounters of his protagonists—most often women, in various stages of duress. Perhaps because those same protagonists are generally struggling to overcome, or escape, the overbearing dictatorship of a man they do not love, readers have cherished feminist bent of the work. Certainly MacMahon writes for a niche—adopting a peculiar aesthetic that likely would not have caught on in another time. Using titles like Spoon Me, Cupid’s Tip, Fourth Meal, Who’s the Boss, More than a Feeling, or You’re not Stupid You’re Sexy, Tangiers enjoys a certain self-awareness of the genre—one that his readers always assumed they could share and indulge. “He made readers feel comfortable by making a joke of the genre,” said another reader Hannah Peterson. “Now I don’t know how I feel about it though. I think he’s kinda mean. Like a boyfriend who didn’t really like you, just wanted to prove something to his friends. I hate guys like that.”

Recently a viral rumor spread. What began on a relatively unknown blog belonging to Richard Harvey (www.splendorsandriches.wordpress.com), leaked out and bubbled, captivating fans who began to question their initial understanding of MacMahon’s work. Further, it appears that anonymous essays appeared on the desks of various literature professors—not the least of which was U.Penn’s English Chair, Martha Tomlinson. “I opened a letter one day, inside of which I found a short essay with a post-it note.” The letter was post-marked September 30th 2002. “The essay described how a book I’d never heard of, Lust & Cashmere, was not simply about a man who has a sexual affair with a sweater, but also another telling of the Cinderella story. The post-it note was quite plain. It said only, I think this guy is a liar. He might be famous for pulp, but I think he’s writing bigger things than that. It was signed by an esteemed colleague of mine, Arthur Forbes—whom I discovered later had never actually written the note at all.” Tomlinson admits that upon reading the essay, she trolled through the rest of Tangiers’ work. “The subtext began to diminish the superficial purpose of each book.” Since then, messages have slowly surfaced on the Internet, warning editors about the on-going deception.

A small article in the New York Times Magazine supports the claim. The New Yorker, in the meantime, is due to come out with a similar article next month.

Meanwhile, Johnny Tangiers aka Fletcher MacMahon, has been impossible to reach. When his agent Kathleen Aldridge was contacted she may as well have thrown her arms up, declaring “There is nothing of substance in his work. I’ve known him for several years, during which time we have worked closely together on the development of these manuscripts. Whatever some blogger says, I assure you there is nothing beyond the Romance. If anything additional is discovered beneath the text, I would attribute it to the desire for people to read into things, in order to feel like the world means more than it does.”

A few questions remain. The first, what is the problem with such a hoax? The small corner of MacMahon’s literary circle is a part is up in arms over the apparent deception. Members of said world, as the literary agent, for instance—or the other publishing houses that before had taken so kindly to Tangiers’ quirky contributions—refuse to comment further on the matter. They have cancelled three book deals and want nothing further to do with Tangiers, or MacMahon for that matter. It feels like a personal tiff, one in which Tangiers stepped on egos, convincing those who worked on his behalf that he was something he was not. He is therefore a fraud in one sense. Yet what does it mean that he has all the while been exceeding expectations?

Which raises the second question: Why would someone hide his true intentions? Especially in a creative endeavor, in which, presumably some connection and consequent validation from an audience is the aim? To answer this question, one must examine the author’s life.

Fletcher MacMahon was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Raised upper-middle class by Judith and Mitchell MacMahon, he seems to have had a relatively boring life—that is, until recently when, on September 23rd 2002 his parents and younger brother died in a car accident. Fletcher MacMahon attended public schools for most of his life, until he attended The University of Chicago in order to pursue an undergraduate degree in Russian Literature. After three and a half years, MacMahon dropped out and moved to Philadelphia, where he began his career as a writer. All that is known is that he befriended Aldridge and, after endearing himself to her, managed to secure his first book deal with the cult favorite, Disco Freaks. Since then, he has released 82 titles of varying quality. He doesn’t own a home and he isn’t married. He has three brothers remaining. Until this September, it appears he has made all attempts to obscure his genius, preferring instead to coast on the unaccountable laurels of mediocrity. It seems of no small coincidence that after the shock of his parent’s death, these new matters of authenticity would come to light. Whether MacMahon wrote contacted literary academics or not, he probably did not anticipate the outrage that would ensue.

We can only hope that from the husk of an ironic and slippery nom de plum, MacMahon will crawl out from the rubble of his constructions and bravely take steps towards authenticity. Hopefully he has not burned all of his professional bridges.


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