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April 12, 2013

Dickens, Dostoevsky, and a Whole Lot More
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:48 AM * 32 comments

I rarely do the “mutely pointing at another article on the web” kind of blog post, mostly reserving that kind of reference to the Parhelia. But, via John Mark Ockerbloom’s Twitter stream, I found myself sucked into this fantastic and absorbing account of literary and academic sock-puppetry stretching across decades.

No single excerpt can sum the piece up. It’s got everything: Dickens, Dostoevsky, bad literary fiction, bad science fiction, a faked car accident, a dubious death in a shoot-out with the Estonian People’s Militia, and an extremely persuasive argument based on descriptions of women’s nipples. It’s an excellent piece of academic and literary detection by Eric Naiman. All it’s missing is a scorecard, which I’ve had to assemble myself to keep track of the shifting, interlacing pseudonyms and personalities he investigates.

Go, read it. Really.

Comments on Dickens, Dostoevsky, and a Whole Lot More:
#1 ::: Brother Guy ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 06:48 AM:

And how do we know that A. D. Harvey is not just the invention of the author of this piece, Eric Naiman?

I'm glad I am a scientist; at the end of the day the meteorites I study still exist, even if the data I publish on them turn out to be completely wrong. Fortunately, the stakes in my field are so small that there's little incentive to cheat.

Except, even in science, one has to deal with ephemeral and unrepeatable observations. Comets are an obvious example; in the years before photography, all you could publish were your own visual observations, and if others claimed you had made up what you saw, by the time the dispute hit the literature the comet itself was long gone and there was no reason to believe the next comet (whenever it might come) would at all look like the one in question.

#2 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 06:58 AM:

Brother Guy @1:

Good question.

I'm mostly relying on the fact that the TLS is a venerable and reputable publication with a reputation to maintain. Were I the editor, I'd have looked at this particular piece with a great deal of attention before publishing it.

Also, like Jim's medical pieces, this is for entertainment only. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Oxford and nipple scholars should verify this source before relying on it.

(I did check the publication date before posting it. It is, after all, April.)

#3 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 08:33 AM:

I did do a little searching in Google and Worldcat before posting my tweet about the article, and verified the existence of some of the publications mentioned in it, and some of the publication trail of the named authors.

I suppose it's theoretically possible the article it's an even more elaborate hoax that A. J. Harvey is in on (because if he's not, he would seem to have a good case for a libel suit). But it seems a simpler and more plausible working assumption that the TLS author is writing in good faith.

#4 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 09:27 AM:

"And how do we know that A. D. Harvey is not just the invention of the author of this piece, Eric Naiman?"

That way lies madness--how do we know that abi and Brother Guy aren't really A. D. Harvey? How do we really know that A. D. Harvey didn't fabricate the entire internet out of whole cloth? How do I know, really, that I'm not A. D. Harvey myself, having a little split personality episode? What is reality?

#5 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 10:13 AM:

I have never seen Abi and Brother Guy together in the same room.

#6 ::: David Langford ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 10:18 AM:

A great surprise to find Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction in the midst of all this weirdness. Must dig out my copy of the relevant issue, to be read in a new light:

Science Fiction and `Mind-Sprung'
Schellenberger, John
Foundation 25: 45-49. June 1982.

#7 ::: Narmitaj ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 10:54 AM:

I alerted David Pringle, who was editor of Foundation at the time, via the JG Ballard yahoogroup. He said - unsurprisingly in this context, as it turns out - that he is not aware Schellenberger contributed anything else to Foundation. The article - not a book review pers se - references Ballard's Concrete Island and High-Rise as well as Crash and Rex Warner's Aerodrome. Presumably bigging up Lindsay's Mind-Sprung (a real book) on dodgy pseudonymous grounds is its only crime, and otherwise apparently it's a perfectly normal article - but then the argument isn't that this guy can't write.

#8 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 11:19 AM:

We all misread "Sprung" the first three times, right?

#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 11:31 AM:

I can't speak for all of us, but you're not alone.

#10 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 11:33 AM:

I need to read this after coffee - my undercaffinated brain had decided that rather than debunking a hoax, it was an account of authors pranking each other in academic papers. There's a great account of this is my academic neck of the woods, involving two very famous professors (who, actually, get along quite well by all accounts) and a claim that one of them, in the spirit of Monty Python, prefers sheep.

#11 ::: Aquila ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 03:42 PM:

I reached the 'her sister emailed me back to say she'd been in an accident and lost her memory' bit and went "oh, I know this story, there's going to be a whole lot of sock puppets" Fascinating seeing it (mostly) outside an internet context, though humans being human, I have to believe this kind of behaviour stretches back into the mists of time.

#12 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 04:07 PM:

Ok, after coffee - wow, that's a boggling saga of sockpuppetry. I'm (mostly) reading it as the responsible party really wanting to engage in academic scholarship, but generating work that simply wasn't at the level required (the 800 applications and 8 interviews bit stands out in my memory). Sad, fascinating and not too uncommon - although the scope of this is astounding.

#13 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 09:19 PM:

Wow. That's just--wow. It reminds you of how much of scholarship relies on trust, and on the assumption that what matters to the the community of scholars is the work itself, and not . . . reputation, or whatever.

If Naiman is participating in an elaborate April Fool's scam (not that I think he is), he'd better have made sure that his employer was in on it, too. UCal Berkeley isn't know for its institutional sense of humor . . .

#14 ::: Laura Runkle ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 10:01 PM:

My goodness. Sockpuppetry as a way of life. Twenty-six years (at least) of sockpuppets. I think it would feel awfully crowded...

Aquila @11 - that is indeed the location where I rolled my eyes. My favorite of the excuses I've been given for sockpuppetry discovered had been "it was my girlfriend, but when I discovered what she was doing, I broke up with her."

#15 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 10:46 PM:

The ghosts of Plato and jesting Pilate are heard, gently snickering in the wings.

#16 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2013, 12:36 AM:


The thing I noticed, off the bat, was the snarky comment about French. For Dickens it may have been a second language, but it was; if not a native language for him one in which he seems to have been completely fluent(a large number of the Russian Middle Classes at the time; as well as the Boyars, were dual-native speakers of French and Russian. It's a tradition which persists. Eugene and Sasha Volokh are both native speakers of Russian/French. I'd say Eugene has English as a second language, because he [so far as I know] didn't acquire it until he was seven/eight. He certainly has a bit more of an accent than Sasha, who gained all three pretty much simultaneously [as I recall he was 3-4 when they emigrated from Kiev]).

Since Dostoevsky translated Balzac (published when he was 22; after he got his degree in military engineering (whom he'd been reading as a child), so I'd guess he was a dual native speaker (esp. as his father had a desire to be a boyar; he had managed to acquire serfs; and was so tyrannical to them they murdered him).

#17 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2013, 01:58 AM:


What a superb train wreck.

#18 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2013, 02:29 AM:

Pseudo-referencing is one of the preferred methods of pseudo-journalists. I'm still cross at the New Yorker for publishing an excerpt from "Darkness in El Dorado". When the author's shoddy journalism came to editorial attention well before the piece was published, the editors went ahead and published it anyway, defending it for being well-referenced when half the references were irrelevant to the article and another half actively contradicted what they were presented as saying. Sadly, even a prestigious journal with a reputation for fact-checking can fall for the "never mind the quality, count the number" method of referencing.

#19 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2013, 01:35 PM:

In some ways, what gets me about this is the aftermath. I tell my freshmen students, "If you aren't sure if a source is reliable, cross-check the facts with other sources." They would have dutifully cross-checked the Dickensian article with the later biographies/articles, and concluded that it was reliable--they simply aren't sophisticated enough to spot that the later scholars were getting their version from the original article. I think maybe I'm going to try to dig up these references to save for a classroom exercise . . .

#20 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2013, 02:13 PM:

Has it occurred to anyone else that this is a real-life version of Teresa's essay on "The Pastafazool Cycle"?

#21 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2013, 03:21 PM:

This is actually a real problem in Human Intelligence. It's why we (try to) insist a source be enrolled in the system. It keeps them from selling the same story to separate people; thus confirming the data.

#22 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2013, 05:32 PM:

Oh my.

I submit that all these people, including Dickens and Dostoevsky, are actually inhabitants of an alternate universe, that there is a Tardis in the story, and that if we are not all very very careful we will all be in danger of Breach.

#23 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2013, 06:38 PM:

One example of what Terry's talking about in #21 might be Curveball.

#24 ::: Naomi Kritzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2013, 04:01 PM:

Lizzy, I had a similar thought. Clearly this all happened in an alternate timeline, and somehow the journal article leaked through but not the actual events.

Pseudoreferences are a real problem. References that should not be taken seriously, but get buried somewhere under a trail of more-respectable-sounding citations -- also a real problem. (You'll run into that problem in pseudoscientific claptrap on a regular basis.)

#25 ::: Lis ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2013, 12:36 AM:

Oh goodness. I'm having flashbacks to The MsScribe Story in Harry Potter fandom.

#26 ::: giltay ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2013, 01:10 PM:

Say what you like about AD Harvey, I really liked his Atlanta Nights.

#27 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2013, 01:05 AM:

Jim MacDonald@5, that just goes to show that either
(a) Teresa is a really clever master-mind playing both of them against each other, or
(b) they've been secretly meeting at the Vatican,
and I wouldn't totally rule out the possibility of both of those having happened.

#28 ::: Wyman Cooke ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2013, 04:31 PM:

Giltay @ 26:

You has won one Internet. :-)

#29 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2013, 05:48 PM:

That is a fantastic story indeed!

Lis @25: I'm afraid your link removed me of the ability to sleep or work for most of my free time yesterday. :P And now I know a lot more about how dramatic fandom used to be. O.O

#30 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2013, 03:54 PM:

The references to Mind-Sprung and everted nipples did make me suspicious, but omitting dinosaurs and sodomy reassure me that this is not from here.

#31 ::: Zachary Bos ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 02:07 PM:

On the topic of episodes involving Russian authors in too-good-to-be-true circumstances: Improv Everywhere a few years ago had an ersatz Anton Chekhov appear at a NYC book-signing...

#32 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2013, 04:54 PM:

Zachary, #31: Sadly, the video to which you linked has been taken down "on copyright grounds". The article that goes with it can still be read, however.

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