Missing Pages: the podcast revisiting jaw-dropping literary scandals

Handsome and accomplished, Dan Mallory seemed to be the new golden boy of American letters. He had a glittering CV, worked for prestige publishers in London and New York and wrote a psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, that was a huge bestseller and adapted into a Netflix film.

He also burnished his public persona with falsehoods. Among the most egregious was that his mother – still alive – had died of cancer, his brother – still alive – had killed himself and that Mallory himself – still lying – had a brain tumour. He added a fake doctorate from Oxford University for good measure.

It is a juicy yarn that first made headlines in 2019 and was often compared to Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley. It is also worth a second look and a natural subject for Missing Pages, a new podcast series that sets about “reopening literary cold cases” and looking back at “some of the most iconic, jaw-dropping and just truly 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 more than 200,000 followers. But she does not claim to be either a publishing insider or an investigative journalist.

“Everyone gossips and we all have different ways of gossiping,” Patrick says via Zoom from home, naturally with stacks of books visible, 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 get into these stories that people think ‘ooh! ah! what?’, then I want to go as deep as possible.

“I am neither Andrew Wylie [a leading literary agent] nor am I the amazing Ian Parker [whose 2019 profile exposed Mallory’s falsehoods] at the New Yorker. I’m somewhat in between with this podcast but I wanted to do the best that I could do and talk to many people about these stories. We are trying very hard to give a 360 look at these scams and scandals in the publishing industry.”

The first episode of eight in season one tells the story of Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year-old wunderkind who landed a six-figure book deal only to be accused of plagiarism and end up on a national TV apology tour. Missing Pages re-examines the case with interviewees including Abraham Riesman, author of The Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, and Viswanathan herself.

In the Mallory episode, Patrick speaks to Camila Osorio, who had the unenviable task of fact-checking the seminal 10,000-word New Yorker profile, critic and memoirist Jessa Crispin, author Luis Alberto Urrea (who, unlike Mallory, had to work his way up the hard way) and two psychiatrists, Jose Apud and Gerald Perman.

Bethanne Patrick. Photograph: Michelle Lindsay Photography

Among their observations is that, while Mallory was genuinely diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, what riled people the most was his willingness to scapegoat the condition as an explanation for his self-serving behaviour.

Patrick, 58, explains: “We wanted to talk to psychiatrists because being bipolar does not equal being a pathological liar. Camila [the New Yorker factchecker] was genuinely distressed by Mallory’s claims that, ‘I can’t help lying because I’m bipolar.’ I thought, this does affect people, even in their professional capacities.”

The host was also taken aback by Mallory’s baseless claim that his brother suffered cystic fibrosis. “I thought the people who are affected by cystic fibrosis, the families, the victims of the people who suffer through this illness are very tight. They do a lot of things as a community. They raise funds 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 he must have felt some need to keep himself on the glory path.”

Mallory’s uncompleted postgraduate research focused on Highsmith and he has spoken of his fascination with her charming fantasist Tom Ripley. Unlike Ripley, the podcast notes, Mallory was no class warrior. But his web of deceit did spin a novelistic origins story about triumph over adversity.

It was perhaps a warning that, in the 21st century, writing well is no longer enough. Authors must 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 like to place the blame for trauma entertainment on Oprah’s [Winfrey] feet. I think that kind of material definitely just trained us to expect these tales of woe, to expect these tales of trauma, and told us how to formulate them.”

The “Oprah effect” is long said to have changed publishing. But is it for good or ill? Patrick comments: “Oprah Winfrey has done some amazing things for books, especially for books by authors who have been underrepresented – women, Black, Bipoc, trans, LGBTQ.

“But like anyone with a lot of power, I don’t think Oprah always realises the effect that she’s going to have. How can she? You can’t predict that and so I do think for a while that Oprah was really into books about pain and suffering. Maybe that was part of the zeitgeist, maybe that was something that was helping her then. We can’t count that out.”

Patrick has had a chance to look past celebrity and get to know authors in person during interviews or backstage at literary festivals. She holds up to the Zoom camera a customised “ideal bookshelf” print with the theme of authors she has had a drink with. It includes Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco and David Mitchell.

She recalls fondly: “David Mitchell: absolutely my favourite. Someone who really is a person in full, a family life, an amazing artist, interested in everything and everyone. He seemed to me to be someone who truly sits in his place in the world and it’s lovely to be with someone like that.

“I will also say Margaret Atwood, whom I’ve known for almost 20 years now. She’s so sly and smart and unexpected. People might be like, ‘Well, of course, she wrote this and she wrote that.’ Yeah, but sometimes they’re amazing writers but they don’t bring that to their personal conversation. She is wit and charm and intellectual fireworks all the time and I love that.”

Salman Rushdie, one of Bethanne Patrick’s drinking companions. Photograph: Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

Another drinking companion was Salman Rushdie, now recovering in hospital from a multiple stabbing attack at a recent literary event at the normally tranquil Chautauqua Institution in New York state. Hadi Matar, 24, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree attempted murder and assault charges.

Patrick, who has moderated many such events, was as aghast and appalled as anyone. “Salman Rushdie is someone who’s contributed timeless books to our culture and has been incredibly generous to other writers and artists and people supporting our culture. So this is just heinous; it’s not what should be happening.

“One of the things we’re talking maybe for a future podcast episode is about what happens to these live events that we all love so much and attend so frequently? We live in a country where guns are out of control and certainly now we know knives are out of control as well. It’s going to change and I hate the fact that we might have to have a national book festival where everyone’s bags are rifled through.”

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 assassinate him a few months after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Some Muslims regarded passages about the Prophet Muhammad as blasphemous.

Married to a retired army officer, Patrick lived in Berlin before the wall fell so appreciates the fragility and preciousness of writers’ freedom of expression. She comments: “We know what it’s like to live in a place where you’re being controlled and watched. In America, one of the things that’s both beautiful and surprising about the way we look at writers and authors is that our writers and authors have been free for so long in so many aspects of their lives.

“We forget that, for instance, Pen International and other groups are still working to allow writers to write freely, to get out of prisons, to come out from under the thumb of oppressors. The fact that I can’t remember anything like this in recent history in the United States just speaks to our incredible privileges that, unfortunately, we take for granted.”

She adds: “I don’t think we need to be taught a lesson; I don’t want any knives on stage at Chautauqua. But I do think we need to be very mindful and intentional 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 conflicts, it’s all kind of stuff.”

What impact has Patrick seen on American publishing from the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements? “There is such a long way to go. I’m glad to say that there has been some change. I’m glad to see some of the women of colour who are taking over higher positions in publishing, like Lisa Lucas at Pantheon.

“But we have so far to go not only in reading and accepting and acquiring and publishing books by people of colour – men, women, people of different gender and sexual orientations – but we also need to learn how to talk about them. I’m writing a review this morning of an African British writer and I was saying something about colonialism and I thought I need to check my language here. I need to be really careful.

“We need to stop using words that allow us to hide, that allow us to silo ourselves, and this is really hard for the wordsmiths of the world, right? I was brought up to learn all of the words, use them, and I’m thinking, now, which words separate me from other people. That’s one of the things that publishing’s going to have to deal with.”

Whereas Mallory was a white male with the “right credentials”, proof that the east coast elites and patriarchy hold sway, Patrick is witnessing a new generation of diverse writers in the ascent.

“I’m seeing different communities – Black, Latinx, transgender – rise up to support writers in their ranks and help them get attention. I have made a real effort, and I’ve actually gotten into some tiny kerfuffles with white male colleagues on Twitter about the fact that, when I’m choosing what I’m going to write reviews of, I’m choosing more books by authors of colour and authors who are queer and trans.”

She adds: “I don’t think that means I’m ignoring white males at all. I’ve spent most of my life reading white males’ works and some of them are fantastic. I am never going to get over Tristram Shandy – what an experimental novel, that is the best! But that doesn’t mean that now, in the 21st century, I can’t decide to take a turn. We need to look a little further intellectually when it comes to different kinds of writers.”

Missing Pages is available now

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