Anatomy of a Hoax

Photo courtesy of Penguin Young Readers.

Eric Carle, the author and illustrator of more than seventy books that captivated, amused, and educated generations of children, died last month at ninety-one. Carle’s work, and his seemingly effortless connection to young readers, was motivated by the privations of his own childhood. Raised in Nazi Germany, he was forced to dig trenches on the Siegfried line; his father, whom he adored, had become a prisoner of war in Russia. Carle’s later proclivity for vivid, exuberant colors was a reaction against the “grays, browns and dirty greens” of buildings camouflaged to protect against bombing. After the war, in America, he worked as a commercial artist, developing meticulous collages of tissue paper and acrylics that soon launched his career as an illustrator and children’s writer. His most famous book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, came in 1969, and has sold more than 55 million copies worldwide. “I think it is a book of hope,” he said on its fiftieth anniversary, in 2019. “Children need hope. You—little insignificant caterpillar—can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent.”

If you looked at Twitter after Carle’s death, you may not have seen that quotation. It was lost in the din surrounding another remark:

My publisher and I fought bitterly over the stomachache scene in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The caterpillar, you’ll recall, feasts on cake, ice cream, salami, pie, cheese, sausage, and so on. After this banquet I intended for him to proceed immediately to his metamorphosis, but my publisher insisted that he suffer an episode of nausea first—that some punishment follow his supposed overeating. This disgusted me. It ran entirely contrary to the message of the book. The caterpillar is, after all, very hungry, as sometimes we all are. He has recognized an immense appetite within him and has indulged it, and the experience transforms him, betters him. Including the punitive stomachache ruined the effect. It compromised the book.

This story was drawn from Carle’s interview with The Paris Review for Young Readers, and tens of thousands of people shared it in praise and remembrance. “What a good man,” one wrote. Another posted, “Eric Carle said fuck the system eat cake and be unapologetically hungry.” A third was inspired to go big for lunch: “a chicken Parm and a whole ass order of garlic knots.” Nigella Lawson retweeted the story, Smithsonian Magazine included it in their obituary, and the parenting site Motherly noted that it had “a profound impact … Eric Carle recognized the harm in implying shame should be something a living creature feels simply for eating food they need to eat in order to grow.” On WQED, during a live broadcast, the radio host asked Carle’s son, Rolf, for more details about the stomachache quarrel. “That’s one of the stories I haven’t heard,” Rolf said, “and when you get an answer, please get it to me.”

He hadn’t heard the story because it never happened. Debunkers, including Snopes, soon pointed out that The Paris Review for Young Readers had originated in 2015 as an April Fools’ Day joke. There had been only a single issue of the “magazine,” which included a rewrite of American Psycho focused on haute couture lunchboxes, a word hunt that featured terms like chiaroscuro and post hoc ergo propter hoc, and a photo of the editor reading to an avid crowd of children, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Though few had fallen for the Carle interview at first sight, the passage about the stomachache dispute had been republished in a 2019 book, Fierce Bad Rabbits, and its appearance in print, out of context, gave it a legitimacy that was hard to shake. Clare Pollard, the book’s author, had cleared the citation with the Review and a prominent literary agency. But institutional memory lapses quickly, and neither party knew to inform her that it was a hoax.

The Review issued an apology and attached a disclaimer to the article. Meanwhile, reactions to the ruse were divided. Some, wedded to the story’s message, would only reluctantly concede that it was fabricated. “It clearly resonated with many for a reason, though we do regret the error,” Motherly wrote in a retraction. Others were so delighted by the quotation that they chose to go on believing it anyway: “This is the reality I will be moving forward with, thanks!” But still more felt sorely deceived. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was wrapped up in intimate memories of reading to their children, or being read to, and those memories had been disturbed. Because, after Carle’s death, this fiction was crowding out the facts of his remarkable life, it risked tainting his legacy and should be expunged. An indignant reader felt that “whenever misinformation like this goes viral”—a phrase that may call for retirement, after a global pandemic—“the people who are MOST key to spreading it … are often so extremely reluctant to admit and correct it!” With these criticisms came others: the interview was too believable to pass as parody; it was fatphobic, and churlish in its implication that children’s literature is unworthy of deep discussion. “Satire needs a clear target and clarity of purpose,” Literary Hub warned. “If the point is unclear, your joke might be misconstrued as reality.”

I followed the story with great interest, because I’m the author of The Paris Review for Young Readers, including the notorious Carle interview. I was surprised to learn that a paragraph I wrote six years ago has, in all likelihood, found more readers than anything I’ve published under my own name. As the chaos unfolded, I experienced a combination of pride and dread—what I imagine it’s like to spend a counterfeit bill so old that you’ve forgotten it’s fake. Six years is not such a long time, but the world that bought into my Carle interview is in some ways unrecognizable from the one in which I wrote it: before alternative facts, before widespread concerns about information literacy, before 15 percent of Americans believed in adrenochrome-guzzling satanist pedophiles. A hoax is designed to be misconstrued as reality—a fact that seems to have eluded some people—and though mine has succeeded beyond my wildest Obama-era fantasies, it stirred up fragments of the past, broken links, and undigested, polarizing half-truths. It has, in short, given me a stomachache.

 

The cover of the first and only issue of The Paris Review for Young Readers, our 2015 April Fools’ Day prank.

 

I began working as the online editor of The Paris Review in 2014. By then, April Fools’ was already gauche: mainly an occasion for tech companies to launder their reputations through elaborate put-ons. People ran for cover as, every April 1, the internet was carpet-bombed with ill-begotten corporate pranks. But I liked it. The most effective hoaxes lived in the space between joking and not joking, and this could be a playful, thoughtful space, where people negotiated their beliefs and desires in sublimated ways. It’s fascinating to seek out the limits of credulousness.

Plus, the Review had a precedent to uphold. George Plimpton, who edited the magazine for fifty years, and whose plaster bust looked on our every affair, had once pulled off a truly unassailable April Fools’ hoax. He and I had this in common: we enjoyed not only fooling but being fooled, a pleasure that, as I was about to learn the hard way, was far from universal. In 1981, Plimpton took the bait when the Daily Mail reported that a Japanese runner had been spotted jogging across the English countryside long after the London marathon had ended; because of a translation error, the story alleged, the runner believed its duration was twenty-six days, not twenty-six miles. Overjoyed by his own gullibility, Plimpton decided to try his hand at hoaxing. For Sports Illustrated, in 1985, he wrote a story about Sidd Finch, a reclusive yoga-guru pitcher with a 168-mile-an-hour fastball. The Mets had discovered the orphaned Sidd (short for Siddhartha) and wanted him to play baseball, if they could talk him out of becoming a monk or learning the French horn. Many of the major news networks fell for it, and soon beleaguered reporters were combing the locker rooms in search of the errant Finch, who never did turn up, though some claimed to have met him. Plimpton had lavished attention on the prank, flying to Florida to memorize the floor plans of the Mets’ spring training camp.

It was incumbent on the new generation to further Plimpton’s work, even without a travel budget. With the support of my colleagues, I began an illiberal campaign against truth. The results paled beside an Adonis like Sidd Finch, and they did little to raise the Review’s esteem. First came the Easter issue, from April 2014, with a cover by Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light™. It contained a “portfolio” of selfies by Salman Rushdie, borrowed with affection from his Instagram. A prominent literary agency, the same aforementioned, promptly requested (demanded) its removal. I’d also written a fake interview with Cormac McCarthy, mostly about barbecue. This has occasionally passed as real—rumor has it that Michiko Kakutani once tweeted it—but later, in New Mexico, when I met the actual McCarthy and told him what I’d done, he dismissed my labor of love with a single sentence. “I would sooner stick my finger in a light-bulb socket,” he said, “than be interviewed by The Partisan Review.” Such was his adamant uninterest that he didn’t even name the right magazine.

In 2015, I resolved to do better. Children are precious; they were an obvious target. Children’s literature, at its worst, bottles and ferments that preciousness with adult insecurity, which is exactly what I hoped to do. The magazine had recently published an interview with the psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips, parts of which I’d committed to memory, I liked them so much. “One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have,” Phillips said. “How much appetite they have—but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites”:

Children are incredibly picky about their food. They can go through periods where they will only have an orange peeled in a certain way. Or milk in a certain cup … There’s something very frightening about one’s appetite. So that one is trying to contain a voraciousness in a very specific, limiting, narrowed way. It’s as though, were the child not to have the milk in that cup, it would be a catastrophe. And the child is right. It would be a catastrophe, because that specific way, that habit, contains what is felt to be a very fearful appetite. An appetite is fearful because it connects you with the world in very unpredictable ways.

These insights came back to me whenever I had a bowl of cereal—so, multiple times a day. As a preschooler, in the back of the family Honda, I’d once fallen into a tantrum and demanded a box of Lucky Charms. I was so relentless that my parents, usually strict, had given in, stopping at a supermarket to produce that manna, frosted toasted oats with marshmallows. And then I had eaten hardly any. This became an embarrassing chapter in the family lore. I’d attributed my breakdown, apart from my being a little shit, to the power of advertising: Lucky Charms were “magically delicious,” a slogan that generated a want that I confused for a need. Here was an alternate theory, an apoplexy of containment; all food was magic, all hunger dangerous.

I thought I could bring some of this into a spoof of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, another story of unbridled appetite. This is the gist of the book: the caterpillar eats. In the end he turns into a butterfly, which is nice, but the main attraction is his boundless craving. “But he was still hungry”: a refrain familiar to all who’ve lingered in the light of the refrigerator. Whatever Eric Carle’s feelings about psychoanalysis, the man was a student of appetites. Feeling clever, I dressed him up in the language of that student—ludic, jouissance, and other favorites of the ivory tower—and had him argue vociferously for the merits of overeating. I thought this was a hilarious stance for a writer who’d risen to success on a wave of salami and cherry pie, and it got at something unique about Caterpillar, which flirts with the insatiable in a curious way. My imaginary Carle venerated children past the point of reason. He favored the abolition of adulthood. He mainlined Christmas music and spouted off like a drunken Lacanian. Yes, I thought, this is my masterpiece, so plausibly implausible. I cracked myself up imagining a magazine like Highlights for Children shot through with the pretensions of The Paris Review, collecting dust in some pediatrician’s waiting room until it caught the eye of a status-conscious parent. “Look, honey, Timmy can read the pull-out section on the objective correlative”—that sort of thing. When we launched the “magazine” on April 1, some were amused, but few were fooled. Their loss, I thought. Pearls before swine. As Phillips had said, “We are children for a very long time.”

It takes a certain blundering confidence to perpetrate a hoax. You have to believe that you control the narrative—that you will remain in control. Even Plimpton, who never lacked for bravado, approached the task with trepidation. Jonathan Dee, his assistant in the Sidd Finch days, recalled that Plimpton was “a wreck” then: “I still remember my naïve astonishment at the sight of a world-famous, successful writer actually agonizing over whether something he’d written was good enough, funny enough, believable enough, or whether the whole thing would wind up making him seem like a national jackass.” As one presently regarded by more than a few people as a national jackass, I feel his pain, though it says a lot that, in 2015, I felt none of it; I couldn’t wait to pull one over on the unsuspecting masses.

I had to wait six years, it turns out—for a time when I seldom feel in control of anything. This is a nonsensical thing to say about a hoax, but I think I could celebrate it without compunction if I’d come by it more honestly. It succeeded not by my sparkling wit, but by lying dormant through a half-decade of rampant confusion and public deceit, reemerging only when people grieved its subject, a cherished writer. Not exactly the reception a con artist dreams of. Be that as it may, the interview still makes me smile, and I hope I’ve dissuaded those who insist on reading it, or any parody, as mockery.

As for the stomachache: go ahead and elide that part of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, if you want. It may be that a vaxxed and waxed America, looking toward summer, is eager for a message of permissiveness, especially from a trusted voice of childhood. If that’s how you feel, you’re in luck. There’s a quote from Carle—a real one, I promise—that could encourage your indulgence. “Right after the Wall fell, I was signing books in the former East Germany and was invited by a group of young librarians to have lunch with them,” he told the Guardian in 2009. “One said the caterpillar is capitalist, he eats into every food one little bit and then the food rots away. Wasteful capitalist.” Draw the logical conclusion: a healthy appetite is soundly anticapitalist, and the caterpillar was, if anything, not hungry enough. Eat, then, what the profligate rich have left behind. Eat for the good of the worker, the good of the world. Eat.

 

Dan Piepenbring is an advisory editor of The Paris Review. He is the editor of The Beautiful Ones, Prince’s posthumous memoir, and the coauthor, with Tom O’Neill, of Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.

Read more: theparisreview.org

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