Our region’s intellectual life in the spotlight!

(This interview was carried out at an undisclosed location. It has been decided the informant’s name will be kept hidden due to his desire for anonymity. This interview was conducted, transcribed, and edited partially by Milosh Petrov Borovich, of Timely.)

I often like to go online and read the pages of literary journals dealing with submissions. It is the most despairing thing, and I often laugh at the subtle jabs, prods and arrogance erupting out of the page, telling the stupid authors not to send them dirty Xerox copies (Antigone Review) or pages with excessive inter-linear corrections and revisions (also Antigone Review).

It is the greatest fun I have—to know that their audience is “made up of educated citizens” as they say, because I believed it was made of cavemen, or bureaucrats. Because now Antigone Review is on hiatus, and I stare at that page, where it tells of stamped envelopes and administrative demands, making me imagine some poor little artist trying to make it, getting an anxiety attack over Chicago Style formatting or SASE and what it even is.

And they always shutter down, these journals. They shutter down there, in distant America, and they shutter around here—in Romania, Bulgaria, Russia: don’t underestimate these journals. They have the same capability just as over there, to reduce the artist to an imbecile, a humiliated wretch who can’t keep up with bureaucratic demands. You don’t just “send an e-mail.” That is tacky, it is trashy: people like to add protocol, as protocol implies importance. And what do you do, when you don’t have the capabilities of bureaucracy, but simple raw talent, or money? What if you are poor?

You come find men like me.

Who am I? Well, let me say it like this: I have written over a hundred undergraduate theses from fields such as sociology, psychology, history, literature, and various mixes of these fields such as comparative literature, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian literature, criminal sociology, and various national histories.

And I don’t even have any degree.

Thanks to me, at least over 50 people have received their bachelor’s degrees and went on to become intellectuals. Some of my works you can find on the flea markets of Sofia, Novi Sad, Plovdiv, Tirana, and all of it translated—in Albanian, Croatian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian. It is on flash drives, hard-drives, SSDs, in print and A4 paper…

We used to be the “eternal students” of our faculties, before the European Union started demanding anti-plagiarism software: those were the good days, where for a single thesis you could earn a thousand or two Euros. Now, it still functions, this system—but what has changed is not the system, but the people.

I used to be one of the THREE PIONEERS—it was me, Radovan the Serb, and Petar Nagin (pseudonym), Montenegrin. We studied in Novi Sad, and frankly, we hated it. It was all so dull…we knew we were at the wrong place when we saw the public IQ tests of psychology majors and the average was 81. I don’t know how it is out there, in the wider world, but over here, it was always rote memorization…I have not met a single actual scientist in my twelve years of studying there.

Well, how can you study for twelve years, you ask? Simple! Simply renew the year ten times! Protests, student organizations, faculty blockades—most students back then used to go to university to escape life, have an “experience,” “youth”…I wonder if it is the same these days.

The THREE PIONEERS, we all had our specialties. Well, I call them specialties—in truth, we were just frauds. You buy 50 books of mediocre half-scientists found all over Eastern Europe and you fill the pages with their citations and quotations. This is good, since the person will feel pleased for one reason, and two—under the new system, the number of citations is all that matters. That is what peer-reviewed means, actually. The important thing is the COBISS library—you can find anything there…

You will notice we were always frauds in social sciences and philology; you can’t pull it off in actual hard sciences: the double-blind review, the more empirical peer-review system, the mathematical foundation, the easily testable nature of experiments meant there is no place for semantics, no “theorizing”; a thing is or isn’t true. And things can, or don’t have to be “true” in soft sciences; they can be “layered,” they require a “multi-disciplinary approach,” they are “multi-spectrum”…basically…use methodology in sociology when it is useful, then switch over to some psychology, then mention Ogist Kont (always mention good old Kont), and well, you are a scientist now.

With art, it is even simpler: muddy the waters. Mention writers the local professors actually don’t know much, but have to pretend to do, because of intellectual pride. Make stuff obtuse, write about Chechen poetry, tribal literature of Cambodia, or that one local author who published a single book and died of cholera in 1843, claim he “revolutionized the semantic meaning of grammar” and just spam the pages with footnotes.

I was mostly in charge of the typing, of the writing part. Radovan the Serb was there to pad the pages with “structure,” with science and regulations: the guidelines. Don’t mess with the guidelines. They usually demand certain spacing, fonts, ethical guidelines (we sure have advanced…), indents, footnotes, keywords, how to quote, how to name the authors, where and how to send (CD copy, doc., PDF, three printed copies with a clip, not glued or taped), and so on. Radovan’s job was to figure out this stuff, and he would spend days contacting other students, or faculty secretaries, reading mails and corresponding with the clients. My job was just to write, thank God. After the work was finished, Petar Nagin, who was the only of the three with a passport back then, would drive all around the country and region in his dingy Zastava 101 delivering the papers, or CDs, or even elegantly folded, in their own cover, theses. (This was charged extra.)

Don’t think it was that hard to translate it: the languages are similar. I spoke Romanian, while Nagin spoke both Bulgarian and Romanian, so you basically covered around ten countries, since Yugoslav languages are just dialects of the same language anyway, and English is now universal. In the worst case, Radovan also spoke Russian, so we could all manage. Then, in the end: well, there is Google Translate. Hilarious stuff. Some son of a construction worker, sent to get a degree to escape from his village, would type out from the pages, or a PDF, DOCX, TXT file then translates to his language and fixes the mistakes. (We rarely used to send theses over mail, as the other side would just vanish and block us, delete the account and move on. Proving that the work is fraud is actually impossible—it could be libel, slander, anything. Plus…not like anyone cared.)

It was much easier with “research papers.” God, it was easy. Alan Sokal has already beaten the humanities red and blue in 1996. His work was called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” filled with incredible nonsense. But it passed the reviewers, the editors, the “scientists.”

Ever heard of Metallurgia International? It was a Romanian magazine where you can publish anything: we made thousands by pumping out stuff there. But this is the openly fraudulent, the cynical: yet, I wrote in the very halls of University of Novi Sad, and Belgrade’s FON, had access to pretty much anything, and conjured up complete nonsense over the years. And then that nonsense was in their journals. I was not a failure at all: in fact, at least a quarter of students were nearing their thirties, and were studying since at least 19 or 20.

And who did those students become? Well, they became prime ministers, scientists, academics, researchers, upper class, landlords, paid lecturers, like Sinisha Mali, who is the Serbian minister of finance even after it came out his doctorate was at least 20 percent pure plagiarism. The poor guy didn’t know: don’t just copy and paste, mix it up.

In Germany, it was that politician Karl Gutenberg that got exposed. Franziska Giffey had her doctorate retrieved, no source for citations. Who else…Silvana Koch-Mehrin, again, not sourcing her claims. Then there is the “Megatrend University” in Serbia where the rector himself lied about receiving a degree from London, of all possible places. In Moldavia, plagiarism is even worse. But it is all coming to an end thanks to software: the software compares the paper to the database of books, articles and citations. No more paper, give us an electronic version and let the software decide, eliminate all human bias. If a certain percentage, say 20 percent of the work, is from other sources, this is a sign to look deeper.

But the first victims were the artists. The artists don’t even know how to navigate the system. Software idiots that get spooked when a mail is three days late, confused over CLMP and Submittable, complaining about a three-dollar fee…I pitied them the most, and this is the reason why I became a fraud in the first place. Well, not really—but sounds nice doesn’t it? The noble revolutionaries…

Of course, I did become rich in the process. Have you ever read Letopis? It is published by Matica Srpska, it is a Serbian magazine. One of the oldest in the world…! Well, they claim not me. But who publishes in it? Do you think—Serbian artists?

Or Serbian “academics?” Who is the editor: people that love art, or people with a “passion?” I can tell you openly, in most of these magazines, here, there, around the world…there is just no place for an artist. Not as they are. See, there is always the need to liberate art, from its age: now, the age is bureaucratic administration, and moral standards. I can openly tell you, that in most magazines, literary not scientific, publish not artists but “professionals.” People with a cause—and not much talent. People who will publish because the magazine needs material—and they are the only ones capable of battling through the maze of demands conjured up by editors. The editorial branch demands respect…

I remember, back then… do you remember that young author, Stavrogin?

Right, right…great Stavrogin. But Stavrogin committed suicide because he could not get published. If it was not for his family, who discovered his writing and brought it out, most would never have known. And now, it has a third, fourth, fifth edition…but the editors still claim no error. I’ll tell you: he couldn’t even get a response through e-mail. In the 21st century, they demand writers send short stories by the postal office. What idiots! And when he would get a response: rejected. Indents. Badly formatted paragraphs. Times New Roman, only one acceptable. Silly demands…of art? Of the quality—no. If you can’t follow our “simple” instructions—you know, Radovan wrote a few poems for Letopis, was the ghost author of some poet: we laughed wildly, slapping together some incomprehensible gibberish, and it passed. And the poet showed us his works, and God, they were great. True, raw poetry…all rejected.

Ah, poor artists…have you noticed that in most of the artistic journals these days, you always find the same unknown names? Names of authors, who have four of five books, are “avant-garde?” But their writing seems extremely banal? Well, who are these people you ask yourself? How can they publish?

Because they know the protocol is the foundation of art. There are hundreds of poems written daily, thousands of bad stories—everyone wants to become an artist. Maybe they grow jaded, publishers, and connect the ability to follow instructions with intellect. But when the THREE PIONEERS were built, their foundation was on the following instructions. If there was one place where we could not be frauds, it was in front of the scientist—say, anthropology or physics which is still serious—and artists. Any mix of the two, any psychology major, any sociology professors, postmodern poets, we could run circles around. Because these men, absolute idiots…

Philosophers were a tricky bunch—we rarely published philosophy pieces. There is elementary and applied logic…there is mathematical logic, rhetoric…I mean, if you have a bunch of people that actually know you are straw-manning a solution, where you can’t apply anything Post Hoc, have no circular reasoning, you’re in trouble. Usually you muddle the waters by mentioning Derrida or Foucault, some post-post-post-modern theoretical conundrum, but not too much, you had to…you had to have a sense for it. A good forgery actually has flaws and ticks, just like anything. You write like this—then you turn the entire sentence into an elongated snake battling the space around it seeking to devour all meaning—or, subdued, short-paced, frightened, nervous meandering, that annoys, fidgets, forgetful—but also if you could maybe it is reasonable to imply however it doesn’t befit rigid logical analysis (if such ad hoc imperialism of the tongues can be applied)…and so on.

Most of those art journals are crashing and burning…because the artists crash and burn all around them, seeking a place. There are no taverns for their gatherings, they have no correspondences, nobody wants to read those forgeries that pass for “debate” today. I could assist all these sociologists, and comparative literature girls, and psychology, national history majors, but I could never assist an artist, save an artist—because I am not one.

See, most of it is scholasticism anyway: how much new stuff can be known about Turgenev? You simply apply a new theory hoping to be the first—more citations, better reviews, a “fresh approach.” But in truth for undergraduates it is rote repetition of their professors, not for the artists. These were a wild bunch. Do you know not a single good writer came out of Faculty of Philology, in Novi Sad, Belgrade, Nish, Plovdiv, Skopje, Sophia, Sarajevo, or Zagreb—in years? Well, not Zagreb, they have some good stuff.

Then how do they publish? Who reads those books? I don’t know.

That is what small literature is like…pedigree. When I first met Stavrogin, he was in despair: he could not publish in Svetlost because it was not for undergraduates, and he could not publish in Eminescu because he was an undergraduate. Confusing, I know. We tried to help him—in smaller magazines, pulp fiction journals, in online-only publications. Nothing worked. I could not edit his works—I know how to lie, but not to speak the truth! Tell me to say something about the Illyrian movement—you’ll get 50 quotations from 20 books and dozens of researchers. Even if I don’t know the first thing about the Illyrian movement. But tell me to write a simple story—something stupid, a kid playing with marbles—and I can’t do it. I can’t.

Stavrogin could—he was a pioneer on his own. He even refused, free of charge, a thesis! What a complete lunatic! It would cost him nothing and would make life easier: is this not why he studied? I always found him strange, Stavrogin. That pride, that search: I could not understand it. Even now: I am happy, and he is six feet under the dirt. Poor Stavrogin!

We had at least seven pieces for him to choose from: some crap about Robert Musil, WWI trench poetry, emigre and exile literature…it was the first time i saw young Stavrogin so angry. We wanted to give it to him free for his coming birthday. It would cost him two thousand Euros and we knew he could not afford it.

He stormed out of our place, furious. What was the problem? Who knows.

And then he hanged himself.

A year later, he hanged himself.

This changed my perspective, and i went around exploring those…“magazines“ or whatever. Art was published there, and i am not an artist, i don’t understand art. I read poetry when i want to fall asleep. But even i could notice: this is some crazy stuff. I was subscribed to most of the local papers, regional too…even had a few English and American journals. Some were good, others not so much. But i did not know these were artists! Not like Stavrogin! You see him—an artist. You talk to him—an artist. You read him—an artist. These were people similar to the THREE PIONEERS! Not frauds, but repetitioners, of a lesser rank. Artists who want to write, not forced to. You just don’t buy one of these journals to follow an artist, they will come to you anyway. And these journals cost money to make you know. Maybe that is why the editors lost respect: no backbone. Stavrogin had it, but where did it lead him? Into the grave!

But the demands, they were not for artists by artists. They were by professionals—academics or whatever—for…actors? It felt like that. You can’t read any of these journals. You go to New American Review and they write as if Tolstoy publishes there—but i have not read a single person there that i would call important. Even good. It is just weird American shit…people writing about eating at Burger King in 1966…it does receive a lot of prizes, though. Amanda McKittrick Ros, a frequent contributor, she writes some weird stuff…poetry mostly. They often receive the Pushcart Prize, which is some big shot prize there, in America, like NIN in Serbia, or the Mesha Selimovich award from Bosnia…of course, NIN is always under some boycott, and everyone is always complaining about the prize winner. That is why you don’t just…just write.

Of course, you can’t just send it—there needs to be a fee, it needs to pass through a processing page, then you need to make an account, then you need to send during the submission period…decide on the category, follow the demands, don’t go over the word limit, double-space, include word count on the front page or cover letter…

Do you see? This is the perfect place for the THREE PIONEERS!

These were our brothers: they intimidated the artist into submission and lifted up a new generation, the same way I lifted up some of the current ruling class. I have power over them, a few mails and i can destroy them. I always keep it around, for protection, but otherwise i don’t exist. We have come to an understanding: nothing happened.

It is the same with these places—when you can make or break a person, you will desire a person that is easy to control, without too much crazy. Ezra Pound could not publish in New American Review—simply too crazy. There is one demand, I believe, that Stavrogin could not fullfill: to be a good person.

I mean…well, to be St. Sergey. To be a saint that happens to write. That is what the editors want, they want the “good.“ But if St. Sergey himself was alive today, he would write pamphlets and call for the destruction of sin. He would not be “good“—in New American Review, it is all about the good artist, the humane…nobody wants Stavrogins, an uncomfortable bunch. It is the fear of consequences, you know. Being called names.

Interviews…you know these artists…I don’t want to know anything about them. I did not back when I tried to read Letopis, how they felt about the wars, and I did not want to know when I read Current Voices Review, New Thought, or Dissenter: I can guess precisely what most will say. In Dissenter, they would talk about revolution, communist poetry, pretend to be Lenin under siege; Letopis—beauty of the nation, the need for historical remembrance, great deeds; New Thought—weird stuff, this is where the “dangerous” writers gather…what is so dangerous about saying America is imperialistic when everyone else says it, I don’t know. If they said otherwise, hell, if they said America should be more imperialistic, because foreigners are stupid and can’t have democracy—I would respect them more. Takes balls to say it! These however, are all people with a manager. There was something managerial, something stylish and chic about it. It was the swanky European furniture of art: stylish! Modern! Avant-garde…

Stavrogin was reduced to reading poetry in a public park while Damur, whose thesis I wrote, published a collection of poems about the horrors of nationalism. And Damur was a Bosniak Muslim who had called for the cleansing of Serbs and a “Belt of Green” from the coasts of Croatia to Albania. He then changed his tune in public and is now a darling of the foreign press, who get all teary-eyed, emotional, when they see a foreigner from a wrecked nation “doing art.” Truly, we are all equal—all is well, is what they probably think in that moment? He now publishes in Dissenter.


For all installments of “Three Pioneers: Adventures of a Theoretical Fraud,” click here.