I spent one day in self-isolation against COVID-19 when an email arrived from a respected teacher and colleague I had known for many years. He is among the leading authorities in my academic specialty. “I’m traveling, so I won’t be able to give this interview. Would you like me to recommend that you do this?” he wrote. “Look below. Believe me, you’re all right.”
The interview invitation came from Matt Wolfe, “Arts and Theater Reviewer at the Guardian UK”. a website for a newspaper identifies Wolff as “London theater critic for the International New York Times and theater editor at theartsdesk.com.” Wolff wanted to interview my colleague about Lynn Nottage, the only woman ever to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama and one of the greatest playwrights ever.
Although I was not feeling well at the moment, my symptoms were mild enough that the supposed interview about Nottage piqued my interest. I immediately forwarded the email to my wife, who was working downstairs, and asked, “Shouldn’t I?” “Not at all,” she replied.
Over the next three days I asked a series of questions and answered them, including: What sparked your interest in Nottage and what are the thematic concerns of Nottage’s plays? Another question asked me to explain the title of Nottage’s play Destroyed: “What does it mean to be destroyed?” Wolf requested and I sent a shortened summary. The wolf was always polite. He even wrote, “I really liked the way you answered my question,” and promised to “edit your answers and send you a draft before any publication.”
The truism among English professors, at least since I started in the 1980s, is that journalists are notorious slackers when it comes to grammar, punctuation, italics, and pretty much everything else about writing that my professors taught me to appreciate. They don’t even honor the Oxford comma! Perhaps my training had subconsciously led me to believe that Woolf’s typos were very informal in the style of a journalist who, as Churchill, Oscar Wilde, or some other wit purportedly claimed, shared a common language with me.
A few days later, my wife and I were having coffee and nearing the end of what would become a total isolation period, when she asked about Guardian an interview. I told her I answered all the questions and clarified my own thinking about Nottage while I was doing it. In January 2021, I actually interviewed Nottage via Zoom for the volume, Paula Vogel’s Theater: Influences, Pedagogy and Practicewhich comes from Bloomsbury’s Methuen Drama’s Series critical companions. More than once I almost mentioned the request and my involvement to my London editor, Wolff.
While staring at my laptop, my wife told me about Matt Wolfe’s career and importance. Then her tone changed. She asked for Wolff’s email address, which I haven’t remembered. Then she began to read aloud from Article by iMediaEthics over 10 years: “Someone has falsely used the name and ‘persona’ Guardian freelance journalist to waste academics’ time.’ After she shared a few more phrases, I didn’t need to look up Wolf’s address—in a Gmail account—to know I’d been let down.
At this point, you might wonder who would go to the trouble of posing as an influential critic in a relatively esoteric field like postmodern literature and demand nothing but critical opinion. “Wolf”, identity and gender unknown, did not ask me for a dime or any favors other than answers to questions similar to those I would probably give to anyone who asked. I enjoy talking about Nottage and want her to be noticed by both academics and the public. Why would anyone want or need to use tricks and impersonate themselves?
Although I don’t know for sure, it seems the most likely answer to the first question is that my answers could be used as a basis for companies selling essays and other study materials to students. Despite the availability of TurnItIn and other anti-plagiarism software, there is nothing stopping students from using paper mills for their essays or other written materials. Even doctoral theses sometimes, unfortunately, there are ghostwriters, and some of our colleagues cheated their way in with degrees they bought rather than earned.
If Guardian already knew about the “Matt Wolfe” poser in 2012 when they posted editor’s note to the reader about this “extraordinary identity thief”, so why were my teacher and I so gullible? Didn’t the news get through? Obviously it wasn’t. Perhaps if I had been a literary theorist instead of a dramatist, I would have known about it a recent article in European Journal of Psychoanalysis from interviews that several Lacan scholars gave to Matt Wolfe. Their responses could be made available for a fee to undergraduate or graduate students studying literary theory, linguistics, or any other field concerned with Lacan.
Now that I know about the scam, I do what I can. I reached out to the real Matt Wolfe to let him know that his impersonator is catching catfish again. I will also post on social media where I have colleagues among my friends and followers, and I will send emails to staff at professional organizations, including the College English Association and the American Association of University Teachers. This will of course have a limited effect, as is likely to be the case with a Facebook post 2019 a member of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, who seeks to warn others of the deception
The most I can hope for is that this work finds as large an audience as possible. There will be people in this audience who think I (and dozens of professors before me) are a complete fool. “I would never get an email from a Gmail account,” they will think. I can only tell them that I hope they never have to find out.
I feel sorry for the students who might pay for my answers to Matt Wolfe’s questions. To them, “Matt Wolfe” would be a dishonest intermediary who would nevertheless deliver genuine quotes. Maybe Nottage will find a new reader or two. A guy can hope.
Again, The Wolf took nothing from me except a little bit of my time and a little piece of my pride. Even the summary points I have provided are information I enjoy reading.
At one point I almost thanked my som for pushing me to think more about why I admire Lynne Nottage, and would suggest talking about other topics in which I have what I might modestly call expertise . Maybe a thank you was in order, but it will come for me learning about yet another internet scam.
Sometimes the Catfish dons the Wolf’s clothes—or at least his personality.