Caroline Calloway: Navigating the Thin Line of Self-Creation and Snake Oil

Scammer, by Caroline Calloway, self-published, 150 pages, $65
Caroline Calloway is not exactly famous for telling the truth. Whether she’s hiring her former best friend to ghostwrite her Instagram captions or peddling a ramshackle collection of plastic flowers and salad bowls in the guise of a “creativity workshop,” the American-at-Cambridge influencer turned performance-art memoirist—propelled to national fame by a New York Magazine exposé written by said former best friend—has made an entire career, and a personal brand, out of gleeful mendacity. Back in 2021, she even sold a $75 skin care product she straightforwardly labeled Snake Oil.
So when Calloway announced, several years after returning the six-figure advance for a memoir she never delivered, that she would at last be self-publishing her memoir as a trilogy, starting with Scammer—and that fans could preorder the volume for $65—one could be forgiven for doubting that any bookswould actually materialize. Preordering Scammer,outlandish list price and all, seemed to double as a kind of ironic celebration of Caroline Calloway’s freewheeling disregard for reality: a winking acknowledgment that we all want, deep down, to be scammed by someone with the confidence to scam us unapologetically. As the circus impresario P.T. Barnum, himself an infamous scammer, wrote in 1855: “The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.”
The first surprise is that Scammer does, in fact, exist: a slender 150-page “daybook” (Calloway’s term) of 67 chapters. The second surprise is that it’s actually quite good. Less memoir than manifesto, Scammer is a manic, extravagant celebration of the impulse to transform our lives into works of art, even—perhaps especially—when we don’t know why art even matters in the first place.
Calloway makes no philosophical or moral claims. In rollicking, conversational prose that reads like Elaine Dundy’s expat-ingenue novel The Dud Avocado by way of early-2000s LiveJournal, Calloway demands our attention, if not our sympathy, with all the exuberant ferocity of a toddler throwing a tantrum. She wants—we learn at once—to be famous, to live a life worthy of other people’s attention, to create from the relatively anodyne raw material of her birth a narrative with which she can, at last, be satisfied. “If you build a life around an identity that springs from your own imagination, is it ever authentic?” she asks in an early passage that doubles as the book’s mission statement.
Calloway inspires little trust as a reliable narrator. Between anecdotes about faking her way into Cambridge (via doctored transcripts) and conning her way into agents’ offices (via inventing appointments), she wrenches the reader into lengthy, self-justifying monologic asides about her fraught relationship with onetime ghostwriter turned literary rival Natalie Beach. The effect is something like meeting a distraught friend for a post-breakup nightcap: listening to an evening’s worth of her side of the story. In many ways, Scammer is most successful as a telling historical document: a record of the millennial id, for whom the cultural call to lead our best lives has rendered desire the primary constitutive element of reality. (It’s telling, too, that Calloway opens with an epigram she attributes to Kurt Vonnegut: “We are only what we pretend to be.” Vonnegut’s original quote did not include the “only.”) After all, Calloway’s early-’10s Instagram fame has become the unwitting model for a far more polished generation of aspirational lifestyle influencers with a curated pretense to emotional vulnerability.
Yet it is precisely in Calloway’s frenetic self-involvement that Scammer achieves lyric poignancy. Caroline Calloway wants to tell the story of Caroline Calloway, without knowing why being Caroline Calloway matters so much to her. In so doing, she manages to capture one of the most bittersweet aspects of human existence: that all of us, in one way or another, are desperate to tell our side of the story, to be known as we hope to be known, and, in being known, to be loved. Calloway’s messiness, her compulsive self-justification, her inability to self-censor or edit—they all render Scammer,whatever its veracity, uncannily honest.
Indeed, Scammer, the self-published, unpolished $65 product of Calloway and Calloway alone, achieves something that Calloway’s originally contracted big-budget memoir, And We Were Like, almost certainly could not: a glimpse not into Calloway the Instagram character but, far more interestingly, into Calloway the author—a woman whose frustrated yearning for self-transcendence is more authentically humanthan any aspirational account of a Cambridge ball or Sicilian picaresque.
Among the book’s most oddly affecting, discomfitingly honest sections is Calloway’s account of her pandemic-era involvement with the arch-ironic downtown New York literary scene known as “Dimes Square,” for whom Calloway’s repeated cancellations were not a liability but a feature. Calloway makes no excuses for her scenester pragmatism: “I saw Dimes Square as a job opportunity,” she writes, before admitting she stopped paying rent in order to fund her proximity to literary party girls. (“How did they get their 40 grand for partying…that no one would admit it took to be on this list but me.”) In those moments, Calloway captures the alienating shadow side of contemporary self-invention, in which our aesthetic dreams and personal brands can no longer be disentangled from one another.
The authenticity is not consistent. Calloway’s more politicized attempts at self-justification read as disingenuously strategic; when she casts herself, for example, as a victim of the publishing industry’s sexism (“It frustrated me to no end that I was…forced to reduce my memoir to a misogynistic porn category for vaguely pedophilic men”), it reads as a dated attempt to garner Scammer some sympathetic #MeToo think pieces. So too Calloway’s forced recollection of being aroused when listening to Beach describe her sexual assault, which comes across as less searingly honest than salaciously contrived—a contrast all the more striking given Calloway’s equally ambiguous, and less self-consciously transgressive, explorations of her erotic attachment to Beach elsewhere in the book.
Calloway’s most insightful passages, in fact, are those that link the act of writing to erotic desire: the way we hunger to court not just the arousal but the attention of those whose gaze we long to have upon us. “I fear most,” Calloway writes, “the perception of me held by the four people who have known me best. I became a memoirist in the first place because I don’t know who I am unless my memories are shared.” The consummation that Calloway hungers for seems to be less about famethe abstraction, and more about attention: an attention that turns out to be indistinguishable from love.
Scammer is not a perfect book. Nor is it a particularly polished memoir. But its half-finished quality is the point. Calloway has made of her life not a work of art but an unceasing act of creation, one that is both painful and moving to witness. “Accepting who we are,” Calloway writes, “is the price for who we will become.” Scammer‘s Calloway has refused for years to accept herself as anyone but the person she hopes to be. She has earned, fair and square, our attention. She leaves us wanting her to, at last, experience love.