As you may have heard—although you may very well not have, and although such stunningly uncultured innocence, however widespread, might come as a shock to the system of our loud but trifling herd of lit scholars, critics, and gatekeepers—some of the finest American literary journals began in the mid-1990s to publish poems by a poet who did not ever exist. Not that editors knew it at the time: the Araki Yasusada poems, coming completely luggaged up with pure cock-and-bull biography, bibliography, annotations, transnational gray areas, and an abundance of seemingly authentic cultural traction, were proudly disseminated as the real deal, a perfectly cool example of international “witness poetry,” a true voice from the ground zero of Hiroshima scar trauma and radioactive anguish. Then the rumors began to proliferate: Yasusada was a charade, a persona rigged from whole cloth and devised, at the very least, to exploit and/or investigate the prevailing yen for “exotic” first-person culture. In 1996, Eliot Weinberger exposed the hoax in print for the first time in the Village Voice, just weeks before American Poetry Review straight-facedly published a suite of Yasusada poems, including by way of an author’s photo a charcoaly, third-generation Xerox portrait of a Japanese man, identity unknown.
Well, identity known by at least one person, one cackling goldbricker, right? Who would do such a dreadful thing to world literature? Naturally, the bamboozled editors, critics, and Nipponophiles were outraged to tears—the public statements, symposiums, and sociocritical knuckle-whitening quickly became a cottage industry (a Web search will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the man who wasn’t there), and the top-shelf project quickly became a lynch-mob campaign to peg the blighter. Suspicion instantly fell on an Illinois community-college prof and editor named Kent Johnson, “executor” of translator Tosa Motokiyu’s estate—but Motokiyu is a pseudonym of Johnson’s old university roommate, Johnson has admitted without divulging the man’s true identity. “Motokiyu” “died” conveniently before the hubbub broke in any case, we’re told. Johnson’s buddy, Mexican folksinger Javier Alvarez, keeps popping up in the discourse as well, for no better reason, it seems, than to be proffered as a possible straw-man suspect. The conspiracy-theory mill churned mightily for the handful that cared: writing in the journal Rhizomes, a Russian gumshoe-critic named Mikhail Epstein traced Johnson back to a St. Petersburg lit conference also attended by a pair of well-known Russian lit-hoaxers, both of whom had announced long-brewing “Japanese” projects. Professor Plum attended as well, with a candlestick.
There’s more to the story, for the simple reason that every time Johnson opens his mouth he deliberately contradicts what he’s said before, at one point (as reported in Lingua Franca) telling several different editors who the mendacious author really was, but giving each a different name. This man should go into politics, but in the meanwhile many fanciful scholars have justified both their own tenures and Johnson’s cunning duplicity by suggesting that, aesthetically speaking, Johnson’s intention to protract the ambiguities indefinitely creates a “hyperauthorship,” a state of nebulous text-author association in which the reader is never certain who exactly wrote what he or she’s reading, or what their motives were, or how much is “true,” or whether or not the entire work, down to the glue in its binding, isn’t a beachload of gull crap.
Which is what fiction is, right? But no: as Brian McHale points out in his essay on literary hoaxes in Richard J. Griffin’s new scholarly book The Faces of Anonymity, fiction is forthright about being fiction… usually. Does forthrightness differentiate art from bullshit? Anyway, should it matter so much in this, the era of neo-meta-post-deconstructionist ironism?
Well, yes, actually, it matters. What we’ve got a tail-hold on here is the very nature of authorship—exclusively from a reader’s point of view, which is the only perspective that matters absolutely. Readers read creative writing for pleasure—an immense, beastly, and complex quantity that, most of the time, feeds lustily at the trough of empathic association. That is, the author is my compadre, and the writing is, simply, a communication between us. It’s an a priori cornerblock of culture: another human made this so I can experience it, and a large part of why I’d bother is the experience of that other human’s impulses, ideas, creative reasoning, and emotional current.
Of course, the last thirty years or so have seen a philosophical siege in LitWorld that has maintained that the author and reader are Cold War-ish combatants, not interfacing fellow travelers—struggling for hierarchal supremacy, straitjacketing the text into one or the other subjective interpretation—a tenet that, if I may say so, seems idiotically ignorant of the whys and hows of reading, and patronizing to readers’ intelligence. Barthes declared “la mort de l’auteur,” bellowing that language itself, not a particular author, is the controlling voice of anything written; Derrida maintained that each reader is the ultimate arbiter of meaning, and so therefore a text couldn’t objectively “mean” anything at all, or have any intrinsic value. A literary hoax neatly dovetails with this position, yanking the author out of the dynamic like a bad tooth. Thankfully, I sense that this kind of bitter humbuggery is finally going out of fashion, over thirty-five years later. “Texts” are not, after all, spontaneously generated fungi, to be merely categorized, phyllumized, petri-dished, and shelved beside thousands of other equal samples. Texts are comprised of language used by real people, for other real people to read. Tender Is the Night started out as Fitzgerald making up sentences and guess what, that’s what it still is. We know there’s another person on the other end of the line, so why should we pretend that who they are, where they’re from, how old they are, and what gender they are is completely irrelevant? (I know some women who only read women, and I can’t think of a single reason why they should do otherwise, or if I could, why it would be any of my business; I, on the other hand, prefer old authors to young, and for some reason cannot trust a writer who resides in New Mexico.) Such things figure in our socialized reciprocities when we make acquaintances, choose partners, adore movie stars, like or dislike total strangers. What’s the difference? Writing and reading is as human a business as shaking hands and making phone calls and writing love letters and fucking. “Language” alone cannot create this matrix of compassion and mutuality, and neither can the reader. Without an auctorial context, we might as well be reading centipede tracks.
Who’d want to get stuck in a stalled elevator with a hyperauthor, anyway? “Hyperauthorship” is one of those seductive theoretical coinages scholars will navy-knot their spines trying to explicate in tenure-paving tracts before it becomes apparent that it doesn’t mean a blessed thing. It’s not as if, after all, a book can in fact have no author—if we’ve been lied to, then we know at least one thing about the writer: he or she is a liar. Which is not altogether uncommon—writers have always enjoyed withholding themselves from our insecure cling, though their evasions are largely a matter of convention. The ways an author can disguise his or her own self—anonymity (no name), pseudonymity (fake name), ghostwritership (someone else’s name and identity) and hoaxing (a fake name and identity)—have been employed for a variety of reasons, from modesty to shame to spite to scofflawry. Kent Johnson & Co.’s purposes, for example, could range from simple opportunism to meta-literary experimentation, and we may never know them for certain. I, for one, would like not to care a lick about the Yasusada scandal, savoring the spin of the dustdevil the culprits have kicked up but feeling mildly disgusted at the meaningless satisfaction I imagine they’re enjoying as a result. But, if you’re going to bother to read the Yasusada poems, you simply have to care: despite some critics’ old college tries at evaluating them as authorial-context-free works of art—as “just poems”—the Yasusada verses are not literature anymore. Rather, they’re the residue of a cultural trump, the MacGuffin in an intellectual cocktail-party story, the gun but not the crime. Their actual substance resides not in the writing itself but beyond it, in both the deceiving purposes of the writer and the subsequent reaction of the outside world. They are Narcissus works, self-relevant only in their reflection, and irrelevant to all others.
Which doesn’t mean that they didn’t get collected as a book (knowingly titled Doubled Flowering, guilefully subtitled From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, happily published by small press Roof Books) and that the book didn’t get far more press than if Yasusada had in fact lived and breathed. But no one will buy it, read it, or own it—why would we? We know
that the poems are not “true” to any genuine emotional experience, and we know that the act of imagination that produced them was motivated by sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain. Or both. (Not surprisingly, it’s impossible to locate a genuinely generous impulse anywhere in them, particularly when they’re dealing with Yasusada’s fictional daughter’s agonizing death.)
Like it or not, we need a real author. Why do you think the controversy over the possibility of one or more of Shakespeare’s plays’ having been written by someone else has raged on so deathlessly? Because it matters if the author of Coriolanus is or is not the author of The Tempest; how we read the plays is contingent on their Shakespeariosity. If Joe Schmoe was suddenly revealed to have penned As You Like It, it’d be a different play—if not on the page, then to us, and that’s how it should be: writing is nothing to the paper it’s printed on, but everything to the understanding reader. Truly, if a poem or novel or story or play has no reader—say, if the Yasusada poems had never seen daylight—then they could be said to not exist at all, like soundless trees falling in the forest. As I’ve said, we’re all in this together.
Luckily, authorship is difficult to dispense with altogether. Anonymity provides us with motivational presumptions and even a sympathetic bond with the self-sheltering writer, as we imagine what scenarios have caused him or her to remain in the shadows. Pseudonyms are merely names we take at face value (sans a jacket photo, of course), or if they are publicly revealed, simply aliases for authors who write too much (“Richard Stark”), who want to swap genders (“George Eliot”), who’d like to evade revolutionary persecution (“Lautreamont”), who want to dabble in relatively undignified genres (“Edgar Box”), who aren’t sure writing itself isn’t wholly undignified (“Currer Bell”), who make novel-sport at Kurt Vonnegut’s expense (“Kilgore Trout”), etcetera. Ghostwriting is simply a popular custom for those who like to read books by people who can’t write to save their lives.
Only a good, wicked hoax endeavors to erase the significance, to the reader, of an author, by erecting a smokescreen of lies that renders the reader-writer relationship a tissue of betrayal and wasted emotional investment. But however indelible that significance itself feels to our notion of consuming literature, it’s only a relatively recent invention. As the essays in Griffin’s mainstream-academic volume make clear, anonymity wasn’t the scandalous exception for the bulk of literary history. Up until the late 1800s, it was the norm—Griffin and his contributors have immense difficulty finding a pre-fin de siècle author who did not publish anonymously. Cervantes, Milton, Swift, Defoe, Sterne, Irving, Thackeray, Scott, Shelley, Byron, Brontë, Dickens, Hugo, Balzac, Hawthorne, Flaubert, Coleridge, Valéry, Wordsworth, Hardy, Whitman, Austen, James, Pushkin, Chekhov, Kierkegaard, Proust, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Gide—all of them published at least some of their writing anonymously, as did many hundreds of lesser and forgotten writers. Griffin quotes John Galt, in an 1835 Fraser’s Magazine article, asserting that “critics universally regard all authors who give their names as actuated by vanity.” Talk about a shift in the paradigm—then, even taking credit for one’s own art was considered indecorous. More to the point, readers had no need or desire to know their author: the poem or story or novel was enough all by itself. Tracking down other works by the same scribe, if you were so motivated, wasn’t always easy—a writer’s attribution would sometimes consist only of, say, “the Author of Desperate Remedies” (as Hardy’s second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, did). Here was Barthes’s utopia, where only the reader mattered, and only the reader had power.
Well, power to either read or not read, at any rate. Wherever you stand, the entire deconstructionist zeitgeist now seems unarguably shortsighted, kvetching about an authorial tyranny that has only existed, if it has existed, for a
short century’s worth of human history. Anyway, what happened to readership? Why did we abandon that free-for-all, who-cares-who-wrote-it sensibility? Why did we develop a need for intimacy with writers? We could mark the twentieth century’s refocusing on the author’s primacy down to widespread literacy levels (more readers means broader cultural intercourse, inevitably roping in the author’s presence as a facet of the work’s significance); the snowballing, pervasive power of capitalism—most impactfully, the increasingly sophisticated machinations of advertising and marketing, which have used the author (and the author bio and photo and interview) to persuade us to buy books we would not otherwise buy, and buy them now rather than later; as well as the devastating plague of mass celebrity-worship, which can make even Candace Bushnell a televisual author-star. On the other hand, as Sartre and Beckett might suggest, we’re just lonelier now, in our invisible cities and cookie-cutter suburbs and media-saturated sense of social norm homogeneity, lonelier and in need of transforming the reading experience into something less like entertainment and edification, and more like communion with the mighty wordsmith responsible for the written object we’ve committed so much time to absorbing.
All of the above, most likely, but let us not overlook the evolution of literature itself—you could read most nineteenth-century novels as simply compelling narratives if you chose, but the eruption of modernism and postmodernism made that natural strategy virtually impossible. You couldn’t take in Ulysses or The Waste Land or Molloy or The Sound and the Fury or The Stranger or The Dream Songs or Gravity’s Rainbow and not wonder: who is this guy? The fourth wall, in a manner of speaking, was destroyed, but it was more than that—in breathlessly witnessing a feat of brilliant daring, we long to glimpse the big brain at the controls, to see how different he or she is from us. In any case, we can no longer, as per Yeats, separate the dancer from the dance.
Hoaxing is not an exclusively post–Panama Canal phenomenon—the pioneering example, James MacPherson’s fake third-century-Celtic “Ossian” poems, were first published in 1760. That these verses actually incorporated sections of genuine ancient poetry is beside the point; MacPherson claimed to be translating theretofore unknown work by the legendary national versifier, and he lied. Despite Goethe’s declared admiration, MacPherson was called on it just a few years later by, among others, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Less than seven years after that, Thomas Chatterton became famous when he was disclosed as another truthless medieval-poem writer, and subsequently killed himself at the age of seventeen. In 1796, William Ireland introduced a lost Elizabethan play, Vortigern and Rowena, as the latest in a string of otherwise authentic materials he’d exhumed; the play had a single performance in London, and Ireland ended up confessing.
There should be a distinction made between literary hoaxes and scams of a merely nonfictional nature—the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, false diaries by Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, and Howard Hughes, Lillian Hellman’s serving of heroic Pentimento horsedung, the faux-federally-commissioned “Report from Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace,” Binjamin Wilkomirski’s fabricated Holocaust remembrances, and countless incidents of journalistic perversions, from the 1700s to Jayson Blair. You could argue that the latter are manifestly more criminal in nature; certainly, more people have been misled, damaged and, hurt by fake reportage and forged documents than by invented author personas and appropriated cultural cachet. But betraying the largesse of the vulnerable, revelation-hungry, ready-to-be-moved, prepared-to-be-transported reader seems a particularly venal act. Kick puppies, pop children’s balloons, just don’t lie to the lover of poems and the imbiber of fiction.
The relationship between writer and reader is so delicate, so reliant on blind trust and empathy—so much like love, really—that hoaxes have always been tempting for the blackhearted. Times being simpler, the hoaxes of the 1700s were plots fueled by greed and publication-lust alone. Chatterton just wanted to get into print, even if he had to invent another poet and another poet’s voice to do it. Things got snarkier as print culture became more sophisticated. In 1876 the altogether lackluster Roderick Hudson arrived in public bearing Henry James’s name, but it was in fact written by William over a summer vacation and published with his brother’s name after Henry had told a Harvard colleague that William caught syphilis from a sailor in Rio. William denied the book to his dying day, and the novel still shows up in Henry’s bibliography. In 1943, bored Australian servicemen James McAuley and Harold Stewart decided to dress down modernist poetry, inventing the “deceased” Ern Malley and publishing a slew of “his” Poundian poems in a high-profile Aussie lit mag, Angry Penguins. Once they were published and praised, the odious pair went to the press, openly mocking the lit establishment and the vogue for cool obscurantism. Australia has had a tough time trusting avant-garde writing ever since.
As Foucault has reasoned, perception makes all the difference. Is The Education of Little Tree—an enduring and beloved tale, as it’s turning out—less of a treasure once you learn that it was written as some kind of doodle-exercise in liberalism by a KKK leader, segregationist, and George Wallace speechwriter? The printed words stay the same, but suddenly their meaning changes. The warmed, enthralled Little Tree fan is now a dupe, a fool scorned by a bigoted hoaxer. Nowhere is this effect as evident as in the case of Glenn Boyer’s I Married Wyatt Earp. Published in 1976 by the University of Arizona Press, Boyer’s book was listed for twenty-three years as nonfiction, a scholarly work with original text penned by Penelope Earp and edited by Boyer. In that form, it was one of the Press’s bestselling titles, and reams of subsequent scholarship used it as a primary source. Only recently has its nature been called into question, and the more Boyer talks about the book, the more it’s clear that it is in fact a novel that expanded on questionable historical research. (The more Boyer talks, period, the more it’s clear he’s a grade-A horse’s ass; about his accusers, he has suggested to a Salon.com writer that “there is so much smoke regarding people involved in this being homosexuals, whether they are or not, that it’s worthy of an inquiry. If this is true, are these people for some reason fascinated with Wyatt Earp? I’m just wondering that in the larger sense. Because they are all so sensitive. But these are all people who have never been married. But that has nothing to do with it.”) Boyer feigns ignorance and indifference to how the Press labeled and marketed his book, which is a tough pit to swallow. But the larger question surrounds the Press’s actions—they apparently understood that Boyer’s practices prevented the book from being honestly considered nonfiction, and marketed it for nearly a quarter-century as a work of history anyway. When the scandal emerged, this public, tax-funded institution maintained a media blackout, and answered interrogating reporters with a lawyer’s “no comment.” When asked if he actually does possess the Earp widow’s original manuscripts he told the Press he had, Boyer still spits “it’s none of your business.”
Here, the question wasn’t just who, but what—novel or history? And the gudgeon isn’t the hornswoggled publisher’s, who twisted the truth for its own reasons, but the serious reader’s, who may have actually self-sabotaged the veracity of his or her own doctorate by relying on a long-standing but deliberately misleading publication. Even if you’re a layman jonesing for Earpabilia, how the book is defined by its publisher determines how you’ll read it. We’re at the mercy of every publisher, to tell us the truth about the nature of the book at hand, and of every writer to come clean about who they are (even if it’s a pseudonym; don’t straight-facedly tell outlandish lies that will change how and why we read), and what sort of book they’ve written. The much-ballyhooed category “creative nonfiction” is therefore something of a misnomer: how are we supposed to read this stuff? (Boyer has slyly suggested that his book was a pioneering stab at c/n before the term was coined, so no genre label would have been sufficient.) If it’s nonfiction, then it is not fiction—correct? Creatively assembled, subject to memory’s vagaries, contingent on personal interpretation—fine, but it’s still nonfiction. Or else, it’s mostly invented, in which case it’s fiction.
How it’s defined indicates how it is to be read. At a public reading to celebrate the publication of The Best American Movie Writing 2001, all-purpose writing machine Robert Polito read portions of his essay about growing up in Hollywood, helping his father tend a bar on Sunset Boulevard, and witnessing the last, dissipated days of ex-semistar/scandal-queen Barbara Payton, but not before admitting aloud that he’d made up the entire thing from whole cloth. Guest editor John Landis was visibly and audibly stunned—since it was published as an essay in the San Diego Reader and entitled “Barbara Payton: A Memoir,” Landis had every good reason to believe he’d selected nonfiction for the annual, which collects only nonfiction. Polito could’ve fessed up when he was notified about Landis’s selection, but he didn’t. Small potatoes, true enough, but that essay—superbly observed and written, by the way—went in a second’s span from being a moving autobiographical tale to being a snide goof. I had already read Polito’s biography of Jim Thompson, Savage Art, and thought it swell; how do I know now that it wasn’t also loaded with horsefeathers?
Hoaxes easily cut new wounds in the tender flesh of readerly hope, and outrage pours forth, often in waves seemingly disproportional to the incident at hand. Two hundred times as many words have been angrily written about the Yasusada poems than comprise the poems themselves. But beneath the bruised fury and defensive carping, it seems to me that literary hoaxes muster an unexpressed, subversive fascination. If you’ve read this far, you know what I mean: intellectual duplicity, be it in the form of a high-tech bank heist or London Times acrostic, is fiercely seductive. Frustrated outlaws-at-heart in a guileful society, we know that the mercenary software erected around us can only be bested by dauntless wetware, and rebellion against social controls is a matter of skull amperage, not just pride and will.
The hoaxing of lit-printing publishers and the lit-reading public generates a particular torque in this sense. By way of contrast, hoaxing newspapers or politicians or even scientists (paleontology gets a lot of traffic this way), however difficult, is a hobby for crackpots. The motivations are usually psychologically twisted, the means often mundane, the results pointless. Anyway, newspapers are routinely stuffed with offal, politicians come and go, and science is usually beyond our ken whether or not it’s genuine. Hoaxing the art world, perhaps the most common form of imitative swindle, has more juice to it, but the incentive is always profit, and the grift always attempts to augment the oeuvres of well-known masters, rarely to conjure a new one. Digital technology has made hoaxing photography an antique crime, because no one trusts photography anymore. Hoaxing film culture has yet to be accomplished in any notable way; you could generously give props to The Blair Witch Project for pulling off a back-story coup before its own publicity kneecapped it on its way to a quarter-billion in receipts.
But lit hoaxes hack at the core of what’s sacred in human endeavor—the desire for community, for contact, for shared and received existence, transformed into enduring testaments of voice and mutual understanding. Since Homer, language and the temples of experience it can build haven’t been merely vehicles for interaction—they are in our blood, the glue that holds us to each other, vital operators in our mortal equations: me plus you plus them plus those who have lived and died plus those who will live after us. Literature is our record of being, and to defraud it is an act of nihilistic mutiny. At the same time, the entirety of literary culture cannot be substantially afflicted by hoaxes—they’re motes in the god’s eye. Something captivatingly vile may have transpired, and yet it’s all fart wind and rubber darts. We can be safely bewitched by their sedition, led astray by their bald-faced canards as if we were watching a magician’s hat and ignoring his sleeves. The four-flushers should be routed, of course, but a crowd will always gather to watch. One can’t help thinking that Kent Johnson has pulled off a fabulous coup, a lit-mag Tom Sawyer-ism. Keeping his own secret must be killing him, just as I am pained to admit that although William James did in fact contract syphilis from a sailor in Rio, he did not write Roderick Hudson. Henry did.