Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Brian McHale on Literary Hoaxes

I hadn't planned on this topic evolving into a series, but so it has. Someone recently called my attention to an article from the Boston Globe, "Gotcha! The Pleasures of Literary Hoaxing", written just a few months ago, and dealing with some of the concerns Stephen Carlson has about the terminology we use in classifying hoaxes and forgeries.

According to the Globe article (and an online interview with Kent Johnson here), scholar Brian McHale objects to the term "hoax" much in the same way Carlson objects to "forgery": they can be reductive terms which obscure motives. Hale thus distinguishes three kinds of hoaxes. (1) Genuine hoaxes are done with no intention of being exposed, and the ones we tend to consider the most reprehensible, or self-serving on the part of the hoaxer. Three of my own four categories would apply here: those done for attention/fame, to serve an ideology, or for money. Carlson calls these forgeries as opposed to hoaxes; I call them both. (2) Entrapment hoaxes are done to embarrass a certain group of people or expose their foolishness, and thus depend on eventual exposure. These belong to my fourth category, the pranks, which Carlson calls hoaxes but not forgeries (again, I say they're both). (3) Mock hoaxes are aesthetic in intent, making art out of inauthenticity, and unlike the previous two categories, involve no ulterior motive. This is an interesting category, to which some of my examples from "serving an ideology" apply.

Running my top 20 list through McHale's taxonomy yields the following.

Genuine Hoaxes

1. Donation of Constantine (the papacy)
3. Fragments of Ossian's Poetry (Macpherson)
4. Letters of Historical Figures (Denis-Lucas)
5. Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Goedsche/Golovinski)
7. Hitler Diares (Kujau)
8. Vortigern and Rowena (Ireland)
9. Pedigree of the Merovingian Dynasty (Plantard)
10. Diary of Ching-san (Backhouse)
16. The Salamander Letter (Hofmann)
17. Notes to Shakspeare's Plays (Collier)
18. Irenaeus Fragments (Pfaff)
19. Autobiography of Hughes (Irving)

These are the kind of scams and propaganda pieces we normally associate with forgery and hoaxing. "Genuine" isn't a particularly helpful label, however. Certainly the third group, the "mock hoaxes" (another poor term; see below), have genuine intentions behind them. Perhaps "standard hoaxes" would be a better descriptor. (Though I'm not happy with this either.)

Entrapment Hoaxes

2. Secret Gospel of Mark (Smith)
6. Parthenopaeus (Dionysius)
11. Malley Poems (McAuley & Stewart)
15. "Transgressing the Boundaries" (Sokol)
20. "An Amusing Agraphon" (Coleman-Norton)

Pranks like this serve as "creative forms of critique" (Boston Globe article). The Malley poems and Sokol's essay "expose the faddishness they despise" (ibid), while behind Mark's gospel and Sophocles' play lurk contemporary authors flipping the middle finger at their colleagues. I agree that "entrapment" is a fitting label for this group.

Mock Hoaxes

12. Fragments: Memories of a Childhood (Dossekker)
13. Education of Littletree (Carter)
14. Rowley's Poems (Chatterton)
** Yasusada's Hiroshima Poems (Kent Johnson? "Tosa Motokiyu"?)

[The last (**) is the honorable mention by Carlson in his post, and the one McHale actually thinks is the best example in this category. I regret not making a place for it on my top 20 list.]

This is a helpful category, but "mockery" is confusing, because it implies the opposite of what it's trying to describe. The Holocaust memoirs, biography of a Cherokee, Rowley poems, and Hiroshima literature were fabricated with very serious intentions and continue(d) to be valued as art and creative forms of reflection after being debunked. Perhaps a better term would be "artistic hoaxes".

Even if McHale's terminology isn't perfect, his categories are helpful and allow us to understand a variety of motives for hoaxing without relinquishing the term.

UPDATE: In the comments section below, Stephen critiques McHale's terminology, concluding: "The three-part classification is not bad, but I'd give them different terms. Instead of the self-contradictory 'genuine hoaxes', I'd call them 'forgeries.' Instead of the entrapment hoaxes, I'd simply call them 'hoaxes'. Instead of the mocking hoaxes, I'd call them 'impostures.'" Not bad. I have to admit that his distinction between forgeries and hoaxes (in terms of motive) is growing on me.

Previous posts: My original top 20 list here. Stephen Carlson's review of the list here. My initial response to Stephen's concerns here.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

McHale's classifications of of literary fakes is fine, but I am not a fan of his terminology. My rule of thumb is that self-contradicting terms, such as "genuine hoax," is a signal that something is terribly wrong with the nomenclature. In this case, the problem stems from using "hoax" as a generic term for an intentional (literary) fake. The OED defines a hoax as "a humorous or mischievous deception, usually taking the form of a fabrication of something fictitious or erroneous, told in such a mannter as to impose upon the credulity of the victim." In McHale's classification the "genuine hoaxes" is only category whose members lacks any sense of humor.

As for the term "forgery," its connotations often include an element of fraud. Blackstone's definition of the crime of forgery is "the fraudulent making or alteration of a writing to the prejudice of another man's right." What is typically forged is a writing that evidences one's legal claim to something (e.g. will or other government document) or written evidence used to establish certain facts in support of a legal claim (e.g. a letter supposedly documenting something that happened earlier than when it really did). In academic settings, forgery may extend to the creation of documentary evidence in support of one's theories. Evidence has authority, and the purpose of forging evidence is to cheat by misappropriating that authority.

The difference between forgery and hoaxes is primarily one of motive: is it to cheat or to merely test someone's credulity? This line, however, is not particularly sharp, and history is full of cases where things start off as a hoax and end up as a forgery. For example, van Meergren faked his first Vermeer to prove that he was better than the art critic who panned his paintings. Then, he realized how lucrative the fake Vermeer was and sold it, converting his hoax into a forgery.

It is also helpful to distinguish between forgeries and impostures. Forgeries generally involve the misappropriation of the authority of a real person, but for impostures the pretended author is also fake and the authority being appropriated never really existed. Thus, an imposture may seem to more in common with a pseudonym or pen name, but it is not quite the same thing. An imposture manipulates the situational authority of the supposed person's life story (e.g. this is the story of a real survivor), while literary pseudonyms are more intended to prevent the real author's identity from influencing the work.

Occasionally, it is difficult to where to draw the line. For example, is the name "George Eliot" merely a pseudonym or an imposture in an age when women were not taken as seriously as men? Thus, literary impostures sit somewhere between forgeries and pseudonyms.

Thus, in terms of nomenclature, I would classify them all as literary) "fakes." The three-part classification is not bad, but I'd give them different terms. Instead of the self-contradictory "genuine hoaxes", I'd call them "forgeries." Instead of the entrapment hoaxes, I'd simply call them "hoaxes". Instead of the mocking hoaxes, I'd call them "impostures."


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