August 23, 2005


Literary hoaxes—scorn 'em or love 'em? That's the debate that seems to be making the rounds among an infinitesimally small subset of the already-quite-meager group of people who actually care about this stuff:
In recent years, scholars have begun pursuing a more nuanced approach to discussing literary hoaxes than the knee-jerk disgruntlement of a reader scorned. Instead, literary scholars like Ohio State University professor Brian McHale and the Australian critic K.K. Ruthven are concentrating on the productive and beautifully unpredictable effects of hoaxing. Are all hoaxes the same? Should they all be judged by the same ethical standards? Do some hoaxes rise above being trifling pranks or bogus facsimiles to become serious acts of cultural criticism? What of an author's intentions?
Fair questions! But it seems clear to me that literary hoaxes serve a very wonderful purpose, by offering a reading experience that usually can't be replicated in any other way? If people would enjoy X hypothetical piece of "authentic" literature—thanks, of course, to our irrational preference for authenticity—then it would impoverish the world not to have some hoax artist dream something like X up.

In the 18th century, James Macpherson wrote a series of strange verses and passed them off as epic tales by the third-century poet "Ossian." The poems are more exciting to read if you really believe that a third-century bard wrote them. On their own, they're pretty dull. But in their hoax form, they managed to inspire people as diverse as Napoleon and Goethe—precisely because where else can you get the experience that reading a third-century epic is likely to instill? Nowhere else; that's where. Reality shouldn't set some bounds on aesthetic enjoyment,. Borges' short works would not be half as enjoyable, I think, if we could clearly tell what was fictionalized and what wasn't. On the other hand, if everyone started creating literary hoaxes, the world might go to hell; but then again, we'd probably adjust. How we react to hoaxes probably tells us more about us, about our mores and follies and fascinations, then it does about the hoaxes themselves.
-- Brad Plumer 11:53 AM || ||