Read Telling Tales Online

Authors: Melissa Katsoulis

Telling Tales (2 page)

The main reason for Ireland’s eventual undoing was that he was not a skilled enough writer to convince critics that his ‘discovered’ works were genuine. Other pliers of ‘genuine hoaxes’, however, were such skilled stylists that their work has continued to be held in high regard even after debunking and death. Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley poems and the bardic verses by Macpherson are both cases in point, and continue to be read and studied today as worthwhile creations in their own right; and particularly in the case of Chatterton, the ill-fated young medievalist from Bristol who came to London to seek his fortune but fell victim to poverty and desperation before his talents could out, the high romance of the hoaxer’s real-life story has proved irresistible to future generations. Of all the hoaxers who have caught the imagination of later writers (Ern Malley and Anthony Godby Johnson’s appearance in novels by Peter Carey and Armistead Maupin being other examples) the life of Chatterton has continued to inspire great secondary works of art by authors from John Keats to Peter Ackroyd.

Perhaps the boldest ‘genuine hoax’ is one of the least known, and dates from fifteenth-century Italy. It involves a monk called Annius from Viterbo, near Rome, who so loved his hometown that he stopped at nothing to prove his patriotism – not at planting faked Etruscan fragments of pottery in his neighbour’s earth, not at claiming to have discovered hugely significant lost writings by the early religious writer Berosus which claimed that Viterbo was where Noah’s offspring first repopulated the world with Aryans after the flood. Nearly a century later his hoaxes were debunked, using the same new forensic critical techniques which exposed the
Donation of Constantine
: careful line-byline analysis of vocabulary, orthography and parallel texts. And no small amount of common sense.

Chatterton and his ilk might be tragic figures, but the second group of hoaxers has left a body of work more likely to inspire glee than sympathy. These are the people whose intention is to lure a particular academic, publisher or literary community with a prank text and then reveal (often through clues planted in the manuscript itself) how stupid its readers were to believe it – and, by extension, how clever the hoaxer was to trick them. The most famous hoax in Australia – and indeed in twentieth-century English-language poetry in general – was the invented oeuvre of Ern Malley, secretly written by a pair of disgruntled young traditional poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who claimed at the time to have dashed off the ultra-modernist poems in an afternoon. (They almost certainly did not, and ironically are now considered to have produced some of their best work under the Malley name.) They were neither the first nor last group of twentieth-century writers to create bogus texts to make a dismissive point about the cultural fads of their day, and all of their ilk reveal as much about their target audience as they do about themselves. Particularly the Spectra poetry hoax in 1916 (the motivation behind which was similar to McAuley and Stewart’s) and the superbly awful erotic novel
Naked Came the Stranger
in 1969, which set out to prove that as long as a book was full of sex it need have no literary merit to succeed. And it is not only lovers of fashionable fiction who get pricked by the hoaxer’s barb: when the physicist Alan Sokal successfully submitted a paper composed of pseudo-sociological gibberish to a leading cultural studies journal in the mid-1990s, he proved spectacularly that the entrapment hoax was alive and well. Then, in 2006, the official biographer of John Betjeman hid the immortal words ‘
A N WILSON IS A SHIT
’ in a fake Betjeman love-letter which he submitted to his rival biographer under the anagrammatic name ‘Eve de Harben’, which was blithely included in the first edition of Wilson’s work on the poet. The entrapment hoaxes, although deliberately bringing disrepute to fellow professionals, are certainly some of the most fun to read, and constitute an un-sobering reminder of the value of play and theatre in the often self-important business of publishing and academia.

The final group is also the smallest, but that may not be the case forever. ‘Mock hoaxes’ are those in which a genuinely experimental writer plays conscious tricks with the very notion of authorship to create a voice which is neither quite theirs nor someone else’s. It is the kind of literary ventriloquism we see in the work of Fern Gravel, the ten-year-old girl-poet who gained a cult following in mid-twentieth-century America but was, in truth, an ageing, male writer of adventure stories; the Canadian poet who could only cure his writer’s block by adopting the persona of a grizzled Greek fisherman called Karavis; and the eccentric academic almost certainly behind the controversial Hiroshima witness poetry submitted to literary journals under the name Yasusada.

‘Mock hoaxes’ are often highly literary because they are executed by experienced writers with a genuine artistic end in mind. James Norman Hall, the creator of Fern Gravel, for example, was intent on finding a new, softer outlet for a narrative voice honed on adventure stories and wartime memoir. He believed passionately in the value of the work that his alter-ego was producing and, although it was childish and unsophisticated, critics agree that there is something more substantial than mere charm to Fern’s melancholic coming-of-age poems. Of course, not every hoax fits neatly into only one of McHale’s three categories, but his groupings do help to identify the main reasons why the peculiar and often underrated writers whose stories are told in these pages did what they did.

From the aristocratic sex addict who wrote outrageous things about the empress Cixi in
fin de siècle
Shanghai to the lonely middle-aged lady who invented for herself a dying, memoir-writing son, all human life is here, and the one thing they nearly all have in common is that they are writing from the margins. Even if they have had a materially privileged start in life or are possessed of a sharp intelligence, at some point each hoaxer has been made to feel excluded from the world they would be part of. An astonishing number of them were missing a parent. Most had once been praised for their literary abilities, but had failed to find success by conventional means. And almost all have a community – real or imagined – whose ways and boundaries they are seeking to protect in their writings. The ‘entrapment hoaxers’ try to safeguard what they see as the authentic values of their social or academic kin against attacks from new-fangled trends. The ‘genuine hoaxers’ seek a way to make an imagined world seem real enough for the reading public to buy into. And for those post-modern experimentalists who produce ‘mock hoaxes’, even their hyper-identity as a writer is meant to be included in the ‘reality’ of their text.

Reality itself becomes a problem, however, the further one looks into these texts and the more one asks of literature as a gate-keeper of truth. The assumption that some kinds of writing are truer than others is not as straightforward as it might sound. Can it categorically be said that novels are untrue and memoirs are true? Surely not, as anyone who has basked in the wisdom of a great work of art (written, painted or played) will know that the only way to convey what it is like to be alive is to conjure something aesthetically complex enough to approximate to our experience of reality. Because reality, after all, is nothing if not a mystery. Writers of memoir, biography and straight non-fiction have a more tenuous claim on the faithful transmission of truth than might at first be supposed because stories about people, places and events can only ever be passed down through the imperfect, partial minds of others.

A recent example of the memoirist’s art coming under theoretical and popular scrutiny is the infamous American author James Frey, whose bestselling book
A Million Little Pieces
claimed to tell the true, harrowing tale of his descent into drug and alcohol abuse and his remarkable self-guided recovery. The book was a huge success on publication in the US in 2003, and the author was held up by Oprah Winfrey as a beacon for others on the road to recovery. Frey’s writing style was spare, seemingly immensely candid and instantly readable, and he told stories of extreme physical and mental hardship. Much of what he wrote seemed almost too intense to be true, and indeed it was. But when he was had up for fabricating portions of the book, he argued that the essence of the thing was absolutely real and he had merely changed certain details to better convey the truth of what happened, and to protect the other people involved. There were also rumours of Frey first submitting his manuscript as fiction but being advised that a ‘misery memoir’ would sell better . . .

The rise and rise of the late-twentieth-century genre known as ‘misery memoir’ is a peculiarity of contemporary publishing which deserves a closer look, not least because the popularity of books with titles like
Please, Daddy, No!
say a great deal about who we are as readers and what makes us so susceptible to hoaxing. Uplifting stories of personal hardship are clearly very appealing to us and always have been. The defining story of the Christian age gives a clue as to how much we need to witness the pain of others, and as well as the Bible’s cast of auxiliary sufferers (Job, Noah et al) most other religions have their own fables about people or gods enduring trials and difficult journeys. Classical tragedians responded to this, understanding the value of catharsis in such tales, and in English literature from Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton to Bunyan, Defoe and Dickens, there has been a steady stream of popular fiction about men whose physical and mental realities are defined by punishment or abuse. It was not until the twentieth century and the emergence of modern publishing, however, that the idea of actually faking ‘real’ bad experiences took hold.

The now-forgotten hoaxer Joan Lowell in 1920s New York fooled the publishers Simon & Schuster into believing she had been the sole female on a years-long merchant seamen’s voyage and as a result engaged in all manner of unladylike acts. Other phoney memoirists, like the pseudonymous Cleone Knox with her faux-eighteenth century
Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion
or the ‘Anonymous’ author of the cult drug-diary
Go Ask Alice
who turned out to be a middle-aged Mormon with an axe to grind, hid behind their lurid creations until they could no longer sustain the deceit.

Pretending to have been involved in illicit escapades as a teenage girl hardly compares to the most shocking subsection of fake memoirists, the Holocaust pretenders: Binjamin Wilkomirski, Misha Defonseca, Herman Rosenblat and Helen Demidenko each had different reason for pretending to have been a victim – or in Demidenko’s case, supporter – of Hitler’s regime. Surprisingly, what can be pieced together of their ‘real’ true stories often reveals biographies which were every bit as full of adventure, sacrifice and passion as their assumed selves, only without the massively emotive signifier of Nazism.

The second most fascinating question after ‘Why lie about the Holocaust?’ is ‘Why are there so many hoaxers from Australia?’ It is true that given the young age and small literary community of that country, a wholly disproportionate number of writers have made their name there on the basis of dishonest claims about authorship. Just as hoaxing says something about what writing is for, so Australia tells us an important truth about hoaxing. In the literary trickery of writers like Marlo Morgan, Nino Culotta and Wanda Koolmatrie we see the bare ambition of the hoaxer writ large and simple. For Wanda, an unpublished white man writing as an indigenous Australian woman, it was an anxiety about nationhood and immigration that made him submit his phoney manuscript. Nino Culotta’s motivation was similar but less angry: he, another white Australian writing as a foreigner (this time an Italian builder) wanted to tell some quirky truths about the closed world of the working-class Australian male and saw that his best way of doing so was in the guise of an outsider looking in. Marlo Morgan and Norma Khouri are interesting cases because both are American but have used their belief that Australia is in some way cut off from the rest of the global cultural community to forge a career in illicit memoir writing. Morgan’s bestselling
Mutant Message Down Under
was based on her alleged experiences with a lost group of wandering Aborigines who cured her sickness and made her an honorary member of their tribe. She never dared publish her far-fetched story in Australia but when some Indigenous readers got hold of it and balked at her lack of knowledge and offensive claims about their people she was forced publicly to apologize. Khouri wrote about experiencing the honour killing of her best friend in the Middle East and claimed she had moved to rural Australia to escape the threats of the Jordanians who were seeking revenge on her for speaking out about their crimes.

Of course, the fact that both these women’s hoaxes were exposed by Australian investigations proves that that country is nothing like the intellectual black hole they narrow-mindedly assumed it to be; but it does suggest that the Antipodean creative scene allows things to happen that other countries might not. One important reason for that is that racism and far-right politics is less taboo there than it is in other parts of the English-speaking world (a fact that the outspoken comments of the Nazi-hoaxer Helen Darville/Demidenko prove beyond doubt). Another is perhaps that in a young culture where identities are still in flux and anxieties about racial integration abound, there is a desperation to prove – and believe – certain emotive points about how to live, and literature is the best way to do it.

In the future, technological developments will undoubtedly change the way hoaxes are perpetrated and received. The internet has played a vital role in the debunking of all the hoaxes of the last ten years, but it will also enable writers of far less ingenuity and skill to pull off increasingly audacious deceptions. Fake blogs, such as the long-running one by an American girl supposedly suffering from a terminal illness who turned out to be the fantasy of an unhappy middle-aged woman, may become more widespread. And in the ‘mock hoax’ category, the UK novelist is not alone who recently set up a detailed fake internet profile for his pseudonymous memoir’s ‘author’ to throw readers off the scent of the fact that the real writer was not the dissolute, wine-loving littérateur described on the book jacket but a rather unassuming writer of genre fiction: increasingly, publishers encourage authors to use the internet as a tool for making their artful voices seem real, thus blurring the line between truth and fiction even more.

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