by Marija Peričić
A middle-aged woman poses as a transgender teenage boy; an Anglo-Australian man pretends to be an Indigenous woman; an Anglo-Australian woman assumes a Ukrainian immigrant identity. On the surface, the idea of a literary hoax seems straightforward enough: someone writes a book and pretends to be someone else. But when you consider it more closely, it is not quite that simple. All fiction is someone writing a book and pretending to be someone else, so one might say all fiction is fundamentally a kind of hoax. Or, as Cynthia Ozick puts it, “in the compact between novelist and reader, the novelist promises to lie, and the reader to allow it.”[i] So if a hoax text is one that intends to deceive, then all fiction can be defined as a hoax. The world of literary hoaxes is a strange and confounding one, full of fictions and meta-fictions that can make one question not only the trustworthiness of individuals, but the whole concept of literature. In this post I am interested in exploring the broader psychological function of the literary hoax, rather than its ethics.
On closer examination, one can observe various types of literary hoaxes, and it’s easy to discern different motivations behind different kinds of hoaxes, and for some of them, the question of “why hoax?” is easier to answer than for others.
Some hoaxes are designed to be found out. In these kinds of hoaxes the hoaxer is playing a trick on the reader, and the revelation of the hoax forms a kind of punch-line. One of the best-known examples of this type of hoax is the Alan Sokal hoax. In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physicist from NYU submitted a paper to Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. Sokal deliberately filled the paper with nonsensical verbiage as an experiment to test the “prevailing intellectual standards”[ii] and see whether a parodic article would be published by a major humanities journal. He then wrote about his hoax-experiment in Lingua Franca magazine, sparking huge debate about the effects of postmodernism on academia and academic ethics, as had been his aim.
Other kinds of hoaxes are not meant to be uncovered, and for these kinds the question of “why?” is more difficult to answer. In what Brian McHale calls the identity hoax,[iii] the hoaxer poses as someone else, with the hope of the deception remaining undetected. The Helen Demidenko, J.T. LeRoy and Wanda Koolmatrie hoaxes all fall into this category. To me, identity hoaxes are the most intriguing kind, because they seem to have a much deeper psychological motivation behind them than a Sokal-style hoax.
This interesting thing about the identity hoax is the kind of identity that the hoaxer adopts. Phillip Mead notes that the identity adopted by the hoaxer in this kind of hoax is always “a racial, gendered or ethnic ‘other’”.[iv] This is true of the three hoaxes mentioned above: Helen Demedenko/Darville/Dale, of Anglo heritage, posed as the daughter of an illiterate Ukrainian migrant; the Anglo Australian Leon Carmen pretended to be an Indigenous woman; and Laura Albert, a middle-aged woman adopted the identity of the transgender, HIV positive, teenage sex worker J. T. LeRoy.
Of these three hoaxes by far the most extreme is J.T. LeRoy. This is because the LeRoy hoax not only involved writing as an othered individual, but also bizarre disguises and two people adopting other identities in public for an extended period. In the LeRoy hoax, it was Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop who actually appeared as LeRoy. At literary events Albert always appeared alongside Knoop, posing as “Speedie”: LeRoy’s landlady. LeRoy left all the talking to Speedie, which was blamed on LeRoy’s pathological shyness. At the time of the hoax Knoop was 25 years old, and in order to look convincingly like a teenage boy she was never seen without a peroxide wig, fedora and sunglasses. LeRoy’s pathological shyness was also used to explain away this odd-looking get-up.
To me, the immediate question that comes to mind is: why? The obvious answer might be to sell more books. People are more likely to buy a book if they feel they are also buying an authentic experience. This desire for the authentic is only becoming stronger with the rise of the celebrity author, who has increasingly has become the product to be consumed, rather than the book that they have written.
But I feel like the reason people hoax must be something more than that. Surely if the purpose is just to sell more books, the author can cater to the popular market, and write a hot psychological thriller that ticks all the bestseller boxes. I suspect that there is a more complicated reason behind literary identity hoaxes, and that they fulfil a deeper psychological function.
It’s interesting to note that many identity hoax novels deal with traumatic themes, which might suggest that such hoaxes may be a form of therapy for the writer. The therapeutic benefit of revisiting traumatic events, and writing about them, is well known. And indeed, Laura Albert claimed that she first developed the character of LeRoy, and wrote “as him” at the suggestion of her therapist.
But if writing itself is therapeutic, why go to all the trouble of aliases and disguises? It seems like an awful lot of effort, not to mention the risk of getting caught, and perhaps facing legal action. Maybe the hoax writing is a kind of meta-writing, one step removed from writing as oneself. It could be that, for the hoaxer, writing as themselves about certain themes is too raw and immediate, and the adoption of a hoax alter ego allows a more comfortable distance from which to examine past trauma. If this is true, hoax fiction could be a kind of performance, a written form of Albert Boal’s ideas of Theatre of the Oppressed, where people use theatre to re-enact and work through with past trauma.
The other question about literary hoaxes that fascinates me is in an unanswerable one: how many other hoaxes are out there? After all, we only know if it’s a hoax if it’s been unmasked. Either all identity hoaxes fail, and are in the end unmasked, or there are dozens of other hoaxes out there that have succeeded, sitting right there under our noses, undetected.
[i] Ozick, C. (1996) “Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character”, in E. M. Kauvar (ed.) A Cynthia Ozick Reader, pp. 311-314. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
[ii] Sokal, A. D. (5th June 1996). “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies”. Lingua Franca.
[iii] McHale, B. (2003) “‘A Poet May Not Exist’: Mock-Hoaxes and the Construction of National Identity”, in R. J. Griffin (ed.) The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publications from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century, pp. 236-237.
[iv] Mead, P. (2012) “Hoax Poetry and Inauthenticity”, in The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, pp. 338-350. London: Routledge, p. 341.