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Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship

What happens when we find out writers aren't who they said they were.
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Hoaxes have played a role in literary history. Probably the most famous hoax in English literature is an epic cycle about a warrior named Fingal, published in the seventeen-sixties. This was advertised as translations of poems written by a third-century Gaelic bard named Ossian. In fact, the poems were fakes, cooked up by a Scottish writer named James Macpherson. Although a few people—Samuel Johnson was one—had suspicions, Ossian’s work was read and admired in Europe and America and translated into many languages, and his fake poems are considered a major influence on Romanticism—a literary movement that made authenticity a supreme value. If you were editing an anthology of English literature, would it be right or wrong to include something by “Ossian”?

A hoax with consequences closer to home is “Go Ask Alice.” The book was published in 1971, and purported to be the diary of a fifteen-year-old girl who starts taking LSD, gets sucked into the drug underworld, and ends up dead. Miller says it may have sold five million copies. The real author has not been conclusively established, but the copyright belonged to a Mormon therapist who claimed that she had merely edited a real Alice’s diary, which was under lock and key at the publisher’s. Which is a strange alibi. “Why did someone not ask for it to be ‘unlocked’?” as Miller inquires. He suggests that the scare story in “Go Ask Alice” contributed to the launching of the war on drugs, which led to the crackdown on recreational-drug sales and produced a wave of incarcerations.

Miller’s particular subject is literary hoaxes—that is, books that are deliberate, flat-out violations of the pact. The name on the cover is not that of the person who wrote the contents—the name on the cover is deliberately misleading—and the reader has no way of knowing it. Miller examines several types of hoaxes. There are literary impersonations, in which the author assumes the racial or ethnic identity of someone else. These are usually memoirs, autofictions, or books that pretend to speak for the group to which the fake author is assumed to belong. Miller calls these intercultural hoaxes. There are hoaxes designed to insinuate a subversive message through a benign-seeming work, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing text. Miller calls these Trojan Horses. And there are hoaxes aimed at exposing the poor judgment of editors, critics, or readers. He calls these time bombs.
 
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