More on Literary Hoaxes

Stephen Carlson reviews my list of top 20 literary hoaxes on Hypotyposeis. We continue to quibble over terminology. He prefers distinguishing between forgeries and hoaxes, the former involving cheating in order to get ahead (whether for money or fame), the latter involving the testing of others for amusement’s sake.

We need to be careful in redefining words. Generally speaking, a forgery involves false authorship, while a hoax is even more general — something false passed off as genuine. Forgeries can easily be hoaxes and often are. Where Stephen uses “hoax” to refer to something more specific, I would use the term “prank”. He writes:

Of the list of twenty literary fakes [on Rosson’s list], I would classify the following as a hoax proper:

• No. 2, The Secret Gospel of Mark, by Morton Smith
• No. 6, Parthenopaeus, by Dioynisius the Renegade
• No. 11, The Malley Poems, by James McAuley and Harold Stewart
• No. 15, Transgressing the Boundaries, by Alan Sokol
• No. 20, An Amusing Agraphon, by Paul Coleman-Norton

I say these are pranks. Here the hoaxers wanted to have a good laugh and assess the critical acumen of their peers. (And, as I noted in my blogpost, one of them is not a forgery: Alan Sokol’s postmodern hoax, since he signed his own name to it.) Smith fabricated a gospel out of intellectual disdain for his colleagues. Dionysius invented a play to make a fool out of Heraclides. McAuley & Stewart wrote some god-awful poetry just to see if randomly plagiarized lines would be accepted as artistic. Sokol wanted to fool the postmodernist crowd with an essay of nonsense. And Coleman-Norton just loved his own joke a little too much.

Other hoaxes are done for attention or fame (#s 3, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17), to justify an ideology (#s 1, 5, 9, 13, 18), or for profit (#s 4, 7, 16, and 19). There’s overlap in some cases. Mark Hofmann forged his Salamander Letter (and other anti-Mormon tracts) out of ideological hatred, but mostly he did it for money. Pierre Plantard was also motivated by profit and ideology, but more the latter in his case. But these are all hoaxes, even if they involve cheating or getting ahead as opposed to just “having a good laugh”.

Carlson also mentions the unidentified forger from the fifth century who wrote books and epistles in the name of Dionysius the Areopagite (in Acts 17:34). This actually made my original list but I ended up omitting, because I wanted to avoid any hoaxes that edge into the “forgery out of respect” territory (otherwise many of the NT authors would be eligible). But Stephen makes a good point. In terms of lasting influence, pseudo-Dionysius could well deserve a place on the list, and I originally placed him at #14, where Thomas Chatterton now resides (and who, coincidentally, just happens to be the one Carlson would oust in order to make room for pseudo-Dionysius).

Stephen has great observations, as always, and I have added his recommendation of Joseph Rosenblum’s Practice to Deceive to my reading list.

5 thoughts on “More on Literary Hoaxes

  1. <>A note on terminology<>: My preferred term for these literary forgeries and hoaxes is <>fake<>. I find that there is a lot of baggage with the more specific terms because they tend to imply a fairly limited set of motives to the fabrication, whereas in reality these fakers are guided by a complex mixture of various different, sometimes contradictory motives.The term <>fake<> seems to avoid the motive question and, if one’s goal is to investigate the authenticity of a disputed work, the term avoids prematurely foreclosing which sub-genre(s) an alleged fake may belong to.For known fakes, such as these top-N lists, the terminology is less crucial, as one can glimpse which facets of these fakes involve hoaxing, which involve puling a prank, which involve forgery, which involve false pretenses, etc. Thus, titling the list as “hoaxes” or “forgeries” may help in allowing the reader to pick out a common thread. (In your case, calling the list “hoaxes” allow you to bring in the Sokal’s non-forgery, which is nice.)I’ve tried many times to come with a strict and rigorous taxonomy of literary fakes, and I found that the motives were just to complicated and mixed to come up with any hard and fast, rigid categories.Nevertheless, words have their connotations, and I feel that, for <>Secret Mark<> itself, the set of connotations for it implied by the term <>hoax<> is a much better for describing Smith’s motives than <>forgery<>.Look at Scott Brown’s defence of the authenticity of <>Secret Mark<>, for example. He spends a lot efforts proving that it was not a typical forgery, but how well did he examine the possibility that it was a hoax? Calling it a “forgery,” as so many people did, actually made it more difficult to see the hoax option. Bart Ehrman’s treatment of <>Secret Mark<> in his <>Lost Christianities<> was instrumental for me in getting the sub-genre of <>Secret Mark<> right, and a substantial step forward in the right direction–even though Ehrman’s preferred term was <>forgery<>. (Fortunately, his treatment of various fakes under the rubric of <>forgery<> helped to dissipate the connotational baggage a lot of people have with the term.)

  2. Typo alert!Nevertheless, words have their connotations, and I feel that, for Secret Mark itself, the set of connotations for it implied by the term hoax is a much better <><>fit<><> for describing Smith’s motives than forgery.

  3. <>My preferred term for these literary forgeries and hoaxes is fake. I find that there is a lot of baggage with the more specific terms because they tend to imply a fairly limited set of motives to the fabrication, whereas in reality these fakers are guided by a complex mixture of various different, sometimes contradictory motives.<>I appreciate this, and we both identify the same problem regarding baggage. You know, especially from my series on lying and deception, that my solution differs in that I urge getting comfortable with proper terminology despite the baggage. Otherwise we start playing double-speak, and it happens everywhere we look these days. Look at the lengths to which Crossan has gone in redefining “eschatology” to suit his purposes. He doesn’t like the (apocalyptic) baggage that comes with the term — he finds it “limiting” — and so redefines accordingly. <>Look at Scott Brown’s defence of the authenticity of Secret Mark, for example. He spends a lot efforts proving that it was not a typical forgery, but how well did he examine the possibility that it was a hoax? Calling it a “forgery”, as so many people did, actually made it more difficult to see the hoax option.<>We would again say the same thing, just use different terminology. Scott’s problem, as I see it, is that he was focusing on Secret Mark as a forgery done for the benefit of the forger (cheating), rather than a forgery done for the amusement of the forger (to test others). But it’s no different in studies of lying and deception. These terms have their baggage too, and certainly not all lies are recognized as such. The elasticity of the terms shift and expand according to culture and social climate. That’s why, from the anlaytical point of view, it’s important to avoid pulling our own elastic manuevers. <>Bart Ehrman’s treatment of Secret Mark in his Lost Christianities was instrumental for me in getting the sub-genre of Secret Mark right, and a substantial step forward in the right direction–even though Ehrman’s preferred term was forgery. (Fortunately, his treatment of various fakes under the rubric of forgery helped to dissipate the connotational baggage a lot of people have with the term.)<>That’s what I like about Ehrman. He calls things what they are, and then spells out the nuances from then on. I think you have entirely the right idea in distinguishing (what you call) “forgery” from (what you call) “hoax”. I urge making the same distinction, but without redefining the words — which anyone can do, and which can lead to double-speak. In the end, it’s always a question of how to get people (especially laypeople) comfortable with proper terminology. I don’t think catering to their baggage concerns is the right solution.

  4. I just did a quick online search for the text of a literary hoax from the late 1970s and found nothing. Maybe someone here remembers it…I think it ran in The New Yorker. Calvin Trillin may have been the hoaxster. It purported to be a long-lost piece by Mencken about the next U.S. president from the deep South, and it lampooned then-President Jimmy Carter.Thanks,Bill B.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s