When Mark Twain said that April Fools’ Day was the day of the year on which we remember who we are on all the other days he was making a universal point about human folly and self-regard. But I wonder if it occurred to him that as far as mass credulity goes his own milieu could be taken as a paradigm. As schoolboys inflate their whoopee cushions and blow the dust off their rubber spiders, I invite you to reflect that for literary types the fear of being duped is ubiquitous. From Thomas Chatterton’s medieval forgeries, to the Ern Malley hoax, to the Hitler Diaries, the world of books is a prey to fraudsters and practical jokers of every stamp. Twain himself once wrote an article about a man who murdered his entire family after losing his life savings in an investment swindle. A harrowing tale, and completely untrue: Twain had simply concocted the story in order to make a moral point.
There are various reasons why hoaxers hoax. Sometimes the motivation is political. Daniel Defoe, when he published his pamphlet, The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702), for example, was seeking to parody High Church intolerance of religious dissenters such as himself. Sometimes it is financial gain. The German forger, Konrad Kujau, received 2.5 million DM from Stern Magazine for the Hitler Diaries (as well as 4½ years in gaol when they were exposed as ‘grotesquely superficial fakes’). Sometimes the authors are simply trying to make themselves out to be better, braver or more interesting than they really are, with a view to making their books more saleable. When James Frey took the unfortunate decision to garnish his memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003) with experiences he’d never actually had, he was doing no more than the Hollywood producer who decides that the Battle of Britain, say, had better take place over Washington D.C. and the RAF consist of a single Spitfire. In the end, it’s about what the audience wants.
But there is another kind of literary hoax, the purpose of which is to draw attention to the shortcomings of the literary world itself. Here, the hoaxer aims to expose the modishness of the literary scene or the incompetence of certain editors. This is the hoax of choice in Australia, which perhaps reflects a general suspicion of what is regarded as cultural elitism – a phenomenon at odds with Aussie egalitarianism. When Gwen Harwood managed to trick The Bulletin into publishing two poems by ‘Walter Lehmann’ (both were austere, Augustan affairs with ostensibly religious themes, and meaningless save for the valedictory acrostics ‘SO LONG BULLETIN’ and ‘F*** ALL EDITORS’) the point of the con was to show how the editor was, himself, a sort of con artist – that his literary ‘judgment’ was in fact a prejudice for poetry with a certain ring.
That poetry has proven especially amenable to the innovations of modernism makes it an easier target than most. In the Spectra hoax of 1916, Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke sought to lampoon the pretentiousness of poetic movements such as Imagism and Vorticism. Under the pseudonyms Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish (named after a Jewish snack), Bynner and Ficke invented Spectrism, an anti-rationalist mode of poetry, in which ‘the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colourless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues …’ Collected into a single volume, Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments, the poems were taken seriously by no less a poet than William Carlos Williams, while the Imagist poet Amy Lowell enthusiastically recommended them to a group of apprentice poets at Harvard.
Then, of course, there’s the Ern Malley hoax, when James McAuley and Harold Stewart submitted a sheaf of hastily written poems (collected under the title The Darkening Ecliptic) to the surrealist magazine Angry Penguins. Not only did the magazine print the poems, it dedicated an entire issue to them (Autumn 1944), declaring their ‘author’ – a Melbourne mechanic who’d died in 1943 – to be ‘one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this century’. The hoax and subsequent obscenity trial (some of the poems contained sexual references) caused the magazine to fold.
It is sometimes said that such hoaxes are healthy, that they serve to puncture cultural snobbery. But if hoaxes open up debate, they also open a can of worms. Max Harris, the editor of Angry Penguins, didn’t deserve the vilification heaped on him by the Australian press and his trial for obscenity was itself obscene. For one thing, the poems, or certain of them, were not as bad as was widely reported and some were rather beautiful (this is also true of the Spectra poems). What if McAuley or Stewart’s poems had been substituted for the Malley ones? Would the op-ed writers have noticed the switch? Were they really defending literary standards or joining in a feeding frenzy? Hoaxes keep everyone on their toes but they open the door to demagoguery.
Moreover, hoaxes are like statistics: you can use them to prove almost anything. Recently, The Australian sent chapter three of Patrick White’s novel The Eye of the Storm to twelve Australian publishers, all of whom rejected it – a sting that prompted much belletristic head shaking over the failure of bookland to recognise merit and the consequent corruption of public taste. The complaint, in this case, was not that editors were in thrall to the latest literary fashions but rather that they were insufficiently adventurous. Well, is the literary world dumbing down or irretrievably up itself? We don’t seem to be able to make up our minds.
There will always be charlatans in the literary world, and it’s usually fairly obvious who they are. (Certainly Posterity is clear on the matter.) To trip them up seems needlessly cruel. But then, as T. S. Eliot wrote, ‘April is the cruellest month’ and in the Republic of Letters it’s always April.