Faking Literature

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An introductory study of literary forgeries was long overdue. Someone had to list all those hoaxes, fictional autobiographies, fictional author personas, etc. -- in short, the whole range of literary frauds from plagiarism to poetic license, covering hundreds of years of literary practice and theory.

K. K. Ruthven

Reviewed by Tess Caiter

Wednesday, September 12 2001, 4:42 PM

An introductory study of literary forgeries was long overdue. Someone had to list all those hoaxes, fictional autobiographies, fictional author personas, etc. -- in short, the whole range of literary frauds from plagiarism to poetic license, covering hundreds of years of literary practice and theory. K. K. Ruthven took up that challenge and produced... well, what resulted?

By Ruthven's own admission, the study developed a dynamic of its own upon his coming to realize that far from being able to distinguish between hoax and fraud, there was no means even of distinguishing between 'curious texts' or 'simulacra' and good old genuine literary production. This insight, not surprisingly, leads Ruthven to plunge headlong at postmodernist theorists whose names now form the mantra and backbone of every literary department on this globe. From their olympic vantage point, all these strange agents of writing -- a.k.a. author-functions -- and their even stranger inter-texts dance happily in a free interplay of semantic autonomy. It is only, Ruthven repeatedly asserts, "hostile critics" "inexperienced readers," "biographers in search of unified personalities," or downright "literary tourists and the business that caters for their interests," that could possibly wonder at this phenomenon. Riff-raff, in simple.

The cases Ruthven lists, sadly, are rarely given complete analysis or thoroughly scrutinized. I was in all honesty (trust me, I am your author) disappointed to find that not only are Canadian tricksters F. P. Grove and Grey Owl missing, but that Ruthven bases this book's very few analyses mainly on secondary sources.

Quoting Robert Drewe on Australian Aboriginal pretender B. Wongar / Sreten Bozic, Ruthven claims that only hostile critics (that nasty lot again) would want to read Sreten Bozic as meaning "Merry Christmas" in Serbo-Croatian. One search for 'Sreten Bozic' on the web would have taught different, as it spits out all those Christmas messages to Serbs far and wide, with appropriate headers. But the web may be too spurious a means of research and Ruthven, to all appearances, prefers solid lexicographic correctness. If so, a look at a Serbo-Croat dictionary under the "bozic" entry would have settled the matter. Ruthven, presents a dazzling variety and mass of cases, jumbled on top of each other. Gasp not, gentle readers, the author hasn't read them all. More often than not, the book's footnotes point to research shortcuts.

Ruthven makes up for this by a corresponding performance of authenticity. He apparently owns two dictionaries, an etymological one and a dictionary of foreign terms, with which he has a deep relationship. Readers will be pleased to learn the allochronic origin of the term "heterosexual" or the exact Italian (not Latin?) source of "counterfeit." Not to mention that precious moment when Ruthven offers the "etymon of your choice," rattling off lists of obscure, obscene or obsolete associations behind the Latin "plagiarius." This is clearly a moment in which to stand in awe.

Moreover, a dictionary of foreign terms comes in handy when you must prove your knowledge of the most obscure areas. A "syzygy" is it? No, not Mongolian for "ewe" -- it's Ruthven-speak for "constellation." You see, I looked it up in the dictionary. I too have a dictionary! Are you impressed? Good scholarship does not condescend to its readers. It explicates and enlightens. Intellectual condescension and obscurantism risk reviews like this one.

To stress the point, Ruthven has a solid notion of the performance of authenticity and the quintessential importance of a textual focus in such cases. He emphasizes the latter again and again as crucial, but never provides the same himself.

Ruthven accords a touching reverence to his own attitudes:

"The political unconscious of monistic editorial theory is a Romantic ideology of literary authorship, which conceives of the text as an autonomous object produced by an individual genius. Scholars who internalize such tropes in the course of their professional training, and reproduce them unselfconsciously in their own practice, are not really thinking about what they are doing. Instead they themselves are being 'thought' by those foundational metaphors which constitute the broadly political unconscious of their discipline."

Note the deployment of Latin and Greek erudition; the broad labeling of graduate education as indoctrination into professional mindlessness; and the condescending self-separation from an academic discipline that provides Ruthven with a salary no different from others. One is left to wonder in turn at the foundational metaphors of the author.

For Ruthven, they are a predilection for amateur psychology, witnessed by token-quoting Julia Kristeva and by engaging in long-distance diagnoses: "Performative gestures are structured by a desire to escape entrapment by experiencing those identitarian freedoms promised by the pursuit of alterity." Ruthven once again avoids talking about texts and is himself overcome by the urge to diagnose what is temptingly at hand. He writes of "The desire to escape entrapment," "the annihilation of the self," of male-male author collaborations "fraught with anxieties and homoerotic entanglements," a sprinkling of phrases that suggests the psycho-dynamics of literary fraudulence are thrilling stuff indeed.

Another foundational metaphor of Ruthven's political unconscious emerges from reverence for the enlightening and messianic powers of postmodernism and poststructuralism: "The post-structuralist critique of essentialism enables us to understand that both literature and literary forgery are cultural constructs rather than discrete and autonomous essences." Very true; so they are. Why then do I resent the inclusive and dominant "us," the rhetoric of superiority and condescension implied in "our" chosen state of being "enabled" (as opposed to those poor misguided fools quoted above) to see the light? Why do I resist the sudden urge to cry "Hallelujah! We are saved?!" Maybe because, contrary to Ruthven, many readers are aware that the post-structuralist critique is not exempt from being a cultural construct. The truth and enlightenment it has brought us may only be as temporary as the truths and enlightenment of previous theories and movements it superceded. Maybe also because many of us are aware of the constellation (not the syzygy) of post-structuralist truth to essentialist critique and vice versa, of post-structuralist critique to essentialist truth.

Ruthven may well resent having to "knuckle down to the task of producing archivally based thick descriptions" and prefer so much more the freedom of "a comparable feat of legerdemain, the erudition-effect'" of his dictionaries and tangential quotes. But in terms of analyzing the performance of ethnicity or authenticity or both, the creation of fictional authorial personas -- yes, in a text, as text, and via text -- his evasiveness leaves much to be desired.

So what remains after the deluge of latinisms, theories and cases quoted? In theoretical terms, precious little. "Literary forgeries are fiction." Who would have guessed? "They show the fictional character of literary construction." A bit of a letdown, no? Like syzygy, it promises exotic fulfillment and provides homespun truths.

The undoubted pleasure of reading Ruthven's erudite collection of oddities and spuriousness fades towards the end of the volume, when flaws in the argument make a reader stumble. Why should the self-plagiarism of a best-selling author be represented as a "literary scandal" when such issues only matter in "the products of high culture." Why does "Romanticism [rule] in the public sector" when notions of individual authorship when Romantics themselves had no such qualms? Why is it "disquieting" to question "the nexus between authorship, individuality and textual uniqueness" in a "culture that prefers accessible and user-friendly simulacra to the aura and resonance of authentic artefacts." And how could all those nappies of Jesus and the more than seven little fingers of St. James in medieval churches be explained if preferring "appearing" to "having" as a recent consequence of capitalism?

Although reading Ruthven allochronically reveals a spurious logic, Faking Literature remains nevertheless a milestone. It is an excellent starting point for anybody daring to enter that dangerous realm of the fictional, virtual and make-believe. Ruthven's hopes that "skillfully deployed erudition-effects may create a reputation for learnedness that lasts well beyond the lifetime of their perpetrator" could come to naught without those very inexperienced readers he fears. Despite its drawbacks, there is nothing comparable to his discussion to be found published at present.

Faking Literature is available from Cambridge University Press  

Copyright © 2001 by Tess Caiter. All rights reserved.

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