Hoaxes: Deception as Art
by Abigail Weil
Believe me when I tell you, there’s nothing I love more than a hoax. Any work of fiction or drama depends, to some extent, on what Coleridge famously termed the “suspension of disbelief”: the reader’s willingness to temporarily take seriously the invented events unfolding before her. But this process depends on the work having a label — fiction or nonfiction, autobiographical, historical, original or adapted — and each of these labels brings a certain set of expectations. Whether we think a story is “true” or “invented” determines the kind of questions it makes sense to ask. That’s why the funniest joke in the Coen brothers’ very funny 1996 movie Fargo is a title card at the beginning that reads, “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
Authors and artists love to play with markers of authenticity, and we love it too when we know the game. But where do we draw the line between fiction and fabrication?
To me, a hoax is an imaginative action intended as commentary on some social foible — whatever foible the hoaxer exploits to make their point. For the hoax to be successful, someone must be genuinely fooled, and for it to end, the deception must be revealed. Hoaxes are related to other deceptive actions: pranks, scams, forgeries. I’m not convinced there are firm boundaries, and I suspect that believing in the existence of firm boundaries is incompatible with loving hoaxes. I will say, there’s a qualitative difference if the hoaxer gains money, prestige, or power through their deception. The purest form of a hoax is a mystification, a work of art unto itself where the whole entire point is to see how far they can take it.
This syllabus is a collection of texts that help me understand how hoaxes work and explore why I love them. It’s organized thematically around the elements hoaxers manipulate and the goals they advance. You’ll find highbrow and lowbrow, academic theory and pop culture, books, essays, movies, and a really annoying song. Some deal with the question of hoaxing directly; others come at it slant or belong only by virtue of my own slippery definition. None of them are made up, I swear.
Node 1: Gender identity, sexuality, the closet and its opposite
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare — cross-dressing rom-com
“Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” Isaac Bashevis Singer — a Jewish woman wants to be a rabbi, giving a whole new meaning to “Today you are a man.”
Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick — more fun than Judith Butler anyway
Paris is Burning, dir. Jennie Livingston — a documentary about New York’s queer ball scene in the 1980s
Node 2: Race — passing strange
“On Being White…and Other Lies,” James Baldwin — how whiteness replaces morality
“Bearded Ladies,” from The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Kevin Young — showing the roots of racialized deception in American entertainment
“The Long Shadow of the Night Doctors,” from Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, Megan Rosenbloom — the intersection of racism and anthropodermic bibliopegy
“Norwegian Wood,” The Beatles and “Homeless,” Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo — does collaboration preclude cultural appropriation?
“Return to Innocence,” Enigma — the German New Age musicians ripped off Taiwanese folk singers for the catchiest part of this song
Node 3: Counterfeit and material gain
The Fates of the Good Soldier Švejk in the World War, Part I, Jaroslav Hašek — a forger of dog pedigrees and “certified idiot” is the only man in late-Habsburg Prague who wants to fight in WWI
“The Prolegomena,” Jean Hardouin — an Enlightenment-era librarian’s argument that most of the classical texts we know are bogus
The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith — what makes a signature valuable?
F for Fake, dir. Orson Welles — a pseudo-documentary about art forgery (bonus hoax cred: Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of the sci fi story “War of the Worlds” made people think the U.S. was under attack by aliens!)
The Blair Witch Project, dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez — a horror film marketed as found footage
Can You Ever Forgive Me? dir. Marielle Heller — a frustrated queer writer discovers a talent for writing as other famous writers
Node 4: Crashing the party: parody versus imitation
The Social and Political History of the Party for Moderate Progress Within the Limits of the Law, Jaroslav Hašek — a posthumously published history of a fictive political party, the volume includes speeches the very real candidate gave in his fake campaign for a seat in the Austro-Hungarian Parliament
The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuściński — a novel about Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, that’s really reportage about the communist government of Poland
The Mountain and the Wall, by Dagestani author Alisa Ganieva — Ganieva published her first novel, Salaam, Dalgat!, under a male pseudonym, but revealed herself to be a woman at a literary awards ceremony
Cover Story, Elif Batuman — what are the ethics of going undercover for a story?
Anatomy of a Hoax, Dan Piepenbring — the worst-case scenario for the best April Fools joke
The Ambassador, dir. Mads Brügger — a Danish documentarian out to expose corruption in Liberia falls prey to greed and good storytelling
Node 5: The greater good
“The Rukopis Královédvorský and the Formation of Czech National Literary History,” David Cooper — if a national literary culture did not exist, it would be necessary to invent one.
Go Ask Alice, Anonymous/Beatrice Sparks — a fake teen girl’s diary that makes doing drugs sound like no fun
“A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction,” The Smoking Gun — The Oprah Book Club pick turned out to be a novel, not a memoir
Comment on the Bhopal Disaster, the Yes Men — Dow Chemical taking responsibility for a massive gas leak turns out to be performance art
Czech Dream, dir. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda — Filmmakers pose as businessmen and fake the grand opening of a supermarket
Node 6: Postmodernism, suspicion, and “authenticity,” or, Ok this one’s all about Don Quixote
Don Quixote, Part 2, Miguel de Cervantes — Quixote confronts admirers of his earlier adventures, and of the feats of an imposter who appeared in an unauthorized sequel.
“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges — whose is the better Quixote?
La Mancha Screwjob, Radiolab — Pro wrestlers and the porous boundary between fiction and non-fiction (and Don Quixote)