Tricksters and Hyperauthorship

In preparation for my short paper on My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey, I researched literary hoaxes. While Ern Malley and Bob McCorkle may have been set in Australia, there was a famous hoax in the United States as well, though it didn’t receive as much publicity at the others.

In an article from Linguafranca: The Review of Academic Life, Emily Nussbaum outlines a hoax involving Araki Yasusada, a Hiroshima survivor who never was.
In the early 1990s, several journals published the work of Yasusada, only to discover that the author was not real. He was constructed, it seems, by professor Kent Johnson and Tosa Motokiyu, a popular author. The story goes that Motokiyu wrote the majority of the poetry while he and Johnson were roommates in the 1970s. He included some of Johnson’s work because it fit the theme.

As with the Malley incident and the fictional McCorkle, the literary reactions around the United States were mixed. The editors duped into publishing Yasusada’s poems seethed with anger. Others, especially postmodernists, saw the hoax as “a fitting rebuke to those stragglers who keep trying to roll back the rock from the tomb of the author.” Still others, like John Solt, a professor of Japanese Culture at Amherst, thought the hoax played right into the assumptions Americans held about Japanese culture, belying the ignorance of true Japanese literature.

Lee Chapman, editor of First Intensity who published parts of the poems in 1995, said, “It struck me as particularly conceited and cynical [for someone] to be pushing made-up material relating to the horror of Hiroshima when real survivors and their families are still around to remember what happened to them.” The Hiroshima attack, apparently, was too fresh in the minds of many people like Chapman. It was not yet ready to be parodied or made light of. Trickster, rear your head.

The kind of mocking and unabashed use of atrocities to make a joke is exactly what trickster does. He works on those things that aren’t supposed to be vulnerable. He pokes you where it will hurt your morals most and puts stress on the borders of decency. At least one critic understood this about the Yasusada hoax. Marjorie Perloff wrote that “there isn’t any sacred subject you can’t make a hoax about! Why would this be more okay if it were about the victim of a car accident?”

The answer to Perloff’s question seems obvious in the context of tricksters. If the hoax dealt with the survivor of a car wreck instead of an atomic blast, there would be less scandal, less chance for controversy. Car accidents are a common occurrence; they are culturally accepted. Hiroshima, on the other hand, was still fresh in the minds of living victims. It is a source of emotions. More than that, the Hiroshima attack is a questionable episode in our cultural history. It is something that we feel guilty about, something we are ashamed of. Our proclivity for shame makes Hiroshima a vulnerable target for trickster.

Yet Hiroshima is not the largest issue brought to light by trickster in the Yasusada, Malley, or McCorkle hoaxes. A far older cultural assumption is under attack from literary hoaxes: the notion of authorship itself.

It is often taken for granted that a corporeal author wrote a book. We do not question, for instance, that there is a real man, Umberto Eco or Stephen King, who sits down with a pad or at a keyboard and writes books. Those books are their productions and are their mental properties. Almost since the introduction of the printing press, this has been a widely held cultural assumption. By “cultural,” in this case, I mean the culture of literacy.

But literary hoaxes cast doubt on that establishment. They are seen as examples of the burgeoning concept of “hyperauthorship,” the authoring of texts by more than one person working under a single author persona. The created author in any of these hoaxes will “forever remain in flux,” wrote Nussbaum, “a ‘hyperauthorship’ which wriggles and splits like mercury.”

Mikhail Epstein’s article “On Hyperauthorship” deals with the emerging concept. Epstein defines the term as opposed to “hypertext”—text spread out over a number of spaces that can be visited in any order, thereby removing any linearity from the reading. Hyperauthorship, he says, denotes an author that is “not a discrete personality but a wave, going across times, places, and personalities.” To Epstein, Yasusada is an example of a kind of “virtual authorship” in which “real personalities become almost illusionary, while fictional personalities become almost real.” In other words, hyperauthorship removes the “author” from a text. Like with hypertext, the reading is self-guided and non-linear. The text loses its association with the author, who is no longer necessary as a personality who gives meaning to the text.

Hyperauthorship is not without its problems, though. An old problem, one of credit between multiple authors, still arises. If we are to acknowledge that a text was hyperauthored by multiple persons, how do we account for those authors without subordinating one or another? For instance, in Carey’s novel, we could ask who is more rightly called the author of the McCorkle poems, McCorkle or Chubb? Since McCorkle was the creation of Chubb, do we list Chubb first? Or since McCorkle is given the byline, do we list him first?

In the case of the novel, it is even harder to solve this dilemma, consider that McCorkle, like a Frankenstein monster, takes on physical form. In the Ern Malley hoax, it is harder. It is easy to consider Harold Stewart and James McAuley the authors of Malley’s poetry since they constructed it, but what of Malley? Since he was widely attributed as the author in journals and in the press, he gained a measure of fame, despite his non-corporeality. An open-minded compromise is in order: all three men are the authors of a “hyperauthored” text.

Epstein calls this “interference.” The idea is comparable to physics’ concept of interference. When two waves enter the same space, the waves both negate and reinforce each other. The result is something entirely different from the initial waves. The idea works with authorship as well. A pattern of reinforcement and negation between multiple authors produces new readings not previously imagined.

There is yet another way to look at the issue. In the book Faking Literature, K.K. Ruthven argues that forgery or faked literature is really a clever means of cultural and literary criticism. By questioning “originality” and “authenticity,” Ruthven seems to say that forged literature is both literature and not literature at the same time. Critic Patrick Herron called this “Ruthven’s paradox.”

Herron disagrees with Ruthven, pointing out that the notion of forgery as “wrong” sticks with society despite Ruthven’s attempt to deconstruct it. This is because, as Herron says, “forgery is regularly treated only on political and cultural terms.” Since the audience reading a text ultimately decides its worth, its validity is in the hands of the public, not critics like Ruthven. In the end, Herron wished to “develop ways to evaluate or appreciate forgeries on a literary dimension.”

This seems to me a lack of imagination. We already live in a society in which certain “forged” or “hoax” or “hyperauthored” are accepted without much question. These texts are translations, which are authored by both the native language author and the translator. If there is any doubt to this, then think of the number of words Eskimo tribes have to describe the word “snow” versus English. There is no such thing as a one-to-one translation between languages, so the translator becomes part-author of a text, gently changing words here or there to capture what he imagines to be the spirit of the original text.

If these sort of hyperauthored texts can be accepted with little question, how far can we be from the complete loss of the author? The implications are unclear. Now, an author adds a certain authority to a text. We read Harold Bloom’s books because we trust in “Harold Bloom.” Stephen King’s novels are bestsellers because they were written by “Stephen King.” Yet, would it make that much difference to learn there never was a Bloom or a King? “A rose by any other name…”

The entire argument leads back to uncertainty. Hyperauthorship leads to uncertainty as to the reality of our authors and our trust in them. To tie it clumsily back in, this is exactly what trickster wanted all along, to make us doubt our establishments and keep us on our toes, always aware lest we be fooled again.


3 thoughts on “Tricksters and Hyperauthorship

  1. Hi Mike,
    I’ve just been drawing on some of your hyperauthorship stuff for my thesis (and of course giving you credit). It’s so nice to have this online and handy.

  2. P.S. I was also pondering on the interesting fact that we refer to the “Sokal Hoax” and the “Yasusada Hoax”, and yet it is the “Ern Malley Affair.” Hmmm…

  3. That’s awesome! My first citation in someone else’s work. I can’t wait to read it.

    I also envy you. The holidays were not good to me, and I’m a bit behind 😦

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