Literary Hoaxes

I was at a conference this past weekend — Creative Writing in the 21st Century. In one session, the reader, a Toronto poet called Daniel Scott Tysdal, read a poem which he said was written by his uncle. The uncle had been involved in WWII and had been traumatized by the experience, and the poem was his response. Except it wasn’t. After he’d read it Tysdal admitted he’d invented the uncle and his entire story. He’d perpetrated a fraud on us. In the Q&A session afterwards a couple of delegates admitted that they’d felt a little mad at Tysdal for fooling them into thinking the story was real, only to find it was false. As if it falsified the empathy they were feeling for the uncle.

Strangely, that evening, Tim O’Brian was speaking, and he related a story about how, after he’d been called up in the Vietnam War draft, he’d run away from home and spent a week holed up in a hotel on the Minnesota/Canada border wrestling with his conscience and trying to decide if he should cross the border and leave his former life behind, or stay and go off to the war, a war he didn’t believe in. After having told this story he too admitted that it was a complete fabrication. It didn’t happen. He wrestled with his conscience alright, but he played golf while he was doing it. As he pointed out, the golf course is a much less convincing venue for the story than the border. He also said people get mad when they’re told the story isn’t true.

People in the Daniel Scott Tysdal referenced the most recent and high profile literary fraud they could think of, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, but nobody brought up Thomas Chatterton. Frey was publicly vilified for his part in the Million Little Pieces fraud, but he’s still collecting royalties. Chatterton was  crushed by the reaction to his fraud. He died of arsenic poisoning aged 17. Most scholars accept it was a suicide, although some argue he was trying to self-medicate for syphilis.

If you don’t know Chatterton’s story, it’s interesting and instructive. He was a Bristol lad who went to London to make his fortune. His particular bent was medieval poetry, which he’d been working on since the age of 12. He passed this off as the work of a 15th century monk, Thomas Rowley. For a brief while he was lauded by London’s literary elite for having discovered the poems and for recognizing their extraordinary merit at so young an age. When it was discovered that he’d written them himself the same elite snubbed him for defrauding them.

What’s interesting about this is that is was Lionized when it was thought he merely discovered some ancient poetry, but abused when it turned out that at 17 he’d produced poetry which had fooled experts into thinking it was the real thing. Instead of marveling at the young boy’s talent, they punished him for making fools of them.

Were the feelings of empathy and loss conjured up the Daniel Scott Tysdal’s poetry diminished by the fact that they were based on a lie? Did Tim O’Brien’s story convey, in a way that was more true than what ‘really’ happened, what it felt like to be called up to the Vietnam War as a 20 year old American?

It’s odd. Authors struggle, word by word, to achieve authenticity. To make readers believe this really happened. When they succeed, to my mind, they have captured artistic truth, even if it is entirely imagined.

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2 responses to “Literary Hoaxes

  1. I’m scratching my head at this one. You are a much better thinker than I am as you got something out of Mr. Tysdal’s presentation. Me, I would have seen it as a “hey, lookit what I can do”.
    As far as I’m concerned all writer’s play with truth to a varying degree. Fiction writers, like myself, strive to make our fiction plausible, no matter what our subject. It could be something like trying to explain werewolves, a fantastic concept, but if we manipulate the words enough, we can get the readers to think maybe there is some truth to our fabrication.
    Even non-fiction writers will do it to add a little something to their story. I just watched a show where they compared the movie Apollo 13 to the actual events. Ron Howard was very candid with the real astronauts, when presenting the story to them. They objected to a scene where they are shown as arguing. Ron explain that he couldn’t show the emotional stress they were under by one close-up, he had to verbalize it. Even if it didn’t happen, they were feeling it on the inside and he had to externalize that.
    A Million Little Pieces, I also suspect was a direct result of an inept marketing representative. Yes the author shouldn’t have listened to him, but sometimes new authors do silly things when presented with the vision of success.
    There is a distinct difference between writing fiction and presenting it as thus, and writing fiction and presenting it as a truth. He was advocating fraud and showing how easy he could do it.
    It’s a cautionary tale, for sure, but one better suited being presented to publishers and agents, not writers.
    Then again, you got a cool little piece of history out of it. I’m going to have to look up those poems now.

  2. Dale, you’re absolutely right about A Million Little Pieces. Frey was up-front with his publisher. He said it was a work of fiction, although some of the incidents were based on real events, but the publisher said it would sell much better as a memoir and he agreed to let them market it as a true life confession. So sure, he was complicit, but I don’t think he deserves all the blame. I’ve never done a survey, but I would bet most people in the ‘general public’ put the blame for the fraud squarely on Frey.
    In my own case, my novel is based on real events (pretty much everything that happens in the first two chapters actually happened) but I chose to tell the story through fiction. There were a lot of reasons for this. I was too young to really know what was going on most of the time, and even when I was old enough to figure it out, I had to fill in the gaps myself. There’s still no knowing if I made the right call on those gaps. Finally, the gap between real life and story is both smaller and larger than we might imagine. Sometimes (as O’Brien said) the truth (i.e. what really happens) isn’t good enough to convey the truth (about what you might have felt or experienced). It’s a fraught, complex topic, and one which writers will always grapple with.

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