Faking It for Real: K.K. Ruthven’s Book of Literary Fraud

Reviewed by Martin Wechselblatt

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Literary authority has been a major focus of scholarly research over the past 15 years and, more recently, so too have been literary frauds, plagiarism, hoaxes, and impersonations. What we haven’t had is a study that begins with literary inauticity, in all its disparate forms, and allows it the kind of centripetal force that can shape cultural history in its own image, as the Great Authors have conventionally done.

K.K. Ruthven’s Faking Literature does an extremely good job at meeting this need by bringing together under a single rubric – the “spurious” – a multitude of texts that have received scattered treatment. Here can be found such inventions as “George Psalmanazar,” “Rahila Kahn,” “Richard Allen,” “Arvind Nehra,” “Thomas Rowley,” “Wanda Koolmatrie,” “Anne Hughes,” “Helen Demidenko,” “Iolo Morganwg,” “Binjamin Wilkamerski,” “James Tiptree,” “Ern Malley,” “Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish,” “Hardyknute,” “Forrest Carter,” “Araki Yasusada,” “B.Wonger,” “Adore Floupette,” “Willibald Alexis,” “Ossian,” “Mary Carlton” (the “German Princess”), “the Princess Caraboo,” and many more. But also “Mudrooroo” and “Shakespeare” (and “Shaksper,” and “Shaksp,” and “Shakspe”) and others whose intentions may not have been to deceive, but whose identities provoke argument over what ultimately counts as authenticity, like Poe and de Quincy, Kathy Acker and E.L. Doctorow, William Gaddis and Doris Lessing.

This is a large brief and it is hugely entertaining to watch Ruthven draw each of these disparate figures and genres into the same gravitational field: the argument that all literature is “fake” to the extent that it is fiction. But it is also for this reason a project difficult to insulate from an impression of whimsy, which is exacerbated by Ruthven’s refusal to differentiate his examples. Every case is treated as an example either of literature or of literary forgery but, since he defines literature broadly as the impulse to make things up, all of the former are easily shown to be really instances of the latter (and thus of the former). Or as he puts it at the close: “literary forgery is a sort of spurious literature, and so is literature” (200). The whole of the book is in effect a repeated series of oscillations between these binaries and their moment of exposure.

Ruthven’s Prologue illustrates the recurring pattern taken by the book’s argument, by way of an anecdote (structurally not unlike a Freudian primal scene): the authority of literature as a discourse and, especially, an institution with unique claims to value is exposed as fraudulent precisely by virtue of its final inability to establish a difference between itself and its demonized Other. We are in the British Museum Reading Room, a location rich with associations for scholars “from all over the world,” who, since 1857, “used to assemble there in order to access an incomparable collection of printed and manuscript materials” (1). “Assembling” is of course not commonly part of the scholar’s purpose in visiting libraries and neither would “assembly” be necessary “in order to access” the collections. But the point here is to present the British Museum Reading Room as not merely one archive among many but the archive, a kind of monumental objective correlative for literary authority: “To study in that circular room lined with books to a height of thirty-odd feet was to experience the encyclopedic illusion of being at the very centre of knowledge” (1). In the midst of this illusion – one Ruthven has worked to draw his readers into as well – the perceiving consciousness suddenly registers a fact, the fact of a fraud: “Not until sections of the wall swung open so that functionaries could retrieve some of the treasures hidden behind them did it become clear to bewildered newcomers that those portals of discovery were lined not with books but with trompe-l’oeil imitations of closely shelved volumes.”

Exactly what bearing the second of these facts has on the first is largely a matter of what one cares about beyond the facts. “Facts,” Ronald Reagan once remarked, are “stupid things.” In The Counterfeiters Hugh Kenner remarks that the fact, invented in the seventeenth century (fact), was the first instance of discourse posited in splendid isolation from all human interests. Entirely dependent for its meaning upon its context, in itself the fact seems to exist outside all contexts and interests, beyond the reach of particular speakers or audiences: “the most profound innovation of Royal Society Prose was this, that the relation of subject to predicate was no longer something affirmed, by a speaker, but something verified by an observer … the perceiving consciousness.”

Crucial to Ruthven’s argument is his refusal to complicate the mere fact of a text with questions of authorial intention, historical context, or ethical implication. “[T]he common terms for denoting various forms of textual spuriousness become interchangeable with one another, not on account of procedural slovenliness, but because that is what histories of their usage show to be the case. I also think that agency should be ascribed to a spurious text rather than to its author, whose inscrutable motives have to be divined” (39). Ruthven relies, as it were, on the facts, which is what “history” is reduced to in the above passage, and the facts imply nothing that is not tautological: history shows us what is the case. Historical issues are a problem for Ruthven because he has found them serving as vehicles forthe co-option of literature for moral education,” the (bad) inauthenticity of political correctness, and the threat of “ethical surveillance” (50). “With the teaching of literature defended in terms of its efficacy in developing the moral sensibilities of those who studied it, the scapegoating of fake literature became a means of shoring up the correspondingly real thing while also displaying one’s own probity by occupying the moral high ground” (50).

The example of ethical transgression Ruthven focuses most attention on is the Rev. Toby Forward, a parish priest in Brighton, whose book of short stories, Down the Road, Worlds Away, was published by Virago in 1987 under the name Rahila Khan. What most distinguishes Forward from the rest is the naiveté Ruthven emphasizes in him. “By masquerading as ‘Rahila Khan’, who is both female and Asian, Forward collided with the two most sacred cows of identity politics: gender and race” (28). And, in the previous passage quoted, “Forward seemed unaware” of how badly undermined “liberal humanist assumptions” had been by “discourses – feminism among them – which collectively went by the name of critical theory,” though clearly by the name “identity politics” as well. As in the book’s opening tableau, Ruthven himself assembles a unified figure of cultural authority from among distinct and often heterogeneous elements, precisely in order to stage its exposure as a fraud. The emphasis given to Forward’s naiveté is, I think, in part the pose he actually struck in his response to his critics; in part a measure of Ruthven’s empathy. But it also facilitates something Ruthven otherwise labours to produce, a clear demonstration of “how literary forgery can double as cultural critique, irrespectively of authorial intentions” (24). The result – and I would say this is a crucial one for Ruthven – is the uncoupling of “cultural critique” from politics. The collapse of authority figures, as in the revelation that the British Museum’s holdings are not complete and, if complete, unreal, is merely a fact verified as such and no more by a “perceiving consciousness.” Ruthven’s formalist posture of disengagement finds a kind of echo in Forward’s putative ignorance of the links between representation and politics. In which case, it is wonderfully interesting that at the point we left off his discussion of Forward, Ruthven himself suspends it for a discussion, lasting two pages, of empathy. Now, “putting yourself in the place of another,” empathy is exactly the “procedure” foreclosed by “identity politics” but “considered by Forward to be part of the license traditionally accorded writers of fiction.”

But Ruthven’s empathy is indeed entirely “procedural,” implying no more than a rhetorical device whose English he quickly translates into the technical termsethopoeia and dialogismus (25, 26). It is because this empathy is “procedural” that there is actually no contradiction between his first suggestion that, in Forward’s naiveté, and whatever his motivations, his forgery empathetically reaches out to the white male Other and breaks down those boundaries policed by “identity politics”; and Ruthven’s later argument that forgeries reveal the purely performative nature of all identity (78ff). “Procedural empathy” exploits differences between categories like subject and object, the self and its others, on route to revealing that there never really were any boundaries between them.

Indeed, it is literature’s “long-standing association with rhetoric” that Ruthven identifies as the source of its spuriosity. “Consequently, the history of literature is also the history of recurrent defenses of it against attacks on its epistemological status,” the earliest of which attacks “emanated from that arch-enemy of rhetoric, Plato” (3). But as no binary escapes collapse in this account, so Ruthven’s own view of literature seconds Plato’s view of its “disruptive and capricious power.” “[I]f, as [Edgar] Wind argued in 1963, art is irredeemably anarchic – which is why Plato excluded artists from his ideal republic – then its driving force may well be what Morse Peckham calls our ‘rage for chaos’, which confirms Salvador Dali’s view that order is a ‘mortuarial’ dispensation” (198). At this point one would have expected a reference to Freud’s eros and thanatos. More importantly, and leaving aside the reference to the (I believe) liberally disposed Edgar Wind and Morse Peckham, the totalitarian views of Plato and Dali would seem poor sources of insight into the relationship between art and society. Ruthven had before seemed to empathize with Forward’s “liberal humanist” assumptions, against the “ethical surveillance” of “identity politics.” Here, the recognition of art’s anarchic energy, even when placed at the disposal of the ideal police state, is still preferable to the “containment procedures” practiced on it by “liberal democracies.”

It has to be said that in one instance Ruthven does actually reverse himself and champion the values of “liberal democracies.” He argues the need to risk conferring legitimacy on Holocaust deniers by debating them, “in order to preserve freedom of speech in a liberal democracy” (197). But in what sense is refusing to argue with someone an infringement on their freedom of speech? Why does one’s own silence then silence another? If there is a specifically Hegelian notion behind this or something from de Beauvoir involving the function of recognition, Ruthven doesn’t hint at it. Anyway, neither of these would have anything to do with the “liberal democratic” idea of free speech. Mill, who argues that even patently false ideas must be allowed expression because of the “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth” that debate produces (On Liberty), never imagines that preserving the right of free expression depends upon discussing wrong ideas with those who hold them. In the “liberal democratic” sense, freedom of expression includes freedom to ignore what others have to say.

But now, what if we were to read this passage in Ruthven’s own way – dispensing with questions of intention, of historical context, of ethical implication? We might think the chickens of “procedural empathy” had come home to roost. We might think that when the author’s example is the Holocaust denier the difference between the critical subject and critical object collapses at the return of what had to be abjected in order to effect the semblance of their distinction. This result alone would be a good enough reason to not read as Ruthven reads. Especially since it would be to assume what Ruthven never explicitly suggests, that his own critical work is itself encompassed by the literature / literary forgery binary.

Ruthven’s rejection of history extends of course to textual provenance. “Since nothing human is created ex nihilo, everything is made of something else, and is in that respect a bricolage ….To valorize the investigation of origins by identifying and dating what seem to be their first recorded appearances is to comply with the diachronic imperative of an ‘originological’ type of thinking” (127). But why would this not also be the case with attempts to return literature to its “ancient alliance with rhetoric”? Ruthven writes: “In order to uncover that rhetorical pedigree it is necessary to peel off the moralistic overlay imposed not only on literature by liberal humanist studies but also on rhetoric by ethics” (146). Why then can’t literature be treated as bricolage, including within its multiple aspects elements of ethics as well as of rhetoric? If “everything … is … a bricolage” then so I suppose is Ruthven’s book, which certainly contains moments of “originological thinking” side-by-side with descriptions of structural causality. Why not consider ethical questions derived from historical issues?

Ruthven comes close when he criticizes feminist scholars for ignoring the numbers of women who have contributed to the literature of the spurious: “because such investigations were part of a consciousness-raising programme designed to identify positive role models for women, a laudable desire to show that women can write as least as well as men was not accompanied by a corresponding urgency to reveal that they can behave just as badly” (181). This may be relatively true of women’s literary history in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but even Gilbert and Gubar’s Jane Austen is a naughtier woman than this. Ruthven had earlier mentioned just in passing the germinal text by Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as Masquerade,” and frankly my own shelves groan under the weight of subsequent accounts of women’s self-fashioning that involve modes of spuriosity. But Ruthven argues that traditionally “fiction is [represented as] an altogether higher class of deception than mere deceitfulness. And second, that deceitfulness is [represented as] a predominantly masculine weakness,” for which he gives the examples of Much Ado about Nothing(“men were deceivers ever”) and “seduced-and-abandoned heroines like Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durberfield” [sic] (183). Of the first I have no doubt, though in a qualified sense: “classiness” has always been something to manipulate in deceptions, and it has been manipulated in every direction. But, on the second point, the wholly pejorative traditional association between femininity and deceit, false appearance, empty erudition, show without substance, has certainly been as, if not more, prominently featured in criticism over the past twenty years than has the theme of seducer males. Roxana holds her own against Lovelace. And if Ruthven’s point here possibly turns on a distinction between “deceit” and other, more “feminine” forms of spuriosity, then he is back-peddling on his chapter-length argument against such semantic discriminations.

Beyond these local issues of cultural interpretation, and encompassing them, is the question of which, if any, of these discriminations matter any more. Not for Ruthven’s reasons, but rather because culture’s Enlightenment purpose – the education of subjects who internalize disciplinary authority as self-knowledge and identity (even separatist or oppositional identities, as Foucault argued) – may simply no longer be required. Ruthven merely inverts Bildung. But what if data banks have replaced grand narratives, and social relations increasingly take the form of “temporary contracts” (Lyotard)? What if, as John Hinkson suggests, the cultural internalization of authority as personal identity is being replaced in the information society by surveillance technologies that do not depend upon a self-reflecting subject (“Perspectives on the Crisis of the University”)? Ethics in this case remains as difficult to integrate with narrative as it is in Ruthven’s formalist account. But the “antinomian” claims Ruthven makes for literature now appear equally unearned and irrelevant. In this context, Faking Literature looks like it means to evade the challenge of the information society precisely by recourse to “fake literature”: a happily familiar inversion of traditional cultural authority, which if nothing else is still literary.

Martin Wechselblatt is reviews editor of
Antipodes, the journal of the American Association for Australian Literary Studies. He is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati, and the author of Bad Behaviour: Samuel Johnson and Modern Cultural Authority (1998).

Faking Literature by K.K. Ruthven was published by Cambridge University Press in 2001.

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