In Conversation

Christopher L. Miller’s ‘Impostors’ asks readers: What’s in a byline?

Christopher L. Miller

In his new book, “Impostors: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity,” Christopher L. Miller, the Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of African American studies and French, asserts that unless you are Charles Dickens reading George Eliot (whom Dickens did famously discern was a woman hiding behind a male pen name), even the most expert literary critics are fooled in a good literary hoax — even if, after the reveal, many claim to have known the truth all along.

Miller researched more than a dozen French and American “intercultural literary hoaxes.” A literary hoax, he explains, is when a writer, with the intent to deceive the reader, publishes a work under an assumed name and identity. Even after addressing their possible motives, Miller does not let the perpetrators of such hoaxes — almost all of whom are white, highly educated, upper-class writers — off easy. He asks of each hoax: Whom does the fraud harm, and how? He also explores what happens after a beloved and canonized book of minority literature is discovered to be a hoax, investigating whether there is any remaining “literary value.”

YaleNews spoke with Miller to untangle some of the paradoxes and problems of intercultural literary hoaxing. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

What’s your new book about? What problem are you trying to work through?

It’s about books that tell narratives belonging to other groups, passing them off as authentic. It’s about identity theft by means of literature. A hoax is not just an author channeling someone else’s voice with transparency, as fiction writers have always done; nobody thought that Flaubert was actually “Madame Bovary.” Instead, this is a problem of deliberately false representations in American and French literature, specifically authors who pass off themselves and their work as representative of an identity that is not their own.

To put it more bluntly, they’re telling a story that they’re not entitled to tell. The word “entitled” should maybe go in quotation marks because that’s precisely the kind of battle that’s being fought right now in literary criticism. There’s a phrase that’s making the rounds these days, which is “it’s not your story to tell.” The concept is gaining strength: You can tell your own story, but the right to tell the story of someone else is now being challenged in new ways.

What inspired you to research and write about literary hoaxing, and for how long had you wanted to work on the topic?

It was a fairly long germination. The irony in the history of the book is that I had been working for almost a decade on the very troubling question of the French slave trade, and it was grim. So I started out on this topic with the idea that this was a kind of a lark and wouldn't it be fun? There’s this element of play in a literary hoax, right?

A lot of it is done with a laugh, but then it turns out there are these serious questions of cultural appropriation and of “othering” yourself, which seemed to be very hard on some of the authors behind the hoaxes. At least one, Romain Gary [whose very lucrative charade as a young Algerian doctor, Émile Ajar, became increasingly complex and self-referential], made it clear that othering himself was something he felt compelled to do, but that it also wasn’t easy. Flash forward: By the time I got through with this project, I had several “bodies” on my hands. Several hoaxes, including Gary’s, end with very serious questions of suicide and mental illness. Boris Vian [who wrote pulp crime fiction under a black American pseudonym] died of a heart attack that may have been related to his hoax and its aftermath. Needless to say, the topic turned out to be far more serious than I had first anticipated. The stakes were higher.

Also, in the years during which I was working on this, the climate in American politics and society took this radical turn towards what people are calling a “crisis of truth.” When I sat down in January of 2017, it was do-or-die time on this book project; it had been going on long enough. And then the world kind of started rocking on its axis, and it hasn’t stopped doing that since, specifically in terms of what’s truth, what’s fake, what’s fake news, what’s a hoax.

So, was it tempting for you to use this book to address the American “crisis of truth” after the 2016 election?

That did inflect how I was approaching the topic, and it made me more — I think I use the word in the intro — “judgy.” I started out very non-judgmental, thinking that these hoaxes were all kind of fun, but the election of Trump caused a bit of a pendulum swing: I got very judgy for a time. But, interestingly, when the book was nearly done, I taught this subject as a class, and my students helped moderate my views. They had this amazing capacity for seeing nuance where I was being judgmental. They really opened my eyes to the remaining literary value and even sometimes performative value in some of these hoaxes, especially ones that “produce a body” like the JT LeRoy hoax, which was so outrageous in so many ways that it still makes me laugh out loud.

[Laura Albert, a Brooklyn-based writer, published the “autobiographical” novel, “Sarah,” under the assumed identity of a fictional persona named JT LeRoy, who was supposedly a queer teenage boy from West Virginia. Albert took her hoax a step further when she “produced a body,” having her partner’s younger sister pretend to be JT LeRoy for public appearances. The performance lasted for several years before it was unmasked.]

What does your book address that was previously missing from the scholarly work on literary hoaxes?

I set out very purposefully to find out, and then kind of demonstrate, that there is this long tradition of literary hoaxing in France, which is not the same as the rich American tradition. The unwritten rule of American culture (Laura Browder says this in “Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities”) is that you can shift class but you can’t shift race. Meanwhile, French Republican (with a capital “R”) universalism suggests that there are no community identities in France. Now, if that were true, there would be no identity to fake, borrow, or steal. Well, as we can see from the number of identities that have been faked, borrowed, or stolen in France, going back to at least the 18th century, it ain't so.

For the most part, the French hoaxes you discuss haven’t been met with the public outrage that attends the unmasking of most American literary hoaxes. What changed in French culture by the late 1990s to cause anger towards Jack-Alain Léger for writing novels under the assumed identity of a Parisian “Beur” (born in France with Maghrebi immigrant parents) in the last hoax you examine?

The point of comparison for Léger is Gary, who did something very similar only 20 years earlier in the 1970s, and nobody noticed or minded or anything. But a few years after Gary came this very well-documented identitarian movement in France, the Beur movement, in the 1980s. So, not to put too fine a point on it or be uselessly subtle about it, that identity rose, was recognized, and was therefore ripe for the picking in the view of somebody like Léger, who in many ways was just a good old fashioned French Republican — meaning universalist, anti-identitarian, “anti-communitarian” as they say in French. In the 1990s, he saw the opportunity and went in and did it. And lied about it, of course.

[Léger wrote a critically-acclaimed “autobiographical” novel, “Vivre me tue” (Life Kills Me), under the assumed fictional identity of Paul Smaïl, a Maghrebi man who yearns to escape the intense racism and xenophobia he’s experienced growing up in 1990s Paris.]

What do you think about the pendulum swinging towards this “new identitarianism” — the “it’s not your story to tell” philosophy — in the American literary scene? Has it gone too far? In your book, it seems you are trying to balance these opposing values in literature — the production of truth (hoaxes are damaging) and play (hoaxes are fun).

I do, but it’s hard to balance when you have very strong feelings about both. And I really do. So, I guess I could call myself profoundly ambivalent and wouldn’t want to come down and stop my own pendulum at any one particular point because I feel like both impulses or imperatives need to be defended. Literary authors have to be able to represent otherness. They just have to. I mean where would we be if they couldn’t? I'm concerned about the new identitarianism and a kind of a shutting down of the right to represent, generally speaking. And at the same time, truth really is in a state of crisis right now and there has to be a way to stand up for truth and defend it. But it’s literature we're talking about here. So literature has always navigated successfully or unsuccessfully between these two imperatives.

Given that you say “authors have to be able to represent otherness,” how has the study of the intercultural hoax made you reappraise, if at all, today’s concept of cultural appropriation?

If you describe something as cultural appropriation, that’s already a negative. I think another surprise that my research brought for me is the seriousness of the harm factor, which would be easy to dismiss. … Because who's harmed by a novel, right?

Well, it turns out there are a lot of people who feel harmed by a novel, and I think as a critic you have to hesitate to just dismiss their concerns. If they say, “I’m offended,” you can’t say, “Well, no, you’re not.” That doesn't make any sense. You can’t tell somebody how they feel. But there are many different kinds of harm that can be done by hoaxes. The clearest example is the fake Holocaust memoir — the abominable idea of doing that in the first place, but then passing it off as real, thereby tainting the publishing climate for real memoirs, real stories. Fake stories can pollute or dilute real stories. And that goes way back to abolitionist fake slave narratives; it’s actually known that the fake ones did dilute the effects of the real ones.

If hoaxes can do real harm, is there any realistic recourse for their victims?

There was an op-ed in the New York Times about fake Holocaust memoirs, calling them “stolen suffering.” And there’s a very compelling example with the LeRoy hoax because there was a group of young people in San Francisco who went in front of cameras and said to LeRoy/Laura Albert, “You stole our suffering.” I mean LeRoy the persona claimed to have AIDS. He didn't, but then that part of the story just melted away. Then there was the movie company that sued Albert for a whole bunch of money because, it said, “We bought the rights to a real story, not a fake story.” And they won.

Do you suspect that there are any literary hoaxes still undercover?

Oh there’s no doubt about it! There always are. There are unresolved hoaxes in French literature, and I’m sure American literature as well, where our questions have been raised but not answered. And it's not clear that there ever will be an answer. I mean there’s a French novel I write about in the book, with the byline “Chimo.” It’s completely unresolved and unless that person comes forward with credible evidence to being that author, we may never know.

As you write in the book, forensic reading — or close-reading — to find the true identity of an author doesn’t ever seem to work.

Yes, that’s right. I’ve been looking at this for years and it doesn’t work. There’s still the impulse for a reader to think that he or she can read forensically accurately but then the modal verbs start coming out: “Well, no such person would write or could write …” But in my book, really, there's a lot of documentation of people, even expert literary critics, falling on their faces trying to do that exactly.

Since we all might be the unwitting victims of a literary hoax, do you think it behooves us to read a little bit more skeptically in regards to how seriously we believe in the identity of an author?

Yes, definitely. I think studying hoaxes forces us to question our hidebound assumptions about the identity of the name, the identity associated with the name, and its relation to the text itself. At some level, we should all read everything blind. That was one of the benefits that I got out of this work — making me question those really, really strong and highly-charged associations between the name of the author, the content of the text, and the meaning of the text.

In completing this study, what ended up surprising you the most?

I would say the biggest surprise was what I said before about the gravity of some of these cases and how they turned out to be life or death issues in at least two cases, Gary and Léger.

It never ceases to amaze me how — when you’re looking at a single sentence and sometimes even a single word — it can change back and forth before your eyes depending on who you think the author is.

The other is the complexity of the hall of mirrors that you enter into with a literary hoax. … It never ceases to amaze me how — when you’re looking at a single sentence and sometimes even a single word — it can change back and forth before your eyes depending on who you think the author is. One day, one of my students in my class on this subject walked into class and announced that he’d “hoaxed” himself. Obviously, I had told them from the beginning that all these books are on the syllabus because they're hoaxes, which in one sense is a total spoiler, right? Everything we were reading was a hoax, but we all kept noticing the ability of a book to nonetheless still create an illusion of truth.

Another thing that really did surprise me a lot was the phenomenon of the “zombie hoax,” a hoax that’s been revealed that won’t die. I think it's related to the fact of the illusion that’s created by reading in general plus a number of practical factors. When there’s a book on a library shelf, and it turns out to be a hoax … they don’t send officers out to collect each copy! I mean if we all had only Kindle books, Amazon could reach in and destroy it or stamp the word “hoax” on it. But that doesn’t happen. They sit in libraries.

What was the most uncomfortable or challenging part of your research for you?

Looking again at the two books by Camara Laye was the most uncomfortable, for sure. He’s a much, much loved Francophone African author and someone whom I’ve worked on for a long, long time. The work of uncovering the larger questions of his authorship was done by the scholar Adele King, and I’m really just building on her scholarship and suggesting that her claim that Camara isn’t the sole author of ‘The African Child’ and “The Radiance of the King” should be considered and not just swept under the rug. …. I don't know what the reaction is going to be, but we have to consider: What if Camara didn’t write those books? What then? What do the books look like to us, and what should we do with them? I think those are reasonable questions.

What’s your next project?

I don’t know yet. I may actually be going back to doing something more historical, perhaps about slavery again, because there’s just so much unfinished work in that field in French in particular.

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Kendall Teare: kendall.teare@yale.edu, 203-836-4226