1. Jonathan Swift – Predictions for the Year 1708 (1708)
Writing as the fictional astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff, Jonathan Swift forecast the death of the astrologer John Partridge from a “raging fever” in a pamphlet entitled Predictions for the Year 1708. Partridge responded with a denial but on the day predicted, 29 March, ‘Bickerstaff’ followed up his speculation with a black-framed poetic Elegy and a pamphlet confirming Partridge’s death, The Accomplishment of the First of Mr Bickerstaff’s Predictions, apparently authored by an anonymous employee of ‘the Revenue’. Despite repeated denials, Partridge was reportedly plagued by those who insisted he had died.
2. James MacPherson – The Works of Ossian (1765)
Hoax, forgery or misrepresentation, James MacPherson’s cycle of epic poems ascribed to the third century Gaelic bard Ossian enjoyed enormous international success. Translated into German, Danish, French, Russian and Spanish by the turn of the century, the Ossian poems inspired the Romantics: Goethe’s own translation of sections of MacPherson’s work was used in The Sorrows of Young Werther. And yet their authenticity and quality were questioned from first publication, not least by Samuel Johnson, who denounced MacPherson as a ‘mountebank, a liar, and a fraud.’ The current thinking is that MacPherson created a coherent framework for a collation of orally transmitted Scots Gaelic ballads.
3. Edgar Allan Poe – The Balloon-Hoax (1844)
Poe’s 1844 article for The New York Sun is exemplary of the recursive and proliferating nature of hoaxes. This story, claiming to detail the first trans-Atlantic balloon-crossing accomplished by the explorer Monck Mason (based on the actual balloonist Thomas Monck Mason), may have been conceived in reaction to the Great Moon Hoax published in the same paper nine years earlier, claiming that the astronomer John Herschel had observed winged humanoids on the moon with a radically new and powerful telescope. Poe felt that this hoax report had plagiarised his own short story ‘The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall’. To further complicate matters of actuality, Poe’s hoax may have inspired Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.
4. Witter Bynner and Arthur Davidson Ficke – Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (1916)
Writing under the pseudonyms Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish, Bynner and Ficke, already established poets in the classical idiom, founded the fictitious Spectrist group as a parody of the avant garde movements proliferating in the 1910s – Symbolism, Futurism and Vorticism the chief among them – and the free verse forms they championed. They opened with the customary manifesto statements – “The insubstantiality of the poet’s spectres should touch with a tremulous vibrancy of ultimate fact the reader’s sense of the immediate theme” (shades of Pound, there) – and followed with a compilation of randomly numbered verses. Predictably, many readers preferred the work of Morgan and Knish to that of Bynner and Ficke.
5. Theodore Sturgeon – I, Libertine (1956)
In the 1950s US bestseller lists were compiled by newspaper subeditors who would phone around bookstores to ask what was selling. The late night talk radio host Jean Shepherd, in collusion with his listeners, concocted a fake book, I Libertine, a raunchy historical romance by the similarly fictitious author Frederick R. Ewing, a retired Royal Naval officer resident in Rhodesia and expert in eighteenth century erotica. Shepherd urged his listeners to request the title from as many bookshops as possible. Despite its non-existence it was banned in Boston before the publisher Ballantine commissioned Kurt Vonnegut’s friend (and character in Slaughterhouse 5) Theodore Sturgeon to make the hoax text a reality.
6. JG Ballard – Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan (1969)
The chapter that prompted Doubleday to pulp the US edition of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition remains a bracing read. Atrocity has been described as a ‘limit text’ and ‘Why I Want…’ is at the bleeding edge of those limits: Ballard’s fabricated psycho-sexual reading of the US actor turned politician associates him with anal-sadism, war-crimes, genitalia, car crashes and child-victims.
The text was stripped of identifying titles and distributed as a pamphlet purporting to issue from a maverick think-tank and bearing the party crest at the 1980 Rebublican Convention. “I’m told it was accepted for what it resembled, a psychological position paper on the candidate’s subliminal appeal,” reported Ballard.
7. Clifford Irving – Autobiography of Howard Hughes (1971)
In 1970 the novelist Clifford Irving and his friend Richard Suskind cooked up a plan to write the ‘autobiography’ of Howard Hughes, who had completely withdrawn from public life since the late 1950s. Irving had form in these grey areas, having written a biography of the Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory entitled Fake! (1969). Forging documents bearing Hughes’s signature, Irving and Suskind secured large advances before being rumbled post-publication when the reclusive Hughes gave a press conference. Irving served 17 months for fraud. His story was featured in Orson Welles’s final film F for Fake! and he gave his own version of events in his book The Hoax (1981), made into a film starring Richard Gere.
8. Binjamin Wilkomirski – Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, 1939-1948 (1996)
A case study in trauma narratives, Fragments told the story of Wilkormiski’s childhood experience of the Holocaust as a prisoner in the concentration camps at Majdanek and Auschwitz. Sent to interview Wilkomirski for a Swiss magazine, the journalist Daniel Granzfried, whose own father had been interned at Auschwitz, had doubts about Wilkormiski’s story. Granzfried discovered that the author had in fact been only four at the close of the war and living in comfort with adoptive parents in Zurich. Even as his publisher pulped his book and sympathised with his ‘damaged’ state of mind, Wilkormiski refused to accept the evidence of his untruths.
9. Stewart Home – Confusion Incorporated (1999)
Whether writing about his love of Northern Soul, re-animating Ann Berg novels, attacking the ‘centred bourgeois subject’ or exploring his own family history, Stewart Home couldn’t be boring if he tried. In the late nineties Home explored his fascination with pranks and hoaxes in a number of texts – Confusion and the edited collection Mind Invaders the best – documenting the myriad schisms and letter-writing campaigns of neo-Situationist and anarchist groups most likely of his own creation. He also has a telling cameo in Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory. Mark Dery’s Culture Jamming is an essential 1990s companion piece, a theoretical guide to, and critique of, US media provocateurs such as Negativland and Adbusters magazine.
10. Laura Albert – Sarah (1999)
Perhaps the most successful and sustained of any of the hoaxes here is the story of Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ LeRoy, the transgender ‘avatar’ of writer and musician Laura Albert. LeRoy published numerous magazine articles, four novels and contributed to two screenplays, drawing heavily on her experiences as the abused child of a ‘lot lizard’ – US slang for a truck-stop prostitute – before the charade was uncovered. Albert hired her sister-in-law to stand in for LeRoy in media and festival appearances and eventually the cracks in the back story became apparent. The story provides a telling commentary on the publishing industry’s problematic infatuation with ‘authenticity’ in fiction.