Hoaxes have played a role in literary history. Probably the most famous hoax in English literature is an epic cycle about a warrior named Fingal, published in the seventeen-sixties. This was advertised as translations of poems written by a third-century Gaelic bard named Ossian. In fact, the poems were fakes, cooked up by a Scottish writer named James Macpherson. Although a few people—Samuel Johnson was one—had suspicions, Ossian’s work was read and admired in Europe and America and translated into many languages, and his fake poems are considered a major influence on Romanticism—a literary movement that made authenticity a supreme value. If you were editing an anthology of English literature, would it be right or wrong to include something by “Ossian”?
A hoax with consequences closer to home is “Go Ask Alice.” The book was published in 1971, and purported to be the diary of a fifteen-year-old girl who starts taking LSD, gets sucked into the drug underworld, and ends up dead. Miller says it may have sold five million copies. The real author has not been conclusively established, but the copyright belonged to a Mormon therapist who claimed that she had merely edited a real Alice’s diary, which was under lock and key at the publisher’s. Which is a strange alibi. “Why did someone not ask for it to be ‘unlocked’?” as Miller inquires. He suggests that the scare story in “Go Ask Alice” contributed to the launching of the war on drugs, which led to the crackdown on recreational-drug sales and produced a wave of incarcerations.
Miller’s particular subject is literary hoaxes—that is, books that are deliberate, flat-out violations of the pact. The name on the cover is not that of the person who wrote the contents—the name on the cover is deliberately misleading—and the reader has no way of knowing it. Miller examines several types of hoaxes. There are literary impersonations, in which the author assumes the racial or ethnic identity of someone else. These are usually memoirs, autofictions, or books that pretend to speak for the group to which the fake author is assumed to belong. Miller calls these intercultural hoaxes. There are hoaxes designed to insinuate a subversive message through a benign-seeming work, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing text. Miller calls these Trojan Horses. And there are hoaxes aimed at exposing the poor judgment of editors, critics, or readers. He calls these time bombs.
Why do people go to the trouble of creating intercultural hoaxes? Miller thinks that one answer is the book business: “Demand exceeds supply, creating a market for fakes.” The key here is the power differential between the hoaxer and the fake persona. The hoaxer has cultural capital. He or she is already a writer, someone who understands how the publishing world works. The marginalized or exotic subjects they pretend to be have cultural capital, too, in the sense that people want to buy their books and read their stories. But they have fewer means with which to cash out that capital. So the hoaxer steps in.
In an intercultural hoax, therefore, the hoaxer is often white and the fake persona is often a person of color. The white writer is appropriating the experience of a nonwhite person—“performing” a self. A good example is the novel “Famous All Over Town,” which came out in 1983. The author was Danny Santiago, and the book’s narrator was a young Chicano, named Chato, who tells the story of his coming of age in East Los Angeles. The novel was critically acclaimed, and the hoax survived for about seventeen months. Then, in an article by John Gregory Dunne in The New York Review of Books, Danny Santiago was revealed to be a seventysomething white writer named Daniel James, who was from a well-to-do Midwestern family and had attended Andover and Yale. Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, knew James, and were in on the hoax.
James got started by sending some stories, using the name Danny Santiago, to Dunne’s literary agent, who was able to place them in magazines like Redbook and Playboy. The agent never met or spoke to the author. It was understood that he did not have a telephone, and his return address was a post-office box. One Danny Santiago story appeared in “The Best American Short Stories.” The stories eventually became the novel “Famous All Over Town,” which, after getting turned down by several houses, was published by Simon Schuster. No one there had met or talked to Danny Santiago, either. “We figured he was probably in prison and didn’t want anybody to know,” the book’s editor later said.
“Famous All Over Town” was received enthusiastically by the Times, whose reviewer confessed that “I am totally ignorant of the Chicano urban experience but I have to believe this book is, on that subject, a minor classic.” The book received a five-thousand-dollar prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, but Danny Santiago, for obvious reasons, did not turn up to claim it, and James had to forfeit the money. A few months later, Dunne (with James’s acquiescence) published his exposé.
Challenged about adopting a Hispanic pseudonym, James invoked the literature professor’s defense: the identity of the writer is irrelevant. What matters is the contents. “Nobody’s going to be hurt if the book’s any good,” he said. It was true that he was not a Chicano, but neither was he a stranger to the barrio. James was politically progressive—he had been a Communist and had been blacklisted in Hollywood, where he once worked as a screenwriter—and he and his wife had been volunteers for twenty years in the Los Angeles neighborhood where “Famous All Over Town” is set.
Was James’s appropriation of a Chicano identity illegitimate? At the time, Latino writers were divided. (None had suspected that the novel was by an Anglo writer.) The author’s bio on the book jacket said that Danny Santiago grew up in Los Angeles, and Daniel James did not. Dunne says he had tried to persuade James not to use the pseudonym, but concluded that James was blocked as a writer (he was a playwright who had been notably unsuccessful getting his work produced), and that assuming a new identity was liberating for him.
Miller thinks that “Famous All Over Town” is a Trojan Horse. Chato, the narrator, wants to escape from the barrio. He laments the eventual destruction of his neighborhood (displaced by a Southern Pacific rail yard), but he also makes fun of his relatives for their adherence to premodern Mexican ways. It’s a book about getting out of your ethnic cul-de-sac so you can write a book about it. That “Famous All Over Town” can be read as promoting assimilation was probably not James’s intention, but this does not mean that it was not part of the book’s effect.