Faking Literature is a useful if frustrating contribution to the 'not yet conceptualised field of spuriosity studies' (p. 199). Its strengths lie in the proposition that literary fakery belongs to the sphere of worthy objects of cultural study, as well as in the breadth of erudition and the wealth of examples offered. Ruthven convincingly articulates the importance of literary fakes for understanding literature as a cultural construction determined by forces extrinsic to the aesthetic qualities of the text itself. By appealing to literature's rhetorical origins and essentially 'counterfeit' nature, he situates the difference between the 'authentic' and the 'fake' not in texts themselves but in a cultural discourse devoted to defending 'authenticity'. The fake, like literature, 'is not a transhistorically stable essence but a culturally variable construct' (p. 60).
The study of forgery is justified, first, by the notion of 'constitutive alterity' such that 'reactions to literary forgeries illuminate perceptions of literariness' (p. 3). Second, by the disturbing effects of forgery which enable it to function as a 'creative mode of cultural critique' (p. 28). Ruthven's vision of literary forgery as both a 'cultural intervention and a symptom of the culture into which it intervenes' (p. 193) is, in my view, irrefutable. In fact, given the current widespread acceptance of the cultural construction of just about everything, it is less controversial than he believes it to be. These days, those who 'question received ideas about authorship, originality and authenticity' (p. 4) are rather thick on the ground, and the pervasiveness of post-structuralism places it firmly in the category of 'received ideas'. Ruthven frustrates the expectations which he elicits by providing more anecdotes than analyses and demonstrations of his theoretical premisses. His exclusion of authorial intention and the ascription of agency to the 'spurious text' unsettle both his postmodernist allegiances and the crucial concept of 'cultural critique', since many of the cases discussed were apparently intended for the very purpose of embarrassing the institution. It also seems somehow ungenerous to deprive, in Ruthven's own terms, 'first-rate literary forgers [of] the respectful admiration that comparably successful authors of "genuine" literature receive' (p. 175). It would be helpful to distinguish between 'forgery', which is necessarily the product of an authorial (but not necessarily critical) intention, and 'misattribution', which, if it can at all be construed as 'critique', must arise from the intentions of readers. Ruthven thus misses the occasion to theorize the role of reader as the most important locus of agency in the construction of cultural value.
Ruthven's subject is articulated thematically around concepts of authorship, originality, and authenticity, each treated in separate chapters which range sometimes disconcertingly across (largely Anglo-American) time and space. The compendium like quality of the work at times recalls the 'annotated bibliography'; the famous and the obscure share pell-mell a textual space as if seeking to reproduce the device of 'authentication by density' which has been used to describe Chatterton's use of 'vivid but "irrelevant" details' (p. 149). In the academic context, such 'density' serves less to authenticate than to create an 'erudition effect' which obscures rather than illuminates, and where 'density' refers to quantity rather than to depth. The reader is tantalized but finally frustrated by the lack of analyses of exemplary cases, including, most importantly, the story of their becoming authentic or inauthentic. An argument ostensibly grounded in cultural construction needs to analyse the discourse of reception which actually does the constructing.
Given the intrinsic interest of the subject, Ruthven's undeniably justified premisses, and the wealth of potentially fascinating data, one wishes that Faking Literature would pause more often in its frenetic dash through its copious material to admit the reader into the argument by unpacking the cultural mechanisms at work behind this important and fascinating phenomenon.
UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN ONTARIO
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2004|
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