The Chronicle Review

What if You Pull a Literary Hoax and Nobody Notices?

Kyra Kietrys

Mark Sample
August 03, 2009

Perpetrators of literary hoaxes often like to be discovered, if only for recognition of their cleverness. But for someone or someones at the literary-studies journal Modernism/Modernity, that gratification has been a while coming.

In 2004 the journal, which is the quarterly of the Modernist Studies Association, ran a review essay of the writer David Foster Wallace's story collection Oblivion. The essay was a put-on, a leg-pull, a sham, in ways that take some explaining for nonspecialists in recent American fiction. But no one publicly called attention to the con until last month.

Mark Sample, an assistant professor of contemporary American literature and new-media studies at George Mason University, blew the whistle on his blog, Sample Reality. The review essay that provoked him, "An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent," was attributed to a certain Jay Murray Siskind, in the department of popular culture at Blacksmith College. No such institution exists, nor does Siskind, other than as a rather Mephistophelean character (as Sample puts it) in the acclaimed novel White Noise, by Don DeLillo.

"Anyone familiar with White Noise should recognize the clues that the supposed reviewer is DeLillo's character and not some real live scholar with the same name," Sample wrote. "There's the fictional Blacksmith College (which, while not the college portrayed in White Noise, is a name of one of the neighboring towns); there are the fake footnotes in the review referring to other characters and details from White Noise, including narrator Jack Gladney and thuggish Alfonse Stompanato; and finally, there are the decidedly non-reviewish interjections by Siskind in the middle of the seemingly serious review." Reminiscent of his shtick in White Noise, Siskind says in the review that he wishes Wallace would create more female characters because "I admit that I've always been partial to them, i.e. women. I fall apart at the sight of long legs, striding, briskly, as a breeze carries up from the river, on a weekday, in the play of morning light. And what fun it is to talk to an intelligent woman wearing nylon stockings as she crosses her legs."

Sample went on to ask: "On what level was the hoax perpetrated? Who was in on it? Were the editors of Modernism/Modernity aware?" And, given the lack of response to what had been a relatively transparent con, "Did any regular readers of the journal ever even read, really read, the review?" (The uncomfortable inference being, does anyone read any literary-studies articles?)

Sample said he first noticed the bogus review late in 2005, when one of his graduate students cited it in a paper as real research. "I had puzzled over it and decided that if I waited long enough, somebody (in Modernism/Modernity circles, in Wallace circles, in DeLillo circles) would come forward and take credit for something I'm sure they thought nobody would be fooled by," he wrote.

Recently he found that at least one other graduate student had cited the essay as serious research. "I always hear stories of students who try to sneak in fake references just to see whether their professors are actually reading their papers," Sample said in an interview, "but I don't think that was what was happening in this case."

That students might mistake the essay as genuine does not surprise him, because the piece makes some sense; it notes, for example, Wallace's habit of writing "oversimplified men and very complicated women."

Sample isn't arguing for any grand inquiry into what he has dubbed "the Littlest Literary Hoax." He does contend, though, that the publication of the essay raises troubling issues about scholarship and peer review, including whether students are learning to gauge the authenticity of articles. Of course, as he notes, "when you read an academic journal, you're not expecting to see it as at all humorous. When it is, that throws people out." (The hoax review was "quite funny," he allows.)

Responding to his blog posting, colleagues had varied takes. One suggested that the hoax might be an exercise in "performative criticism" that the journal recognized as such. Perhaps, Sample responded. But because of the pace of scholarly publishing and the absence of any chance for readers to discuss the piece within the journal's pages, it's a "highly unsatisfactory performance." ("Just consider how this blog post has received more comments than an entire journal issue may receive, and it becomes clear that the scholarly publishing system is broken," he argued.)

Another respondent, Brendan Beirne, a doctoral student in English literature at New York University, was among those who said they knew the review was a joke. He cited an e-mail message from an editor at the journal confirming that the author was fictitious. "For me, the most interesting thing about the review was that, in my opinion, it didn't serve the reader very well," Beirne wrote.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, an associate professor of English and media studies at Pomona College, put the article on the syllabus last spring for a course on Wallace (who died last year) but never had the chance to discuss it in class. She was later surprised to see some of her students cite the article as a secondary source. "My assumption was always that the piece was by one of the Modernism/Modernity editors, and was thus less a hoax than an in-joke, but the danger of the in-joke of course is how it's received by those not on the in," she wrote.

Who was in on the joke? A succession of editors passed that question on to others. Christy Nicole Wampole, a Stanford University scholar who is one of three managing editors of the journal, ventured only: "I have a feeling it might have something to do with a playful editor, but I cannot confirm."

As a Chronicle investigation proceeded, one of two founders of the publication, Lawrence S. Rainey, a professor of English at the University of York, in England, strongly hinted that that was the case. Rainey, one of the journal's three editors in chief, and Nicole Devarenne, a managing editor at the time of the ruse and now a teaching fellow at the University of Dundee, in Scotland, wrote an open letter to Sample, which the blogger posted. Among mused referencing of DeLillo and Wallace, they said: "It is saddening indeed to see the review being cited with po-faced earnestness, and surely you are right that this turns 'a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.'"

Rainey and Devarenne, who declined to be interviewed, seemed to suggest in their letter that the ruse revealed a lack of playfulness in some readers. After all, they asked, "who but a fictional character could be better qualified to review … well, new fiction? Isn't that the very essence of peer reviewing?"